Editorial: L|R|Q – Leonardo Reviews Quarterly, No. 2

Big Data, Citizen Science and the Death of the University
by Roger Malina

As Michael Punt mentions in his editorial in this issue of L|R|Q, a number of commentators have been recently discussing the topic of “big data”, noting the transition that many disciplines are seeing from an age of data scarcity to an age of data plenty. A google search reveals a burgeoning new IT industry seeking to capitalize on “change as opportunity”. As an astronomer I was an early participant in emergence the era of “big data” in my scientific discipline in the late 1980s, in what NASA then called “tele-science” and early 1990s through the establishment of NASA astrophysics data centers that mandated that data from NASA astrophysics satellites be made public.

In a speech to the 1992 World Space Congress [1], historian of science Daniel Boorstin described this as an “epistemological inversion” with profound implications for the doing of science; he ironically joked that maybe NASA should stop taking more data for a while, and take some time to think about it. At the time I was involved in worldwide programs which started making astronomical data public through what are called Virtual Observatories [2], and indeed astronomy has been transformed by open access to scientific data. Not only can scientists analyze each other’s data, but through a variety of crowd sourcing and citizen’s science programs (see for instance Galaxy Zoo [3]) hundreds of thousands of public citizens have access to the data for their own purposes, scientific or otherwise. In a recent Leonardo Journal editorial Drew Hemment [4] discusses “participatory mass observation” as an emerging social and cultural phenomenon. Scientists have identified “community remote sensing” as an emerging practice that provides invaluable scientific data [5]; I have called this “micro-science” as a comparison to “micro-credit”. The age of big data is here in science but also of course in popular culture.

In a very real sense data is no longer ontologically “objectifiable” or “packageable” but can be viewed as a flux or flow. Artists such [AS] Scot Gresham Lancaster [6], Andrea Polli [7] and Peter Torpey [8] for instance have set up a number of projects which “sonify” flows of data of all kinds as a flux; other artists create immersive environments where one can swim or fly through data.  I have argued [9] that data, in a sense, should be viewed as fundamental “element” which like earth, fire, water and air are available to our senses and our perception, but in the case of data it is mediated by interposed scientific instruments; I called for an “erotics” of data as part of the process of developing an intimate science [9].

The act of e-reading and thinking helps us focus on areas of our environment of interest just as the painter draws our attention to particular parts of our visual environment; hence the need for “synthesizing” communities like Leonardo Reviews to help us focus on parts of the flow.

Data as intellectual property is also undergoing a profound transformation, particularly for the data that is generated with government funding. Traditionally such data is archived in ways that are inaccessible to the public. The astronomers pioneered, through the virtual observatory programs [2], but this is systematically spreading through all publically funded scientific disciplines. Recently Reid et al [10] have called for massive efforts to integrate and make public all available data on the earth as a system. They argue that only such systemic approaches will allow coupling between our social systems and culture, and to enable the rapid political decisions driven by the scientific understanding of the global environmental and climatic changes ahead; I referred to this problem in my first L|R|Q editorial [11] as the problem of the “hard humanities” and indeed coupling arts and culture to big data is part of the needed systemic change. I have also summarized some of these deep changes needed in an “Open Observatory Manifesto” [12] which asserted that a) we have a right to all the data taken about us and our environment using public funding and b) we have a duty to contribute open data to the data flow.

As Punt also notes, the changing nature of data has profound implications for universities and libraries which have held a near monopoly on providing, and controlling, access to certain kinds of specialized data for centuries. Indeed medieval universities basic business model was based on access to experts and access to libraries on a fee basis (and renting rooms to accommodate them). In a prescient workshop organized by David Peat at Pari in 2000 on “The Future of the Academy” [13] we outlined the way that universities and academies needed to be rethought in the networked age. More recently the MacArthur report by Cathy Davidson and David Goldberg “The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age” [14] reinforces and advances this reflection. The turmoil in higher education across the western world today is maybe a warning of the death pangs of universities as we have known them for the last 50 years. The “social compact” between higher education and government that was put in place after the second world war is no longer a widely shared political agreement; science itself is no longer a “regalian” function except ironically in the newly emerging countries where physicists have recently served as presidents. And universities’ near monopoly on access to data and experts no longer exists in the new e-culture (in spite of the new “brand” franchising systems being set up by some universities).

This second issue of Leonardo Reviews Quarterly is then a momentary vortex in the data flow; just like scientific data, text becomes flow. Next year we remember Marshall McLuhan a hundred years after his birth; he would have relished the era of big data where indeed the new e-media carry with them a new embedded cultural transformation. Michael Punt and his review panel of over a hundred are bringing your attention to ideas and developments of interest in the flow. We hope you will stop a while by the data river and drink (on your e-book reader, e-tablet or i-pad).

[1] Boorstin, Daniel J. (1994) Cleopatra’s Nose: Essays on the Unexpected, (New York: Random House). ISBN: 0679435050
[2] http://www.ivoa.net/
[3] http://www.galaxyzoo.org/
[4] http://www.diatrope.com/rfm/leo_thinks/Hemment.pdf
[5] http://www.igarss2010.org/CommunityRemoteSensing.asp
[6] http://www.o-art.org/Scot/
[7] http://www.andreapolli.com/
[8]  http://web.media.mit.edu/~patorpey/projects/cargo/
[9]  http://www.diatrope.com/rfm/docs/trond.ppt
[10] http://www.leonardo.info/reviews/LRQ/LRQ%201.01.pdf
[11]  Reid, W.V. et al, Science, Vol 330, p  916, 2010.
[12]  http://www.leoalmanac.org/index.php/lea/entry/an_open_observatory_manifesto/
[13]  http://www.fdavidpeat.com/pcnl/academy.htm
[14]  http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/chapters/Future_of_Learning.pdf