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Open Data: Finding 40,000 New Asteroids … Without Trying

During a recent episode of The Weightlist — Capture Higher Ed’s podcast that conversationally mines the areas between data, new technologies and enrollment management — hosts Thom Golden and Brad Weiner discussed the influence of open data with University of Michigan physicist and cosmologist Tim McKay.

McKay, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics, Astronomy, Education at UM, knows about working with large data sets.

“His data set is the sky,” Thom says.

Specifically, McKay worked extensively with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, an open data set of more than 3 million astronomical objects. He’s also a major proponent for making the Sloan data open to everyone, arguing that doing so has generated unprecedented growth in the world’s knowledge of the cosmos.

“Open data projects are increasingly important in a very data rich world,” McKay says.

It is not uncommon, he says, for a data set to be created with a particular purpose in mind, but then to find out that it’s actually useful for many more things — far beyond what those who created it had in mind.

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey project is an example of this — an example of interstellar proportions.

“We set out in the late 1980s and early 1990s to expand the scale of the region of the universe that we have mapped,” McKay says. “That was the basic thing we wanted to do … to make a map of the universe and to map a piece of the universe that was about a hundred times bigger than we had mapped before.”

To do this, scientists had to take astronomical data that was useful for an incredible array of other projects.

“Remember, our goal was to make a very big map of the universe on the largest scales, but this same data — the pictures and the spectra we took to make that map — were useful for things like studying solar system objects.”

For example, the Sloan survey, while it do not intend to study the solar system, led to the discovery of more than 40,000 new asteroids.

“It more than doubled the number of known asteroids … without trying,” McKay says. “Because the data wasn’t taken for that purpose.”

He contends that, if the researchers had kept the data only for their purposes, no one would have found those asteroids because no one would have looked.

“Instead, we realized the data was useful for many purposes and we made it available to other people to answer their questions,” he says. “This allowed scientists from all over the world to come into the data set and discover things we would have never discovered, things we weren’t even interested in discovering.”

What does this have to do with higher education and education in general? McKay has some ideas. While working on the Sloan project and other major research involving the evolution of the universe, he was developing very strong data sensibilities and a certain amount of skill in working with big, complicated data sets.

“That kind of preparation set me in good stead as I began to think about education questions,” he says.

He is participating in the University of Michigan’s Academic Innovation Initiative, which was founded to reconsider and rethink how UM would lead in higher education in the information age.

Could higher education benefit from a national open data set similar to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey? Listen in on the rest of Thom and Brad’s fascinating, interdisciplinary conversation with McKay as they talk more about open data and how beneficial it can be for higher education.

By Kevin Hyde, Content Writer, Capture Higher Ed

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