Crisis Mapping, Bio Blitzes, and Google Flu Trends are all recent projects that exemplify an emerging revolution in how we interact with and understand a dynamic and complex planet. These endeavors, representing very different fields–disaster relief, ecosystem monitoring, and public health, respectively—are all of a type, joining many other emerging forms, that we might call Decentralized Observation (DO).

DO is a powerful organizing force—one with deep evolutionary roots in biology as well as modern consequences. The basic structure of DO is that multiple semi-autonomous sensors–rather than a single central controller–monitor, and in some cases also react to, changes in their local environment. These sensors, which could be cells in our immune system or individual people sharing locations of post-earthquake fires on a crisis mapping website, are not completely autonomous because they still exist within and serve the needs of a larger construct, like a living body or a community of emergency responders. Moreover, these systems are not anarchies—there is an important role of leadership to ask the right questions, to coordinate responses, and sometimes to provide resources. The similarity of biological DO systems and those appearing in human society is mechanistic—when you need to understand a complex and unpredictable world and continually adapt to what you find, DO is the best way to do it.

Paleobiologist and MacArthur Fellow Geerat Vermeij has argued that the most successful biological organisms incorporate some form of DO and it is incorporated at every level of biological organization—from cells, where the nucleus is a weak central controller that gets input from the many functional organelles, to ecosystems where key species like corals provide a structure for many other species to interact with the world, leading to resilient and adaptable systems overall. DO makes sense from an evolutionarily standpoint for two reasons. First, it provides an ability to identify changes in the environment as close as possible to where the change is occurring. This allows an organism, or an organization, to pose and test what Vermeij calls “multiple hypotheses” about a complex problem in the world. Second, by activating multiple observational agents, a more nuanced and often times more rapid response to the change can be achieved. U.S. soldiers on the ground in the early days of the Iraq war knew about, and were adapting to, the threat of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) well before the Pentagon thought it was a big concern . While DO systems have evolved for billions of years in nature, and have long standing (though much less ancient) parallels in collective human endeavors like pari-mutuel betting, DO systems are suddenly popping up all over human society, and may be particularly useful in protecting the environment.

For instance, one largely unseen problem with conservation of spaces on land and sea is that the legally protected status of these areas is often in flux. Most people assume that once an area is protected by law it will always be protected, but changes in zoning or conservation laws, outbreaks of violence, local economic shifts, and changes in leadership can alter the designation of lands with little recognition outside of the local area. Protected areas can be Downgraded, where human activities once prohibited within the borders of a given conservation area are allowed again. They can be Downsized when their legal borders are changed. And they can be Degazetted, when their legal protected status is revoked by a local, state, or federal mandate. The combination of these three factors acting on protected areas is known collectively as “PADDD”, and it often happens with few people in the local area, and even fewer more distally, even knowing about it.

To shed light on this issue, the World Wildlife Fund, an enormous global conservation group is getting into the DO game. WWF has recently rolled out PADDD Tracker (www.PADDDtracker.org), a DO tool where people can report on examples of PADDD in their communities. Michael Mascia, Director of Social Science for the World Wildlife Fund’s Conservation Science Program told me, “PADDD has been a blind spot for a century, so we needed a tool…to accelerate data collection, learning, and knowledge sharing. We were motivated to build PADDDtracker.org because we recognized our own limitations as researchers. We could identify hundreds and even thousands of cases of PADDD ourselves, but a global community of scholars, civil servants, lawyers, activists, and everyday citizens was much better positioned to quickly fill in the blanks and correct mistakes.” Essentially, despite being well-resourced and full of smart and committed people like Mascia, WWF as an organization recognized that it could never fully capture the scope of PADDD, no matter how many resources they amassed.

The rise of DO in society can be linked to two factors. The first is simply technological. We now have the ability to place remote but networked sensors of change virtually anywhere in the world and instantly compile the mass of incoming data. Cell phones in every hand make this possible, as do the millions of people searching Google who are inadvertently contributing to Google Flu Trends, a DO project that tracks the prevalence of flu as accurately as the CDC’s centralized, survey-based flu tracking, but can provide data up to two weeks faster. In some cases, technological advances will allow DO systems to work autonomously without continual human input. For example, scientists are developing wireless sensors small enough to insert in living mussels, which can then be dispersed widely in water bodies and automatically report back early observations of catastrophic water pollution, such as spikes in nitrogen in the upper Mississippi, which could later lead to dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. As a bonus, because it is a filter feeder, the mussel itself cleans its embedded sensor of the algae and fouling agents that normally limit the time environmental sensors can be left in the field without human intervention.

