Oversite: What Do We Learn from Sensors?
The engineering mind may answer the title 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, may speak to the data patterns and insight sensing affords, pointing to rhythms or a quantified, improved understanding.
On one end, sensors’ measurement abilities are an outcome of impressive electrical engineering and scientific diagnostics that return hard, quantifiable facts; on the opposite end of that equation is the messy world 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 help others make sense of the world.
Combining Legacy Sensing
In the geospatial realm, Earth-observation imagery sensors, dating back just to 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 also is of great utility, such as weather reports, harvest logs, captain’s logs of ocean conditions and other such observations. The perspective of those who lived in the past puts a romantic spin on the cold hard facts that our ancestors recorded.
Sensors in networks such as the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems outlined in the feature on page 36 of this issue provide an ongoing understanding of our infrastructure. These sensors inform operational changes in distribution systems and provide a near-real-time understanding of current conditions and reactions to management practices.
The combination of sensor readings and insight helps us gain a better sense of the past to forecast our future. We seek the holistic view of cause and effect, such as infrastructure condition and performance, weather and harvest, vector and disease, policy and conflict, manufacturing and pollution, development and loss of habitat, and on and on. We need to understand impacts and outcomes as well as balance and symbiosis.
The details our sensors and ancestors gathered can continue to be mined for insight long after people have passed or sensors no longer work. Although the reading or analytical process has informed some conclusions, much more still can be gleaned.
Sensor readings used by one researcher and interpreted for a paper in the past can inform all-new research outcomes and insights. The more we’ve collected, the better informed we become.
Thankfully, new tools to store and analyze all these data are coming online. The ability to recognize patterns and crunch through large data stores really is “changing the game.” We no longer have to perform the tedium of merely record taking; instead, we have the opportunity to uncover new truths through data exploration.
Going back to visual sensors for a moment, think of the amazingly beautiful photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope. These magnificent and artistic images of galaxies, nebulae and other far-off places provide a perfect example of sensors that have unlocked wonder beyond our imaginations.
Sensor feeds are continuing to proliferate and amaze. Have you seen thermal imaging used where one body of water enters another, leaving a fingerprint of each source? Have you applied NDVI to detect vegetation health? Have you used GPS tracks to understand project efficiency? Have you harnessed social media data to uncover human interactions with a project or product?
All of these examples, and plenty more, uncover new efficiencies and allow us to better plan and balance design and performance to ensure projects thrive. We have much still to collect and analyze with existing and future sensors and systems, and infrastructure is ripe for the application of sensors, modeling and simulation for more-detailed understanding.
We’re entering a new era where sensors and, more importantly, the combination of many sensor readings, will guide more of our actions. The better we mine the information—for facts as well as narratives—the more balanced our future can become.
Matt Ball is founder and editorial director at V1 Media; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.