Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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New data streams expose world's hidden history

May 11, 2010General

Loved yesterday's Times story about the archeologists uncovering a vast new Mayan site through the analyse of a new trove of data. In this case, it comes from "lidar," a "light detection and ranging" technology that produces petabytes describing the topography of land--and buried ruins--long shrouded by a thick canopy of jungle. In the coming decade, this type of technology could unearth the history and remains of civilizations on every continent (with the likely exception of Antartica, I guess).

There's already been an immense amount of learning in the last decades about ancient peoples. I got a glimpse of this while reading Charles Mann's excellent 1491, and the Americas before the Europeans arrived. Most of what I had learned in high school about these matters, it appears, was way off. Whites undercounted the American natives, in part, because many were already dead of disease by the time the Europeans arrived on the scene. Germs and viruses outraced horses and ships.

But in a sense, the new Mayan vision is a preview of the new kind of learning that's going to be happening in many realms as big new streams of data arrive. Similar pattern-finding analysis, fed from sensors, will uncover what's up inside our bodies, including our brains. And as I've mentioned here before, streams of real-time data will increasingly illuminate the depths of our oceans, which are central to the functioning of earth, but which remain to data nearly as mysterious as distant planets.

Until very recently, we explored the seas by dropping a high-tech equivalent of a bucket into the depths and studying what it fetched. This reinacted not only one single area of the ocean, but also one solitary moment in time. With the new sensor-fed techniques, scientists will be able to analyze ecosystems as they evolve through time. It's a whole new focus.

I'm in Los Angeles for interviews today at Jeopardy. I'm going to give myself two hours to get from my friends' house in La Crecenta to the Sony lot in Culver City. That's about as much time as I'd allot for a drive from my home in North Jersey to Philadelphia. But I'd rather overdo it and pick up a coffee in Culver City than fret as I inch past Dodger Stadium and other landmarks.

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