Home Blogs In defence of citizens as scientists

In defence of citizens as scientists

After ISRO rudely dismissed the efforts of Shanmuga Subramanian and NASA to identify the remains of Vikram on the Moon, I began to muse on the role of citizens as scientists in the field of science and technology. As many may recall after the failed soft landing of Vikram on the Moon on September 7, 2019, there was speculation on what had happened. ISRO indicated a hard landing within 500m of the expected landing site but there was no communications from Vikram and no imagery from the Orbiter’s high resolution camera. NASA also had an orbiter around the Moon and was trying to locate Vikram. They have a website where anybody could ask for imagery from the camera for a  stated purpose. Shanmuga began downloading imagery and after many false positives he identified one piece of what turned out to be the wreckage of Vikram.

Who is Shanmuga Subramanian? He is a mechanical engineer turned IT expert with a yen for Space. Using his own time and money he painstakingly sifted through imagery he got freely from NASA and the rest is history. Another enthusiast, Sankaranarayanan Viswanathan, using the same imagery showed how and when Vikram deviated from its planned trajectory and crashed on the moon and how the fan of debris neatly fitted into the deviated path. He is a software engineer in Bengaluru who also creates animations of interplanetary science missions, undertakes outreach via the Bangalore Astronomy Society and builds astronomy animation software for others to play around with.

Shanmuga Subramanian

Shanmuga and Vishwanathan are typical examples of the educated public who share an interest in Space and follow Space related activities on their own, out of their interest. Herein lies a lesson for not only ISRO but for science and technology in general. Science and Technology touches the common person even more as the world becomes a global village with the advances in S&T. This is not something new but has been evolving gradually. Events like the discovery of Vikram’s remains has only highlighted this.

Open Street Maps is one such example. Started by a disgruntled student who could not get the maps he needed it has snowballed into a huge global voluntary effort that has now been recognised as a valid data source and has been gobbled up by Microsoft. All it involved was for a person to take a cycle ride through the streets of a town with a GPS on which important locations were marked and then the result was uploaded to a common platform. In India a much smaller effort was tried out in a village under a Medialab India project aptly named Map My Village.

However, a similar effort by Google much later, called Mapathon in which citizens were invited to mark points of interest in their neighbourhood was strangled by the combined efforts of Survey of India and the Ministry of Home Affairs. Strangely enough the effort continues under the rubric of Google Local Guides without any interference. I have used it myself to correct errors in my neighbourhood and also comment on features and facilities.

These activities, where the public act on their own and provide information, labour and even in some cases, funds, are called crowdsourcing. In India there is a name for this – shramdaan – or donation of effort. In effect Shanmugha and Vishwanathan were doing shramdaan when they searched for the wreckage of Vikram.

When crowdsourcing involves spatial data, as in Google’s ill-fated Mapathon, then it goes by the name of Volunteered Geographical Information, VGI and the volunteers are referred to as neo-geographers. Crowdsourcing is not always voluntary. That ubiquitous smartphone without which our persona are incomplete are also a huge source of data in terms of location. Such data can be harvested anonymously and be used to indicate road congestion, manage crowd control, to name two applications. It is also common knowledge that in our electronic avatar we scatter pieces of our digital presence which is picked up through Social Media, online portals and always on-devices and can result in the invasion of our privacy.

Be that as it may, we need to appreciate the thinking behind these activities of the IT giants. They need data and lots of it for their ultimate goal of evolving Artificial Intelligence applications, and what is a better way than to get it free from the public. It started with Google as a search engine which monetised the ‘free’ search capability with targeted advertisements. It is reported that Facebook had developed an AI that can do complex mathematics and Google’s AI has the intelligence of a six year old.

Geospatial applications are also shifting towards Big Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence. Such applications also require enormous data that is current. Smartphones provide an excellent means of getting VGI as we have seen in the aborted Mapathon. While anonymised data is being collected for traffic information its extension to crowd control and disaster management is yet to be operationalised.

The real power will come when citizens can become active sensors and volunteer data by themselves. It could be weather data, state of crops, flooding, illegal construction, road blockage, overflowing gutters, fused streetlights, crime incidents, and so on.

Weather prediction at the micro level has become important due to vagaries being born out of Climate Change. The existing network of weather stations is too coarse. Citizens can provide the gaps which can enable better localised weather predictions which can be used for storm and flood forecasting, disaster management, improved and efficient stocking and supply of fertiliser and pesticides, irrigation management, price control and post harvest storage.

One possibility of densification of weather data could be schools where students can provide data to fill the gaps if each school is provided with a basic set of instruments. This will also make them active participants in modern scientific endeavours.

Similarly, farmers can update the status of their crops, pest incidence, lack of specific inputs and other such data which can be used for stocking of fertiliser, pesticides and management of irrigation water. Further, they can use simple tools, for example CLART provided by the Foundation for Ecological Security through its portal indiaobservatory.org for better land and water management of their farms.

In urban areas the role of citizens as sources of data is well illustrated by the planned activities of Smart Cities where the citizen has to be actively involved in the process of improvement of their habitat.

In this age of personalised communications and open data, citizens can play a significant role in spatial planning and monitoring – if they are allowed to. Government and Industry need to understand this.