What is data? It is not a question most people concern themselves with. I think about it often. I am fascinated by data. How it moves. Where it comes from. How it can be collected. How it can be manipulated. How we use it to make decisions. How we use it to understand the world around us, from the most intimate to the most general.  Our world today is connected through a seemingly infinite web of data and data streams. Once connected to this network we can access all of our collective knowledge about the world with just a few keystrokes.

But where does this data come from? We create data everyday when we log onto our computers and send email, when we purchase an item with a credit card, when we make a phone call. These are obvious forms of digital data and many of us have come to accept this as a normal part of our everyday life. But there are other forms of data. A simple observation like the sky is overcast or the water is cold can also be data. Data is simply a systematic way to organize observations about the environment we are in. There is no requirement that these observation need to be in a digital format.

I have recently been involved in an exciting project that seeks to transform observations from an everyday activity into valuable data about our world. Project CROOS (Collaborative Research in Oregon Ocean Salmon) is collecting data based on observations that up until now were not digital in nature. The goal of CROOS is to track and identify salmon stocks off the Oregon coast to help better understand and manage the fishery. The innovative approach is that the fisherman themselves are collecting the data as they go about their  profession.

A fisherman acts a data collector while at sea. Just as a fisherman harvests the bounty of the ocean they can now harvest the data from the ocean as well. They act as yet another node in the vast trans-human data network we have built. They tap into another equally complex data stream. Schools of salmon live their lives tracking prey, following water masses, and detecting small gradients in physical and chemical tracers in both ocean and freshwater environments. They integrate vast amounts of data over their lives, using it to guide their actions. So when a fisherman hooks a salmon from the cold depths of the ocean, there is data there. The fisherman notes the time, latitude, longitude, depth, and various other information about the fish. This is a small summary of  all the data the fish has assimilated and processed throughout  its life cycle. By collecting and then digitizing these observations the fisherman has added valuable information to our ever-growing network of data.

As humans we observe our environment and use our observations to make decisions. It follows then that the better our observations are and the more observations we make, the better our decisions can be. CROOS data collected by fisherman can help geneticists and biologists determine the rivers of origins of the fish being caught off our coast. This information can help us manage salmon on individual stock levels  as opposed to state and regional levels. Fisherman can shift their fishing effort away from areas with weak stocks and focus their efforts on healthy stocks. And the salmon can go about their life cycles eventually returning to the rivers and streams were they were born to give rise to the next generation.

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box