Science needs to get over its problem with secrecy and change the climate where scientific knowledge is treated like military intelligence, argues Katie Ember.
The image was taken at 05:11 on the 10 February 2016, exposure time four seconds. Jupiter is in greyscale but it is beautiful nevertheless. Although the picture is static, everything about it suggests movement. Pale and dark bands run across the planet’s surface and merge; swirling like oil on water, like the grain in wood. To the bottom left, Ganymede – Jupiter’s largest moon – is visible.
I know a lot about this image: it was taken using Wide Field Camera 3 of the Hubble Space Telescope as part of the Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) Program. A UV-Vis detector and narrowband filter F631N were used to collect light with a wavelength of around 630nm. I know the precise position of Jupiter during the measurement: galactic latitude, galactic longitude, right ascension and declination.
To be completely honest, there’s not much I can do with that information. I’m a bioscientist working on livers. But to planetary scientists and astronomers, these data could be invaluable. In fact, this image has already been used to inform three publications investigating Jupiter’s reflectivity and the patterns of its winds:
- J. Tollefson et al, “Changes in Jupiter’s Zonal Wind Profile preceding and during the Juno mission,” Icarus, vol. 296, pp. 163-178, 2017.
- I. Mendikoa et al, “Temporal and spatial variations of the absolute reflectivity of Jupiter and Saturn from 0.38 to 1.7 μm with PlanetCam-UPV/EHU,” Astronomy & Astrophysics, vol. 607, 2017.
- R. Hueso et al, “Jupiter cloud morphology and zonal winds from ground-based observations before and during Juno’s first perijove,” Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 44, no. 10, pp. 4669-4678, 2017.
But with no affiliations to any astronomy research groups, how have I gained access to this kind of information?
Anyone with an internet connection has access to it – including you. The European Space Agency has been working on ESASky, an atlas of the stars, and it is a prime example of what we can achieve with open data.
Better science through better data
To explain open data, it’s best to start with the current state of data in research. Science has a problem with secrecy: sharing, publishing, even talking about results can render an idea un-patentable, creating an environment where scientific knowledge is treated like military intelligence. Even in fields where patents aren’t desirable, journals hold a lot of power: the only way most research sees the light of day is through publication. But journals are guilty of bias towards novel findings, whilst negative results are overlooked, leading to a reproducibility crisis in science. We’re building on findings that haven’t been tried and tested.
Recognising the problem with science and secrecy, the publishing company SpringerNature teamed up with the Wellcome Trust to host the Better Science through Better Data Conference. The 2017 event took place in London in October.
We heard from researchers in agriculture, medicine and genomics who are all benefitting from the exchange of so-called “open data:” data that are free to access. But the talk that caught my attention wasn’t to do with biological sciences at all. It was about space.
All the Data We Cannot See
The presenter was Debbie Baines: an astronomer and data scientist for the European Space Agency’s Astronomy Centre (ESAC) and the software and data management company Quasar Science Resources. She revealed that it has been ESAC’s ambition to build a map of all the data from every ESA mission, generating an astronomical atlas known as ESASky. It is not yet complete, but what they have so far is astonishing.
The application resembles an extremely nerdy Google Earth, but where your browser would show the grey grids of city streets, arid deserts and lush forest, ESASky shows a black backdrop spattered with stars. Except there is much more to stars than meets the eye. Literally – visible light is only a fraction of the light that can be detected by ESA’s devices. For example, if you look at supernova remnant SN 1006 in visible light, there is nothing but a space between innocently twinkling stars. But in the light of soft X-rays, it looks like a false-colour rose has bloomed 60 light-years wide.
Containing approximately 300,000 spectra, ESASky brings together data collected since 1978 from nine different missions as well as measurements from the US and Japanese space agencies NASA and JAXA. It describes itself as a “science driven discovery portal providing full access to the entire sky” which makes it sound like something from an episode of Doctor Who or an Isaac Asimov novel. And in some ways it is: you can explore the sky in space and time without leaving the safety of your own home.
The future of open data
With its attractive and accessible interface, the second version of the ESASky application, launched in October 2017, makes collaboration (and public engagement) much easier. Although it’s not as immediately intuitive as Google Earth, it has already seen 30,000 individual users. And there are plenty of YouTube tutorials to help and anyone can offer their data to upload.
But could the same be applied to biology? Could we make a map of all the medical images of the human body? An anatomical atlas would undoubtedly be invaluable: it would make diagnosing diseases much easier and help us assess how well a specific imaging technique is at identifying certain diseases.
It’s true that biomedical research has added complexity. Firstly, there is no such thing as the “average” human: even if you don’t have a specific disease, chances are your body deviates from the mean in some way. However, gathering this kind of data could help us understand patient-to-patient variability and could be a step towards tailored therapy. Then there are the issues of confidentiality: who would be willing to donate their biological records for the good of medical understanding when such information could be misused?
There are already biological equivalents to ESASky; for example FlyBase and WormBase, databases concerning the biology of the organisms Drosophila and C. elegans respectively. But they are definitely geared towards die-hard biochemists and geneticists and mostly based on published data. If each person researching these model organisms could upload the complete methodology and results from every experiment they carried out, we could have a much more comprehensive picture of biology as a whole. Incorporate images from fluorescent microscopy and we’d have a new tool to engage the non-scientific community.
Wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a world where no scientific results went to waste?
Katie Ember is in her third year of a PhD in Optical Medical Imaging at Edinburgh University and is developing a way of sensing liver damage using laser light. She loves travelling, playing sports and writing. Follow her on Twitter for overenthusiastic tweets about scientific breakthroughs, space and the natural world. She was one of five winners of the Better Science through Better Data writing competition.
If you are interested in collaborating with ESASky, more information can be found at this link.