Looking for New Discoveries in Old Data

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What happens to old lab notebooks and other records of scientific data? It's still useful, though not so much so when it's molding away in a box at the bottom of a closet. But now a group of scientists who recently met at the Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA) conference is starting a global effort to retrieve that data, Nature reported last week. The group will ask researchers, museums and universities for what they might have tucked away and publish an inventory of what they find in 2012. Nature reports:

It is not only data in old books or photographs that are at risk. Digital information collected between 1950 and 1980 is also threatened, because it is stored on outdated media often subject to deterioration, such as magnetic tape and floppy disks, making it increasingly difficult to access and retrieve. Developing countries host some of the most valuable data — from land use to disease statistics — and the most threatened, for example by local conflict and inadequate or patchy storage.

Old records have more than proved their worth by now. Data from ships' logbooks, for example, have been used to study the history of whaling, climate change and the planet's magnetic field. Zooniverse---which in the past has harnessed the power of bored people with computers to search through pictures of the sky for supernovae and cosmic mergers---has unleashed their horde of citizen scientists on record books from Royal Navy vessels from World War I to gather data and improve a database of weather extremes.

Spend a little bit of time on that Zooniverse site and you'll quickly realize what a huge project it will be to retrieve data from any sources dug up by the CODATA group. Because it's not enough to merely know what is out there---for the data to be of any use, and preserved for the future, it will also need to be digitalized. And managing all that data will be yet another issue. But having too much data is a problem I think most scientists wouldn't mind having.

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