I could not resist writing this short blog post after having a such a nice conversation with Scott Davidoff yesterday. Scott is a manager at the Human Interfaces Group at NASA JPL and he leads a group of people that takes care of big data problems at NASA (I mean big big data as those coming from telescopes and missions).
While on the phone he said:
“You know Enrico … the way I see it is that we are mechanics for scientists … the same way Formula 1 has mechanics for their cars“.
What a brilliant metaphor! Irresistible. It matches perfectly my philosophy and at the same time, sorry to say, I think it does not match very well with the way most people see vis right now.
It reminds me the brilliant “Computer Scientist as a Toolsmith“, the fantastic essay written by Fred Brooks (ACM Turing Award) which I have adopted a long time ago as my personal manifesto. Fred Brooks advocated for a different way to see the role of Computer Science (one I am sure many of my colleagues refuse) as an engineering discipline whose purpose is to provide services to scientists. He famously stated that:
IA > AI (Intelligence Amplification can beat Artificial Intelligence).
“That is, a machine and a mind can beat a mind-imitating machine working by itself.“
And this all reminds me why I do what I do and why I think we should do more. Much more. In 2011 I was invited at Visualizing Europe, and event organized by Visualizing.org, and I gave a talk that pretty much covered the same ground: “Data Visualization is NOT Useful. It’s Indispensable“.
Talking with Scott, once again I realized how many people out there need our help. These are the people who may discover the next cure for cancer, help us going to Mars, find a way to preserve our planet, prevent terrorist attacks or disasters, just to name a few. You may think these people already have the necessary knowledge, means and skills to tackle big data problems on their own but you are wrong. These people are busy with their science, and for a good reason!
All these people need us! Let me repeat it: all these people need us! It’s up to us to show them what they can do with our tools and skills. Most of them simply do not imagine how powerful some of the things we do may be for them.
Let me tell you one thing: I have collaborated with a few scientists in my career so far and they love it when we make their life easier. Often they are blown away by simple trick we take for granted.
So if you are passionate about data and data visualization I urge you to think about this: you can decide to tackle hard problems with data. You can decide to make a big difference with pairing up with people who deal with hard scientific problems and help them make progress. It’s up to you to make this choice.
My biggest ambition is to be a mechanic. A mechanic for the the Formula 1 of science.