In the early 1990s I was a part of a project for NASA called EOS. EOS stands for Earth Observing System. Unlike the Hubble project, whose goal was to look out as far as possible into space and map that distance, EOS was tasked with gathering as much data on the state of this little blue marble that we call home. EOS was, and still is, a coordinated series of polar orbiting and low inclination satellites for long term observations of our planet. EOS monitors and records the state of land surface, the biosphere, the atmosphere and the oceans 24/7.
In the early 1990s the engineers and scientists that I worked with on EOS imagined that we would be downloading as much as a terabyte of data a day. At that time this was a mind-boggling concept that very few people could wrap their heads around, including those of us building the system. Today I have several hard drives sitting around my house that are a terabyte or more. Who knew that our thirst for data would be so great? But the question that haunts me, as an engineer is … “If we have all this data, what are we doing with it?”
In the last 10 to 15 years scientists have published innumerable papers sighting mountains of data regarding the threat that global warming is and will have on our planet and yet there is still debate as to whether or not the threat exists, especially in the United States. 187 countries have signed and ratified the Kyoto Protocol aimed at combating global warming. The only country that has stated no intention to ratify the Protocol is the same country that designed and built EOS, the United States. Pretty weird, huh? The country with the most technologically advanced system for monitoring the planet refuses to ratify a Protocol intended to reduce carbon emissions and protect the planet from global warming. I have a theory about why this is…
According to a University of California, San Diego study the average American consumes 34 GB of data daily, including 100,000 words of information. We are literally drowning in data. Data flows over us and around us via cell phones, computers, blackberries, iPods, gaming systems, you name it. But I think we have lost the ability to think critically about what to do with the data. What data is truly useful and what is noise. In most cases, I think we go with the more-is-better mode and hope that at some critical tipping point when we have “enough” data the solution to any given problem will magically be revealed to us. The problem with that idea is usually the “enough” point rarely comes and we continue to wait for more or better data. Hence, the government (or other authority body) calling for more studies on global warming (or other life/planet threatening issue). Meanwhile, the problems get worse while we wait for more/better data.
So being a person trained to prototype first, correct, and prototype again. I say, “Enough already! Let’s just get to it!” Let’s pull out all the ideas and dump them on the table. Yes, ALL of them. The crazy ones, the weird ones, the ones nobody thinks will ever work. Yes, even the really dorky ones. We can’t afford to play it safe any more if we are going to save the planet and we can’t afford to sit on our hands and give up. We can’t afford not to be optimistic. We can’t afford not to find a way. If we can’t find the answers here on planet Earth, inside each of us, then I doubt seriously looking out into the universe is going to reveal them to us. So what do you think? Ready to give it a go?