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Quick Study

By Brian Robinson

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Public participation in technology assessment

I miss the days of the old Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which regularly put out reports about science and technology issues that were well researched, informative and managed at the same time to irk many people on Capitol Hill and elsewhere whose political and ideological tilts they upset. Fun times!

So, of course, Congress had to get rid of it. Certainly the usual suspects, such as cost, redundancy and so on, were rounded up to defend the decision. But there was no doubt that the OTA-as-irritant was the biggest factor.

Given the generally lousy track record that Congress has had since those days in debating and deciding on science and technology issues, I think the case has been made many times over for the return of the OTA, or something similar. And indeed, many have tried to argue for that, so far without success.

Here's one more, which tries to take into account the Obama Administration's push for open government. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is suggesting in a new report that the U.S. takes up the European experience with Participatory Technology Assessment (pTA).

The new-agey moniker notwithstanding, the center says that there are now 18 European technology agencies that are flourishing using pTA, which takes account of the views of lay people as well as those of experts. Also, it points out, the use of pTA has already been proven in the U.S. by various university groups and other non-profit organizations.

This kind of thing was impossible during the age of the OTA because the means just didn't exist to collect these lay views, at least not easily. With social media and the Internet, those barriers have disappeared.

The report's author, Dr. Richard Sclove, is pushing for the creation of a nationwide network that will incorporate pTA. Count me in.

Posted on Apr 30, 2010 at 7:27 PM0 comments


Social networking fuels collaboration among NASA researchers

Social networking isn’t rocket science, but the eggheads at NASA are showing how it can be used to help them pursue the most bleeding edge applications.

The space agency in May launches a new research network named NASA Earth Exchange (NEX), which combines high-end supercomputing resources with Earth system modeling and the decades of NASA’s remote sensing data to provide a new way of analyzing the planet’s climate and land use patterns.

According to a story at Supercomputing Online, NASA scientists think they can use the new network to slash the time needed to gather and analyze the massive, global-scale datasets they use -- from the months it takes now to just hours.

The key is the online collaboration will incorporate social networking, enabling NASA scientist and science teams scattered around the world to easily share datasets, algorithms, complex codes and research results.

They haven’t been able to do that before because it required physically transferring huge amounts of data to each other. With NEX, all of the data and codes will actually reside on the social networking platform so there will be no need for all of that laborious stuff.

Using NEX, the scientists will apparently be able to build custom project environments using virtualization technology that will automatically capture the entire analysis process. Those environments will also be reusable by other scientists who can add their own data to the remote sensing data, throwing open all kinds of new avenues for research into such things as urbanization, deforestation and biodiversity.

Details about NEX have been compiled into a wiki.

Separately, but as another example of how it is using the new Web technologies, NASA said it would start using semantic search to enable its employees to search through the more than 50 years of information it has collected on its space program.

It’s using software from United Kingdom-based Smartlogic, which in turn is using Google Search hardware.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Chris Kemp, the thought leader behind this and other IT efforts at NASA Ames, such as the Nebula cloud computing platform, has reportedly been bumped up to the new position of chief technology officer for IT at NASA headquarters.

Posted on Apr 22, 2010 at 7:27 PM0 comments


The Army unfolds a roadmap for unmanned aircraft systems

It’s not usual for me, or anyone else that I know for that matter, to recommend a government document as a great piece of reading, but I’d stray from that norm and point to the U.S. Army Roadmap for UAS 2010-2035.

I’m not saying it’s great literature, and there’s sections of it that would serve well as a sleep aid, but for overall entertainment for the techie minded among you I think it makes the grade.

Turn first to a section that describes the far-term of the Army’s roadmap for its unmanned aircraft systems, which describes what the Army sees happening in the 2026-2035 timeframe. It talks there, among other things, about using bug-like nano UAVs to survey buildings before soldiers enter them, and use clouds of the critters operating as interlinked smart warfighting array of reconfigurable modules (SWARM) to do the same for area reconnaissance.

There’s lots of similar acronymic stuff in the document (this is the Army, after all), but most of it has a similar heft, particular that for both the far-term and mid-term (2016-2025) chapters.

Taken individually, none of the technologies will come as a surprise as they’ve been talked of before. But the roadmap provides a context for how they will work together, and it promotes a grand vision that’s pretty sweeping. Twenty years from now, battlefields and the skies over American itself could be filled with these flying robots.

There are provisos, of course, as there always is. The military overall wants as many unmanned aircraft as it can get it hands on, but the Government Accountability Office recently warned that the military’s ability to handle the number it already has is stretched. And then there’s a small matter about making sense of all of the data these things produce.

Pshaw! Don’t let these piddling matters interfere with the dream. Read the thing first. Reality can come later.

Posted on Apr 20, 2010 at 7:27 PM1 comments


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