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2013-03-15

Data Source: Earth

Well, it's been a while since I posted on this blog. I guess I'm a practitioner of "slow blogging" in the same vein as the slow movement. I highly recommend Carl HonorĂ©'s book, In Praise of Slowness to get the scope of the full phenomenon. But slowness is not the point of this post. 

Let me begin this way: I conducted an interactive session this week at the Public Health Preparedness Summit in Atlanta about NCB-Prepared. Gary Smith from SAS Institute ably  assisted from Cary as we demonstrated the current state of our system. Because many in the audience might be unfamiliar with our project, I decided to provide an overview of our perspective and then move on to who we are and what we are about. 

I started with a picture of a place. Of course, it's NASA's famous "Blue Marble" image. According to their website, "Using a collection of satellite-based observations, scientists and visualizers stitched together months of observations of the land surface, oceans, sea ice, and clouds into a seamless, true-color mosaic of every square kilometer (.386 square mile) of our planet." It's a bit like our approach to bring together disparate sources of data to construct a meaningful representation of a situation. But back to the session. 

Earth from Space
Gesturing to the image, I simply stated that this is our data source. Earth generates data every day in colossal amounts as life continues. We human beings capture only a small part of it. We use even less. Much less. 

Nevertheless, the founding notion behind our project is that a fundamental shift has taken place in our history within this generation. The move from data placed on paper to data placed in electronic storage systems may portend advances as great as the invention of writing or the creation of the printing press. (But you have to remember that the printing press prompted 300 years of religious wars in Europe as everybody argued over whose interpretation of the Bible should be considered the true one.) The new development in our time is that data in electronic form offers the possibility of remote access or efficient transfer. I've written previously on the ways to get over the hurdles to share data. The current reality is that we are awash in data but often don't feel wet. 


NCB-Prepared takes a comprehensive view of the biosphere since all life is interconnected. This is our data resource. We consider all data relevant to our mission, but not all data is of equal importance. So, we begin with lofty notions about the amount of data we need—in a word, MORE. We cannot have too much data because we consider our tools up to the task. 

Hubris? Perhaps. But our future as a species is closely tied to our mastery of the data universe we live in. Our project is a direct response to that challenge. Our planet can support our species continued existence or leave us behind. That notion was fed into my thinking by a book that I read while still a graduate student in the late 1970s. James Lovelock published Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth in 1979. Among many of the points he made was that life on this planet is based on a complex set of feedback mechanisms that preceded human beings and will probably succeed them as well. In a sense, our species is a temporary resident here and our the length of tenure partly depends on us and how we act. 

Something will eventually kill all of us, hopefully in the distant future and one-by-one. To prevent a different outcome, we need to see the threats coming in order to (at best) prepare and (at worst) to mitigate the damage. 

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