My 6/06/10 Missoulian column
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is a major disaster and a big news story, and even the nuclear option has been floated to stop the gusher (but is not being seriously considered, the government says).
Technology has jumped in and is playing a part in the analysis of the accident and the cleanup. Google offers a special webpage where you can overlay imagery and maps in combination to arrive at different views of the spill and forecasts of the spread of the oil.
Another aspect of technology coming to bear on the spill is crowd sourcing. If you’ve spent any time at all on the web, you’ve had experience with the concept of crowd sourcing, which is leveraging the power of a large, mostly anonymous group of people on the Internet to take on projects or compile information.
One very popular crowd sourcing site is Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. Wikipedia has millions of articles resulting from that fact that anyone can add and edit an article at Wikipedia.
But that’s also the problem with crowd sourcing: accuracy.
The crowd sourcing that’s taking place with the Gulf oil spill is based on a few apps released by different software companies that allow people with mobile devices and smart phones to document the oil spill. Users can enter information at part of the spill they observe by severity, along with GPS coordinates and video. Other companies and a university will compile the data for use in the cleanup and litigation.
It’s great that people are jumping in to help, and there is the potential for gathering large amounts of information. But what is the data really worth when randomly collected by untrained volunteers? One person’s oil gusher is another person’s few drops.
What would happen if there was a huge oil spill in the Clark Fork River from railroad tanker cars? The scale is completely different from the Gulf oil spill, but would you rather have trained specialists out there gathering evidence and data that has a provenance? Or random individuals with smart phones?
Crowd sourcing is a social thing, not a data thing. Crowd sourcing is incredibly valuable for awareness and bearing witness, as in, “Hey there’s a big plume of oil here.” But data? Call in the card-carrying scientists.
Remember those lines from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner?” They read, “Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.” After crowd sourcing the spill, I don’t think we want to hear: “Data, data, everywhere, Nor a byte that’s useful.”
This week in Mac Q & A: iPhoto CDs for Windows