23 December 2009

Virtual Globes, Virtual Field Trips, and Virtual Specimens…Huh?

Posted by Michael McFadden

Informatics–the study of managing, preserving, and sharing data–was featured in IN22A: Geo-Visualization with Virtual Globes II. I only got to see video, but I nonetheless felt tickled that I virtually attended the session :).

During this session, researchers discussed how networks of data have the potential to create an interconnected system that is more than just searching for information online. “It is the GeoWeb,” said first speaker Andrew Turner of FortiusOne in Virginia. “It is location based data that is being linked and connected.”

IN22A: Geo-Visualization with Virtual Globes II

Click to view the talk!

I find this “network effect” fascinating–the idea that we can layer disparate data sets onto the same location to understand as a whole what we wouldn’t otherwise see.
Turner also reported on efforts to make data more accessible and meaningful to the general public–for example, through mobile phone systems. “Only 24% of the world is on the internet, but 80% of the world lives within cell phone coverage, and 50% of the world owns a mobile phone,” Turner said. He went on to describe how through different phone applications, farmers in Uganda were able to learn about the spatial extent of crop disease and could query climatological experts. Very cool.

Declan De PaorThe talk in this session that caught my eye, however, was on virtual specimens. I’m a rock hound–when I go to the beach or on hikes, I spend much of my time hikes staring at the ground, looking for treasures for my collection. What’s the fun in a virtual specimen? For that matter, what is the fun in a virtual field trip? Field trips are what drew me to geosciences! But I was intrigued. The speaker, Declan G. De Paor of Old Dominion University, recognized the importance of field-based learning, but added that there are disadvantages. “Outcrops are suffering from too many visitors,” he said. He went on to show a picture of some beautiful marble folds–“but I’m not going to tell you where it is! A couple years ago, my colleague…went to this outcrop and found that somebody had decided to hack off a large chunk of these spectacular folds.”

To protect outcrops from vandalism, De Paor promotes virtual field trips.  Also, “what if you can’t get to a location?” he asked. “A virtual field trip is the next best thing.”

I like taking strike and dips, climbing along edges of flatirons, feeling dirt on my fingers. But I take De Paor’s point–sometimes a place is just too remote. He went on to give a quick lesson on how 3D modeling software could recreate a hand sample of a pebble and could recreate an outcrop. He even suggested that avatars in Second Life could go on virtual fieldtrips and collect virtual specimens one day!

De Paor noted that after geologists collect their samples, the samples go in a drawer, shut away from view forever. As I was watching his talk, I couldn’t help but think of Indiana Jones, repeatedly saving artifacts because they “belong in a museum.” De Paor takes this a step further with the idea that they belong online!

–Mohi Kumar, AGU Science Writer