February 28, 2013

Shoulders of Giants

"If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." -- Carl Sagan 

CBI just released major design and functionality updates to our web-based mapping and collaboration platform, Data Basin. It got me thinking about the truly collaborative nature of nearly every endeavour in science and technology. Developing a system like Data Basin requires the collaboration of several software developers, many scientists and other staff at CBI, and members from the larger scientific community. But this effort also depends on a long chain of prior work, all of which helps to bring the racing of electrons through processors in a data center outside of Portland, OR to users around the world as interactive maps and tools.

Every bit of software we write stands “on the shoulders of giants.” Without web server technology, we wouldn’t be able to deliver Data Basin to you. Without a web browser, you wouldn’t be able to use it. Without internet protocols and standards, your computer and our servers would have no way to communicate with each other, and those protocols and standards would be useless without a laundry list of hardware and software components necessary to implement them.

Cool projects like Data Basin (as well as Google, Facebook, etc.) are only possible because we don’t need to invent the universe first. And as computing technology has become more widely available in recent decades, it has given rise to a vibrant community of open source software development. For example, we used a freely-available web development framework to implement a large part of the new Data Basin. This framework was originally developed by an online news organization to power their website. They made the source code behind this framework available, and it has been improved by many people and groups since then and currently powers sites like Instagram and Pinterest. But this framework would not have been possible without the programming language in which it was written, itself open source and the product of efforts by many people and groups over the years. And that programming language couldn’t have happened without, well, you get the idea.

In a TED talk he gave in 2010, author Matt Ridley asks: “[...] who knows how to make a computer mouse? Nobody,” he concludes, “Literally nobody. There is nobody on the planet who knows how to make a computer mouse. . . . We all know little bits, but none of us knows the whole.” Another TED speaker, Steven Johnson,  comments on the fact that great ideas can’t occur in a vacuum, stating that “however smart you are, you cannot invent a microwave oven in 1650.”

This also gets at what we hope to accomplish with Data Basin. Just as we build on the efforts of others to construct this collaborative platform, we hope that others will build on our work to help bring their own ideas and research to fruition. Just as no one person needs to know how to make a computer mouse, no one person needs to know ecology, computer science, and be a GIS expert in order to make and share compelling maps.

About the author:
Nikolas Stevenson-Molnar
Senior Software Engineer
Nik is a Software Engineer at CBI working on Data Basin. He enjoys finding ways in which technology can aid in environmental research by improving data collection, management, visualization, and distribution.
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