22 June 2009

Open Source Dendrochronology

How could I resist this story? Aside from the great headline, it's about old-style closed-source science being challenge by open science, with open data - the only kind, if you think about it:

Dendrochronology is the study of tree-rings to determine when and where a tree has grown. Everybody knows that trees produce one ring every year. But the rings also vary in width according to each year's local weather conditions. If you've got enough rings in a wood sample, then their widths form a unique "bar code". Collect enough samples of various ages from buildings and bog wood, and you can join the bar codes up to a reference curve covering thousands of years.

Dendrochronology has a serious organisational problem that impedes its development as a scientific discipline and tends to compromise its results. This is the problem of proprietary data. When a person or organisation has made a reference curve, then in many cases they will not publish it. They will keep it as an in-house trade secret and offer their paid services as dendrochronologists. This means that dendrochronology becomes a black box into which customers stick samples, and out of which dates come, but only the owner of the black box can evaluate the process going on inside. This is of course a deeply unscientific state of things. And regardless of the scientific issue, I am one of those who feel that if dendro reference curves are produced with public funding, then they should be published on-line as a public resource.

But there is a resistance movement: amateur dendrochronologists such as my buddies Torbjörn Axelsson and Åke Larsson. They practice open source data transparency on the net, which means that arguably amateur dendrochronology is at this time more scientific than the professional variety.

I think it's also interesting because the story shows that, even in specialised areas like dendrochronology, openness makes a big difference to how the science is conducted - and how reliable its results are. (Via @BoraZ.)

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