The Apollo mission gave us pictures of our planet from space. Finally we could behold our planet from a distance. We could look at it as an object on the table in front of us, within reach, and as we did our planetary awareness grew. Confronted with several planetary challenges now, our planetary conscience is now gradually shaping up as well. Aside from looking at our planet, NASA‘s Earth Observation System (EOS) reads our planet through satellite data. Access to this information is a prerequisite for learning to understand our planet better. Now we can not only look at our planet, Prof. Shin-ichi Takemura’s amazing Tangible Earth project allows us to interact with our planet and the data emerging from it by touch.
In view of coming up with solutions to the challenges we are facing, sensing our planet has become sheer necessity. We increasingly do so in real time as well: within mouseclick reach we check webcams on the other side of the planet, we can download data from weatherstations around the world, etc.
Until recently, the sensing world was pretty much the playing field of NASA and the likes. The future promises to be more open in this respect (see also open source efforts such as GSN) and consequently much larger – and since we’re talking data: more powerful. Years ago, in describing his wish of an Earth Witness Project, our fellow future explorer Jamais Cascio already pointed to opportunities opened up by the convergence between labs on chips, mobile phones and sharing networks to create an open global sensor network.
Now several companies and grassroots initiatives are preparing to put technology in the hands of citizens. Already we can deduce a lot of information from information we leak by the mere usage of our communication technology, as Carlo Ratti‘s Senseable cities team at MIT shows us. Nokia’s Eco Sensor Concept plans to make us more active participants in the game. Imagine millions of always-on, networked tricorder-like devices sensing our planet : local data + networks + sensemaking = global intelligence. Hewlett-Packard is developing the equivalent of a globally distributed stethoscope (CeNSE) to monitor our planet’s health, and look to nanotechnology as an enabling technology. “The motivation for this work is realising and understanding the planet is sick and the disease is us.”, says Dr Stan Williams of HP’s Information & Quantum Systems Laboratory.
An often forgotten challenge is how to use tech already out there to turn them into sensors for our health and that of our planet. Think about the tech equivalent of using ‘useless’ bath-tub ducks which fell off a ship, to study ocean currents.