Sensors and Systems
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March 28th, 2016
What do we learn from our sensors?

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The engineering mind might answer the above question with details on what each specific sensor is tuned to measure along with figures from specification sheets with limits, resolution, response time and other characteristics. The more artistic mind, say that of a social scientist or storyteller, might speak to the data patterns and the insight that our sensing affords, pointing to rhythms or to a quantified improved understanding.

That’s an interesting thing about sensors, with their measurement ability as an outcome of impressive electrical engineering and scientific diagnostics to return hard quantifiable facts and on the opposite end of that equation is the messy world that our sensors are trying to intuit. The outcome of scientific rigor and in-depth analytical processes creates insight but there’s also a narrative needed to describe the processes at work and to help others make sense of the world.

Combining Legacy Sensing

In the geospatial realm, the imagery sensors that date back to just the turn of the last century represent an astounding archive to help make sense of rapid cultural, biological, environmental and infrastructure shifts on our constantly changing planet. The aerial perspective offers a unique vantage point with broad coverage to get a sense of change on a geographic scale, and looking back at the same place year after year provides a valuable time-lapse of what has transpired.

Human sensing is also of great utility, such as weather reports, logs of harvest, captains logs of conditions and the fish that were caught at sea and other such observations. The perspective of those that lived in the past puts a romantic spin on the cold hard facts that our ancestors recorded.

The combination of sensor readings and insights helps us gain a better sense of the past in order to forecast our future. It’s the holistic view of cause and effect that we’re after, such as weather and harvest or vector and disease or policy and conflict or manufacturing and pollution or development and loss of habitat and on and on. We need to understand impacts and outcomes as well as balance and symbiosis.

Continued Applicability

The details that our sensors and our ancestors have gathered continue to be mined for insight long after people have died or the sensor no longer works. While the reading or analytical process has informed some conclusions, there still a whole lot more that can be gleaned.

The sensor readings that were used by one researcher and interpreted for a paper in the past can inform all new research outcomes and insights now. The fact is that the more we’ve collected, the better informed we become.

Thankfully, all new tools to store and analyze all of this data are coming online. The ability to recognize patterns and crunch through large data stores is really changing the game. No longer do we have to perform the tedium of merely record taking, instead we have the opportunity to uncover new truths through data exploration.

Amazing Outcomes

Going back to visual sensors for a moment, just think of the amazingly beautiful photographs that have come from the Hubble Space Telescope. These magnificent and even artistic images of galaxies, nebulae and other far-off places provides a perfect example of sensors that have unlocked wonder even beyond our imaginations.

Sensor feeds are continuing to proliferate and amaze. Have you seen thermal imaging used where one body of water enters another to detect different sources? Have you applied NDVI to detect crop or vegetation health? Have you used GPS tracks to understand behavior? Have you harnessed social media data to uncover human interactions?

All of these examples, and plenty more, are uncovering new wonders on our planet, on our species and on the balance that’s needed to ensure that we thrive. We have much still to collect and to analyze with our existing and future sensors and systems.

We are entering a new era where our sensors and more importantly, the combination of those sensor outcomes, will be guiding more of our actions. The better we mine the information, for facts as well as narratives, the more balanced our future can become.

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