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today is brought to you by the letter ‘d’…

May 1, 2011

D is for decentralizing data.  And also just data.  And also the grade I would give us for this month of April, if we were the grading type.  But we’re not.  (Also you get a really interesting smattering of images when you Google image search the letter d.) Anyway, I know it’s May and so that means it’s supposed to be a new topic, and we do have a new topic for May, but it’s snowing here and it’s 34 and a gust of wind just narrowly missed blowing me and my bicycle into oncoming traffics (yes plural, there were multiple narrow misses).  So May has obviously been postponed.  So I’m putting this somewhat data related post up.  Oddly enough it’s actually data that’s mostly to blame for my absence…I’ve been in a data cave of sorts for the last week+…soil data, plant data, various biogeochemical cycle data, water data…it’s really been quite horrible.  I’d rather have been in a bear cave.  Because even though it’s May I’m pretty sure all the bears in caves around here are still hibernating so I would’ve been totally safe.  There’s not actually any bears anywhere near Minnesota I don’t think.  Wolf dens perhaps.  But wolves don’t hibernate.  But on with today’s post.

New things first!  I’m a big fan of decentralizing things.  I have off and on considered pursuing a degree in civil engineering with a focus on creating community based, decentralized infrastructure.  Particularly water and waste infrastructure.  And even more particularly with attention to disaster resilient communities and post disaster infrastructure aid.  I’m also interested in decentralizing lots of other stuff but we’re going to go ahead and look at a couple examples of decentralization of data before I get too carried away on the idea of decentralizing other things.  Data has sort of been hoarded, intellectually and physically, in the past.  It was the domain of people who spoke the language or who had access to the number and image databases.  But GIS is beginning to permeate our lives a lot more, and all this geotagging on social networks and through other applications is creating this huge user generated, relatively publicly accessible, data cache at our disposal.  The world is getting a little bit creepy and weird in that regard but also really pretty exciting from the point of view of a geographer.

So awhile back we posted a little something about Grassroots Mapping and since then I (and we) have gotten ever more excited about it.  We’ve got some really fun ideas in the hopper that we’ll hopefully be able to begin to get to work on in the coming year.  It’s really a simple idea at the foundation…a camera and a balloon mostly…nothing particularly fancy, no huge paradigm shift in thinking…it’s grassroots at it’s finest, I think.  It makes data (particularly aerial images), accessible.  You can get the exact area you want, at the resolution you want, at the time you want.  And then you can monitor it over time.  And you don’t have to pay anyone for the rights to the images or the data.  This combined with a handheld GPS and a little bit of GIS knowhow could be an amazingly useful and inexpensive tool.  And also just heaps of fun.  I’m not going to tell you exactly what we’re thinking because we aren’t super organized about it yet and also I don’t want you guys all stealing it before I finagle some money out of some people in order to help sponsor our plan.  Not that you guys would do something like that.  Except I think it’s a pretty fun and irresistible idea.  Outside of fun though, I think this could really have some useful applications…mostly thinking in terms of precision agriculture, land (use) change, land claim issues, and post disaster/conflict mapping.  Which is of some interest to a lot of us but I think what is really exciting about it is that it does have that potential to just be…cool.  To get people out there “mapping” the places they love to go…it gets people thinking, it gets people curious, it gets them kind of thinking like geographers.  Which is of course a major point in starting this blog…making geeking out on geography accessible to everyone…sharing that with everyone.  We will document (and of course share with all of you) the progression of our grassroots related mapping endeavors in the coming months and hopefully you will find the project as interesting and fun as we do…and hopefully it will get you thinking about possible projects of your own.

In related decentralized data news there’s also this business going on.  I won’t go in on too much detail but basically it’s using the computing power of all of us to run climate models.  It takes a lot of computing power to run these climate models, meaning that in the past the running of them has been confined to places with access to ginormous computers.  So you might want to go scope out what they’re doing over there…I’m afraid if I say too much it will bore you and also that I might possibly give false information so really if you’d like to know more about how you can be a part of running climate change models you should just go to their site and see for yourself.

Okay, what else.  Oh yes…this has nothing to do with decentralizing data but here you go.  “Inception Statistics.”  It’s about data and false data and other data-y stuff.

