Humans helping weather data project where computers can't compete

14 October 2010

Scientists, historians and the general public are being called upon to help with a new project that will help build a more accurate picture of how our climate has changed over the last century.

The OldWeather project is a new initiative launched with the help of James Martin Fellows Dr Chris Lintott and Dr Stuart Lynn and a diverse collaboration of organisations. It makes available an online archive of early 20th century ship captains’ logbooks, from which volunteers will analyse and transcribe the handwritten information into an online database. The project will help scientists recover worldwide weather observations made by Royal Navy ships around the time of World War I.

"These naval logbooks contain an amazing treasure trove of information but because the entries are handwritten they are incredibly difficult for a computer to read," said Lintott, who works in the Oxford Martin School’s new Programme on Computational Cosmology.

"By getting an army of online human volunteers to retrace these voyages and transcribe the information recorded by British sailors we can re-live both the climate of the past and key moments in naval history."

Climate scientists will be able to feed hundreds of individual observations of the weather, temperature and air pressure into atmosphere models to build weather maps of the entire globe. Data on the ocean, which is a good store of heat, can provide information on what was happening on land as well. Knowing more about what the weather was doing in the past will give valuable insights into what we can expect in the future.

Lintott has led similar citizen science projects through Zooniverse, home to the internet's largest, most popular and most successful citizen science projects. These crowd sourcing projects aim to harness the capacity of humans to make observations that computers find indecipherable. Lintott is already in discussions with other members of the Oxford Martin School to see how he can share his expertise to help set up new projects that will help monitor the status of forests, track biodiversity hotspots and develop databases of information on other critical issues for the 21st century.

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