Mobile Technologies Put Scientific Discovery in Citizens' Hands

By May 19, 2009

In the 18th century, concerns over public health and welfare in growing urban areas led to the collection of vast amounts of demographic data. The existence of this plethora of new data led to a new science: sociology. There’s much talk today about the power of data in the wake of the Obama campaign’s unprecedented translation of data into citizen action and, ultimately, political power. The data-gathering capabilities of new media are just beginning to be truly utilized, and will lead to a revolutionary epistemological relationship between us and the world. Thus is the sense one gets when reading "Participatory Sensing: A Citizen-powered Approach to Illuminating the Patterns that Shape our World," a report by UCLA’s Center for Embedded Networked Sensing (CENS).

New technologies, especially mobile, will allow citizens to collect data to interpret still-unseen patterns in the social and physical world.

“Through the use of sensors (e.g., cameras, motion sensors, and GPS) built into mobile phones and web services to aggregate and interpret the assembled information, a new collective capacity is emerging—one in which people participate in sensing and analyzing aspects of their lives that were previously invisible,” according to the report.

Ultimately, this can lead to local creation and ownership of scientific knowledge, something that’s been largely out of our hands for several centuries.

"The mobile infrastructure has already transformed communication and commerce," said CENS Director Deborah Estrin. "We envision a paradigm that uses the same technologies to empower individuals and groups to learn about themselves and shape the world around them in unprecedented ways."

Before the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, as well as the switch to the research university in the 18th century, made it difficult -- if not impossible -- for the layperson to access the tools and authority needed for discovery, crucial and sometimes revolutionary insights into nature were made by the amateur.

Charles Darwin was no different than you and I, except that he was invited onto the Beagle as a dining companion while on the way to a life in the church. He was just doing what so many amateurs did back then: gather data.

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