So…I’m gonna go ahead and jump to the monthly wrap up portion of this data post…I’ve got a data cave to return to.  Something we didn’t address but that has risen to the forefront of my mind in this past month is…what exactly constitutes data?  I tend to apply the term, and I think a lot of us do, to numbers and measurements.  But that doesn’t mean that’s all data is.  Here is the official definition(s) from the folks at MW…

* factual information (as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation

* information output by a sensing device or organ that includes both useful and irrelevant or redundant information and must be processed to be meaningful

*information in numerical form that can be digitally transmitted or processed

**side note…Data is also a fictional character from Star Trek…just as an aside.

Okay so…delving a bit deeper into the quagmire that is semantics…a fact can be defined as “something that has actual existence.”  Everyone’s human existence, their human experience…has actual existence.  I’m not a fan of “data” as its conventionally thought of by most of us…I’m a fan of narrative, of story.  I have yet to find any index or any collection of data that can accurately and reliably reflect actual, on the ground experience of a population.  (If you feel that you can change this for me…by all means send it my way…I’m not saying it doesn’t, or can’t, exist…I’m just saying I have yet to encounter it.)  And this is what matters to me.  On the ground experience.  The thing is…it’s all relative.  We (the mostly urban, university educated, developed nation dwelling folks) are the ones that tend to come up with the indexes and data sets and interpret them and apply them…only thing is we have very different ideas of what constitutes “the good life.”  And this skews our interpretation and applications of our data.  To cite an extreme example:  I know that my grandmother died believing that there was no way I could be happy living anywhere where I had to squat over a hole to go to the bathroom.  Her data may have said I was in a place with a squat toilet and that I must therefore be less happy then when I am in a situation in which I can rest my butt on a porcelain seat.  She was wrong.  (Side note:  I’ve discovered that one of the key factors in how happy I am in a place is whether I can tromp through the woods without having to worry about stepping on a rattlesnake.)  So where do subjective accounts of events that objectively took place fit?  (I mostly stole that phrasing from this rumpus article, this also applies to a certain elephant in the room having to do with cups of tea but I’m quite sick of that whole discussion right now.)  Really though…where is that line between empirical data collection and plain old story telling??  And is a narrative, a story, any less useful than officially empirical data?  I think not.  In fact I think it’s more important.  That subjective account is the reality for that given person, family or population.  That any other qualitative or quantitative data might say differently becomes either irrelevant or must be rethought and seen in a whole new context.  What they think often matters far more then what me and my college education think.  It doesn’t make them right…but it matters.  A lot.  I believe I have digressed…and rambled.  But I just would like to broaden the horizons of what we think of as data…or at least as what we think of as useful contribution to policy development and decision making.  Oddly enough this month has made me realize both the importance and integral function of data and also the importance of utilizing more than just conventional data…it’s made me both more appreciative and more wary of those who rely heavily on this data in their (development, aid and policy) work.  I think it’s imperative that we’re able to walk in both worlds (or to speak both languages, if you’re more comfortable with that metaphor)…the world of conventional qualitative/quantitative data (which in and of themselves might be though of as two separate worlds), and the world of the subjective narrative.  I’m much more inclined towards the world of the narrative (and towards more conventional qualitative data) but I’m committed to being able to walk in both of those worlds…or to at least not get completely lost in the world of (quantitative) data.  I perhaps have a stronger disdain for conventional qualitative data than I did at the beginning of the month…and I think I would attribute this mostly to the discovery of how ridiculously all pervasive it is and how largely pervasive it’s failing (or at least underachievement) has been (I’m speaking mostly in regards to development and aid and policy making).  But I also have a better understanding of it’s strengths and weaknesses which I believe to be an awfully powerful tool to have at my disposal.  While thinking about this balance of qualitative/quantitative data and of more conventional data/story telling I’ve been constantly reminded of the book “The Ghost Map.”  It’s a good read, but also a really good example of the power of on the ground qualitative data/research used in combination with recorded quantitative data, as well as the dangers of entrenched thinking and misappropriation of data (particularly when we have a highly incomplete picture of a very complex dynamic).  Also a good example of the importance of making data accessible to anyone and the fact that useful ideas and successful solutions can come from anyone (particularly people with intimate, often long term familiarity with a place), anywhere, not just the specialists or professionals.  Neither qualitative or quantitative data alone could have successfully solved the problem…but together they managed to get to the root of an epidemic (whether it was in fact London’s most terrifying I cannot say as I was not there…for some perhaps it was, others perhaps not…again, subjective accounts and objective events) and in the process, as the subtitle declares, “Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World,” (for whatever that is worth.)  Below are testaments to the fact that prior to the putting together of qualitative and quantitative data no one, not even the professionals and specialists, had any sort of idea as to what exactly was going on.

i know it's kind of hard to read...but not only are these precautions unhelpful, they probably ended up being outright harmful in many cases.

this one is a little easier to read. i'm a fan of the "abstain from cold water, when heated" wording, and also "if habit have rendered them indispensable..."

I guess that’s all I have.  I reckon I should go crunch this data and then crush the associated paper.  Next month should be good…’cited about the topic and I will not have school which should allow for more time to write.  But I will also be in Colorado on the footsteps of Rocky Mountain National Park so…we’ll see how that plays out.  Hope everyone is having a warmer May Day than we are here.  Cheers.


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