Plug in the patient: A planetary monitoring network

Thank the humble, cheap sensor, the standard wireless radio and basic data bases for the future of planetary assistance. A massive sensor and data network called the National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON, could go under construction as soon as this summer and will pull data from the air, water and soil across the U.S. and act as the first comprehensive and free data depository for scientists, researchers and educators.

While NEON has been under development for years (having already spent $80 million and with 140 staff members), the nonprofit group behind the network was recently allocated $434 million from the National Science Foundation to begin construction of the network, reports Nature (via Scientific American). The funding has acted like a gun at the starting line of the project, and NEON is expected to start streaming data by next year and be up and running within five years.

The U.S.-wide network will have 100 tracking towers, 30 aquatic sites, 3 air-born platforms and will use mobile and fixed data collection technology, ground and air sensors, and finally smart staff to observe environmental conditions. All of that data will be drawn into a depository and made available online for free to researchers. What a goldmine of big data!

Think of it as a brand new planetary monitoring system, similar to the vital health checks a patient gets in the ICU. If you look at all the reports of extreme weather and record temperatures this year, it’s a little bit like the world is running a slight fever.

Scientists can then leverage all of the data from NEON to conduct tests, answer questions and propose solutions around climate change and other ecological problems. The NEON project is placing a large emphasis on enabling all of its data to be used in standard formats so that scientists can compare the necessary data sets to data outside of the network.

Data for all

Climate scientists have long turned to the data crunched via super computers to do important climate change modelling, and the NEON project is a little like bringing a part of that computing power into the hands of distributed and less well-funded researchers. But it’s only with the real time sensor monitoring and always-on networks that scientists can get a more clear picture of what’s happening with the planet.

Other groups are working on similar, though less ambitious, networks that will likely be able to contribute to NEON. Earth Networks, the weather sensor company behind the WeatherBug app, announced in January of this year that it planned to build what it says will be the world’s largest global sensor network to track green house gas emissions. Earth Networks will be focusing on monitoring green house gas emissions, and will initially be working with Picarro, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based startup that sells $50,000 greenhouse gas-detecting sensor boxes.

While the National Science Foundation is funding NEON, other areas of the government are working on opening up big data sets that have already been collected. For example the Environmental Protection Agency has dozens of data sets that it is encouraging developers to use to create new apps.

Image courtesy of WebWizzard, NASA Goddard.