Over 500 miles of trails

Someone said that there are over 500 miles of trails in Marin County. I'm going to hike all of them. Want to hear more? Read on...

Location: Woodacre, California, United States

Well, I hike, obviously. I read, without retaining, lots of stuff but mostly classic and contemporary fiction, history, and science. I look at birds and plants. I play my guitar far less than I ought, and watch movies far more. I like to ask people questions, but only if they ask me questions in return. I aspire to honorable behavior and am mostly successful. I'm on the cusp of a career change, with bird research in my past/present and academic librarianship in my future. Occasionally I bust out and cook six course gourmet meals for my friends; for some reason it's always six and never seven or five. Enough about me. What about you? Stranger or friend, drop me a line!

Saturday, December 03, 2005

We have a roommate. We'll call him Bob cause that's his name. This post will not be about hiking, but rather about an interesting conversation that Victor, Bob, and I had the other night.

A bit of background. I work, as do Bob and Victor, for a small nonprofit involved in bird research. Bob and his supervisor attended a meeting with the National Park Service this past week in Washington state as part of a monitoring project for three national parks up there.

One of the high points of the meeting (at least in terms of myself finding it interesting) was a discussion of what Park Service employees call 'dithering'. The Park Service digs the idea of publishing data online so that it's generally accessible, but would prefer not to publish location data pertaining to sensitive species, so that Johnny Q. can't go out and get himself some bald eagle eggs for breakfast. Well and good. So don't publish it, right? Wrong. Instead, the Park Service has hit upon the notion of skewing the data by varying amounts, so that the locations are encrypted in some non-straightforward way. This is called 'dithering' the data... in this usage, the verb seems to be transitive. These dithered data are then published in place of the actual location data.

Bob described the atmosphere in the conference room. A few, in the know about 'dithering', introduced the topic, with that slightly smug, superior air of those privy to a secret that's not generally known. The term raced around the room like wildfire, until a general buzz was in the air: "Dithering? What's dithering? Have you heard? Dithering!" Explanations were given, and the conference room bathed in the heady glow of knowing that the public at large was being hoodwinked. But how to proceed? Should locations be skewed right or left? Up or down? Should all sensitive species be placed in the mayor of Spokane's living room?

I asked Bob:
"So what happens if a legitimate researcher needs location data for the sensitive species? Are they given the key to decrypt the data?"

"No. The Park Service just gives them the data."

"And what's the utility of publishing false data rather than no data?"

"I don't know. That wasn't discussed. It seems like they just like fooling the public."

"And does it state anywhere, that these data are dithered?"

"Somewhere, in the fine print, maybe."

"And no one seemed to think this was stupid?"

"Apparently not."

I would like to hear the story from the side of someone who supports this. It's all very interesting. I know that taxpayer money goes toward frivolous purposes all the time, and that this isn't the first or even the most egregious instance of the public paying to be misinformed. It's just interesting that people of science, most of whom seem to hold that the data is sacrosanct above all else, would just jump on board an endeavour like this with such lightheartedness. I must be missing something.


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