The digital revolution has profoundly affected research. It has enabled a massive growth in the volume of data collected and enabled new ways for non-researchers to be involved through collecting and analysing data. Maybe you’ve heard of the “data tsumani” – a big wave of big data – that is headed our way. In fact, it has well and truly arrived:

  • Dr Alan Duffy, in his video above, points out that Astronomy in the 21st century produces vast quantities of complex data. In a single day, the amount of data collected by the Square Kilometre Array – which will be the most powerful telescope ever built – will take nearly two million years to playback on an ipod.
  • Experiments on the Large Hadron Collider – the world’s most powerful particle accelerator – store the equivalent of 250 years of HD video per year.

These examples are the high end of data collection but in every research discipline, the volume of data – most of it born digital – has increased exponentially. And that’s a lot of digital data! It’s important data too, data that can tell us amazing and interesting things about our world and the universe beyond.

These huge volumes of data cannot be gone through in a single lifetime, even with the advanced technology that we have to process it. We need to carefully collect, manage and preserve digital research data so that future generations can continue to make use of it.

Digital technologies and online tools have also created new and exciting opportunities for people to get involved in research projects. Everyday Joe’s and Josephine’s across the globe are participating in large-scale Citizen Science projects in the safety of their own backyard.  They are observing nature, collecting samples, taking photographs and videos, measuring things, analysing and computing data and then contributing these to a myriad of specific science project websites. It’s research, Jim, but not as we know it!

Image of a man and a woman with bionoculars

Mr. W. MacDougall chief Air Observer & Miss J. Grahame spotting, 1942, H99.201/3015

Consider a few of these Citizen Science examples:

  • Sense-T asked visitors to Tasmania to use their Smartphones to track how much time they spent at particular tourist sites and what they thought of it. Important when 8% of the Tasmanian economy is dependent on tourism!
  • Peta Jakarta, an example of real time disaster management, asks residents of Jakarta, Indonesia to use Twitter to post news of flooded areas which are then put on a map and shared.
  • RedMap invites Australians to spot, log and map marine species that are uncommon in our area.
  • At Zooniverse anyone can be a researcher by studying authentic objects of interest gathered by researchers, like images of faraway galaxies, historical records and diaries, or videos of animals in their natural habitats.

There are many opportunities to get involved in collecting and analysing research data. Search for Citizen Science on the Web or try Australia’s biodiversity projects for starters.

Research is key to solving some of big questions facing humanity today. To solve these problems, researchers in one discipline increasingly need to look to those in other disciplines for answers. For example, archaeology researchers in New Zealand involved in identifying and studying Maori hangi sites from the year 1200 onwards were delighted to find their research was useful to geophysicists. It turns out that the temperatures involved in Hangi ovens can tell us a lot about the Earth’s magnetic field. This example shows how critical it is to manage and preserve digital data now and for the future – you never know who will be using it and how they will use it to solve the big questions of our time.

By Natasha Simons, Australian National Data Service


This post is part of Born Digital 2016, the inaugural digital preservation week – an initiative of the National and State Libraries of Australasia raising awareness of the importance of preserving digital content for the public good.

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