Open Science

Comet 67P by Rosetta's OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 3 August 2014. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Comet 67P by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 3 August 2014. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Most people with a passing interest in technology will be familiar with the concept of “open source” products. This is where all the inner details of a piece of software or technological work is shared openly with anybody wishing to make use of it. This does not necessarily mean that the authors of the work hand over control, copyright free, with no conditions attached. However, in general, it does mean that interested parties can access information and functionality that otherwise would be locked away behind proprietary doors. Academic works can fall into similar categories. There are those groups which like to keep their preliminary unpublished work very much internal and private, and there are those who prefer to put everything on-line as soon as possible, warts and all.

There may be good reasons to keep things internal for a while, for example, in case a wider audience misunderstands or is mislead by inconclusive, speculative, work which has not been peer-reviewed. In subjects like medical research, it is extremely important that people are not mislead, as we’re talking about people’s health! Yet in other areas, despite the passion of the researchers, it just isn’t life-or-death and therefore the odd misunderstanding might not be such a problem. Why am I talking about this? Well, because of planetary science data from space missions, such as Rosetta to comet 67P (I can’t pronounce its full name properly, so I won’t bother typing it, plus I’m more of a number person anyway). You can find out more in this BBC article http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-30859411

We have all seen those amazing high resolution images from Mars, the Moon, Vesta and now 67-unpronounceable-P. But, more often than not, the investigators running the associated missions keep images to themselves for many months before letting the rest of us have a peek. This is presumably to allow them to make discoveries before anybody else. You might think that’s fair enough, but who actually paid for the mission and all subsidiary research projects? In general the answer is, well, you did! You paid for it with your tax and charitable donations.

The ultimate source of science funding (i.e. public money) is slowly being acknowledged in the academic publication industry, with the introduction of open-source journals: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_open_access_journals. These allow anyone to read the research papers contained within them free of charge, with the authors having to pay out of their research grants. After all, without a university email address or other affiliation it can be difficult for everyday folk to get their hands on the results of research. I’m sure there is a similar moral case to be made against denying early access to all of those planetary pictures too.

In my small sub-group (Dr Neil Thackers’ minions who hang around lab G602 in the Stopford building) we do our very best to share everything as soon as possible. Our software is open-source. Our internal reports are placed on-line. And if anybody spots a problem, such as a typo or a fundamental logical flaw, they can tell us about it right away. Surely, this is good for science, isn’t it? Unless the consequences could result in injury or death why would we not want to put everything out there for all to see and to do it as quickly as possible?

Our open source computer vision software can be found at www.tina-vision.net along with internal reports. Over the past few years there have been many reports added to the Tina memos about the automated analysis of planetary image data if anybody is interested in taking a look. You can also follow our sub-group’s progress at https://www.facebook.com/MapThePlanetsProject

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About pauldtar

Post-doc researcher at the University of Manchester. Working on software to automate the process of analysing images of planets.
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