The Future of Fieldwork

One of the sessions at the Open Science: Friends of the Future un-conference focused on the future of fieldwork. Like every other session, it tied back to earlier conversations (particularly those regarding multi-discipline collaboration and handling extremely large data sets) which I’ll ignore to keep the topic tractable.

The Trouble with Fieldwork

Problem 1: the 5 Ds of Difficulty

Sometimes heading into the field is constrained by…



  • Dirty – mud, rain, squished bugs, and other outdoor factors can destroy notes, damage equipment, and add to discomfort (which reduces human observer-focus).
  • Dangerousmost of the dangerous science jobs involve fieldwork. From my own adventures, mapping a fresh landslide deposit involves risk related to secondary events, shifting debris, unstable footing, and bumping into bears.
  • Dull – by the third day of staring at pretty rocks, I’m noticing a lot less detail. Bored, tired, or over-saturated observers miss details.


  • Distant – field work can be distant. Canada is full of inaccessible landscapes, while the Moon & Mars represent the relatively accessible extraterrestrial terrain.
  • Delicate – observers change their environments; some field locations are too culturally or physically fragile for extensive field work.

5Ds concept introduced by session chair, Eric Stackpole of OpenROV.

Problem 2: Limited Expertise

Collaboration takes effort and adds mental and physical overhead to an already exhausting activity, limiting collection of possibly-extraneous data, yet once in the field an observer may see data relevant to multiple disciplines. A biologist in the field may see a landslide but not know the appropriate measurements to take; a geologist in the field wouldn’t necessarily recognize a rare bird. While in the field, practitioners collect data for their own discipline with only limited tangential data collection due to a lack of expertise on recognizing unusual and noteworthy events.

Problem 3: Retroactive Value

Sometimes due to overlooking details while uncomfortable, but more often to not realizing the importance of a feature until too late and out of the field analyzing data, valuable data may be overlooked and not fully collected or documented.

The Future of Fieldwork

Future improvements to the methods of fieldwork, and extending fieldwork to locations to currently inaccessible terrains, must meet the following criteria:

  • Weightless Collaboration – decrease the cost of collaboration. This may be through virtual collaboration formed on an ad-hoc basis via geospacial or descriptive tags. This currently happens to a limited extend among geoscientsits of different expertise on Twitter.
  • Near Real-time Analysis – The DeepWorker research at Pavilion Lake, British Columbia managed extremely rapid data analysis while still in the field.
  • Reduce the Ds – Solve, alter, or otherwise reduce the current barriers to fieldwork. Telerobotics currently sidestep some of the issues, but cannot fully replace a human presence for quality of observations. The Martian rovers & their team of scientists do an excellent job of a developing emotional engagement among the public, particularly through anthropomorphizing, their robots.

Related Reading

NOAA: Gliding into the future of ocean research
BBC: Scientist gets too close to boiling lava from volcano

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