More interesting than outer space…

My diary says that I went to a space conference in London yesterday. The truth is more interesting than that.

Unless the topic is chemistry, a sure sign of desperation for any event is the word “solutions” in the title. But the European Space

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Solutions conference was a rare exception, because the space industry has a great story to tell about how it solves

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problems that are hard to get at by any other means. How can you determine the Earth’s average temperature except from space? If you can’t, carbon reduction policies are like going on a diet without weighing yourself first.

The conference was in Central Hall, Westminster, the bastion of nonconformism which the Methodists set up across the road from Westminster Abbey a hundred years ago. It had all

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sorts of themes about satellites helping us to make the trains run on time, cope better with disasters or manage healthcare more efficaciously.

But a surprising number of the best presentations had little to do with space. Instead they were about data, gathered by ordinary people and used en masse. Take Ashtag (yes….). It’s

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a scheme that allows anyone with a smartphone and the right app to report damaged ash trees, a serious threat to these well-loved features of the UK countryside. Described by Sam Neal of Norfolk Biodiversity Information Service, it makes use of automated verification to ensure that the quality of amateur-derived data is good enough to be used by policy-makers and land managers.

Neal and others explained that for almost any natural thing you can dream up – fish, birds, trees – there are far more amateur enthusiasts out there than paid scientists. Modern technology allows their observations to be used. Sam Walmsley of the (UK) Environment Agency pointed out that this can even be done for algal blooms in lakes, via the many members of the Freshwater Biological Association. As he said: “Their people are there when we’re not.”

Of course, space systems make all this possible, by providing GPS to make sure we know where the data is coming from, often by allowing it to be uploaded, and in other ways. But it poses another problem: integrating data from space, from land-based instruments and from citizen science is far from trivial. But despite these issues, citizen science and space share one property. Each has come along when we are messing up the environment on an unprecedented scale, so they are here bang on time.

Oh, and nobody loves the European Commission. But the realisation that the event should discuss data and its uses, not rockets and satellites, is due to the Commission along with the UK Space Agency and the other conference partners.

Between now and December 9 there is a public version of the exhibits at Horse Guards Parade in central London.

End of rant. Best detail at the conference?

A program for route-finding for electric vehicles. Yes, plenty of map software gets you the shortest route from A to B, or the quickest. But electric vehicles have limited range, and their performance falls away horribly when they are faced with hilly bits. So this Irish software gets you the route that minimises the evil effects of topography as well as mileage.

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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