The second factor, though admittedly tightly symbiotic with the technological advances, is more profound. It is the growing reliance we have on observation in a world that is increasingly difficult to characterize under theoretical constructs, or simulated in controlled experiments . In some cases–as with trying to understand the consequences of climate change on ecosystems–this is because the scale of change is too large and complexly interconnected to effectively reduce. In other cases, it’s the opposite—that potentially catastrophic changes such as a genetic mutation that transforms a zoonotic disease into the start of a global human pandemic–are far too disaggregated and idiosyncratic to predict their exact occurrence. Global health organizations may reasonably suspect that such a mutation will occur where people still hunt wild game on a daily basis, but they can’t actually know exactly where these outbreaks will occur. This problem motivated Nathan Wolfe to start a DO scheme where people hunting bushmeat report outbreaks of disease in their villages via cell phone networks .

The long term staying power of DO comes from the fact that it is co-evolving with other trends in science and society. The rise of citizen science, where people outside of universities and research labs contribute their observations to larger scientific studies, is simultaneously the source of many new DO schemes, and enhanced by the new tools of DO, such as cloud based data storage and sharing. Sites like the National Phenology Network’s “Nature’s Notebook” database , which encourages people to observe and track the seasonal timing of biological events like plant flowering and bird migration, are both a way to effectively deal with large numbers of decentralized observations and a system that builds a social network to recruit and maintain new observers. Social media networks are also co-evolving with DO. They provide a platform for widely sharing initially strange, surprising, or novel observations, and these initial observations may energize existing DO networks or become the seeds of whole new DO networks. For example, a wildlife photographer recently posted an old photo he had of the ocean sunfish, Mola mola, perhaps the most bizarre looking fish in the ocean. Although well known to biologists and sea farers, this particular image caused a sensation on the internet . This kind of publicity can help boost DO programs like marine biologist Tierney Thys’ citizen science endeavor to document sightings of Molas throughout the world. Crowd sourced funding can further complete the evolution of DO science and sever it completely from its institutional ancestry by using distributed funders to finance distributed schemes for making new discoveries, thus avoiding traditional government funding sources like National Science Foundation, that are notoriously risk averse when it comes to discovery-driven science.

Given this embedded evolutionary context, DO isn’t likely to be a singular technological or social fad that will pass like pagers or flash mobs. It is truly an adaptive advance in the way we interact with the world—giving us faster, less resource intensive, and more accurate ways of seeing change. Like any successful adaptation, it will survive and proliferate until a yet faster, cheaper or more accurate beast comes along.

Dr. Rafe Sagarin is a marine ecologist, Guggenheim Fellow, and the author of Observation and Ecology (2012, Island Press) and Learning from the Octopus (2012, Basic Books)


Vermeij, Geerat. “Security, Unpredictability and Evolution: Policy and the History of Life.” In Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World, edited by Raphael Sagarin and Terence Taylor. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008.

Sagarin, R. Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorism, Natural Disasters, and Disease. New York: Basic Books, 2012.

Michael Mascia, email to Rafe Sagarin, January, 2013.

Mussels toting backpacks to keep watch on Mississippi. NewScientist. January 13, 2013. P. 21.

Sagarin, R., and Anibal Pauchard. Observation and Ecology: Broadening the Scope of Science to Understand a Complex World. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2012.





Published On: April 10, 2013

Rafe Sagarin

Rafe Sagarin

Rafe Sagarin is a marine ecologist at the Institute of the Environment at University of Arizona. Rafe’s research includes everything from the historical and current sizes of intertidal gastropods (snails) to developing better ideas for national security, based on natural security systems. He is particularly interested in the Sea of Cortez, or Gulf of California, its ecological history, and the fascinating people past and present who have lived, worked, researched and journeyed there.

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