I Just Want to See the Raw Data!

Originally posted (by me) on LinkedIn, December 9, 2014.

This is pretty close to raw data. How informative is it?

This is pretty close to raw data. How informative is it?

“I just want to see the raw data! No interpretation, no massaging the numbers, just the raw data straight out of the instrument!”

I sympathized with my non-scientist friend. She felt frustrated after reading a series of news items that began with a promising discovery, followed by a series of caveats, followed by more news stories reporting that no one knew for sure what was going on, and several more years of research would be required to clarify the findings from the initial report.

She didn’t know whom to believe. Scientists presented what looked like clear and convincing evidence, only to be shouted down by political activists and religious leaders claiming, “That’s just your opinion!” and citing past scientific studies proven biased, fraudulent, or just plain wrong.

The problem is, raw data points don’t tell you much of anything. Even an experienced scientist needs some kind of interpretation to convert the numbers into knowledge. What question was being asked and how did the person go about trying to find an answer? What did the instrument measure directly, and what assumptions were used to make indirect observations? What good does it do you to know that an unknown sample produces six times the voltage response at 7.3 minutes elution time than it did at 6.9 minutes if that’s all you know?

What were the conditions of the experiment? The same instrument can generate high- and low-resolution data, depending on how it is set up. Each type of data is useful for some purposes, but not others. Attachments, filters, thermostats — each of these can be added, adjusted, or calibrated to increase the sensitivity toward some observations, but they can also obscure other observations. The star you’re looking at might shine most brightly at the wavelengths you’re filtering out to cut interference from the sodium-vapor street lamps nearby.

How closely do the observations mimic processes in the real world? Lab-scale syntheses often fail to predict the results of a full-scale industrial production run. Data taken in the field under real-life conditions can be biased or inaccurate, because the act of observing has altered the behavior of thing you’re observing.

The progress of science itself can prove previous science wrong or expose the limitations of previous theories. Some 19th-century physicists thought that physics would shortly become a closed field of inquiry. All the questions had been answered, they thought. Only a few small loose ends needed to be wrapped up, and then the books could be closed. One of those loose ends turned out to be quantum theory, which underlies the technologies behind the automatic doors at the grocery store and flash drives that let you store hundreds of tunes in a device you can carry in your pocket.

Scientists do share raw data among themselves, especially when they are seeking alternate interpretations or reusing data for another purpose. The studies they publish in the journals contain interpreted data, along with information on how the data were obtained and what assumptions and processing steps were used. Other scientists with experience in the strengths and limitations of various instruments and methods review each others’ studies and identify gaps or alternate interpretations.

Some tests have been repeated so often, with such consistent results, that the interpretative steps can be programmed into the instruments themselves. You see this type of lab analysis on television shows where the forensic lab tech puts a paint chip from a crime scene into an instrument, and immediately sees that it could only have come from a 2009 Fiat. This data is not raw — the interpretation has merely been automated.

A wide spectrum of knowledge spans the territory between “That’s just your opinion!” and “There’s so much evidence here that I would stake my life on this.” The difference lies not in seeking some pure spring of unsullied data, but in knowing what questions were asked, how they were answered, and how the answers fit in with everything else. It requires seeing things happen the same way over and over and trusting things to happen that way again under the same conditions. It also requires a willingness to change your thinking if new information puts established knowledge into a new and broader context.

A World of Slow Drips

by Nancy McGuire, Wordchemist.com

Carlsbad, New Mexico

Some farmers near Carlsbad, New Mexico (shown here) find it more profitable to sell their water to fracking operations than to irrigate their drought-stricken land.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

On January 24, a panel of seven journalists gathered at Washington, DC’s, Wilson Center to brief an overflow crowd of policy wonks, issue advocates, writers and reporters, and other interested citizens on the likely hot topics in environment and energy for 2014. The annual event, co-sponsored by the Global Sustainability and Resilience Program, the Canada Institute, the Science and Technology Innovation Program, and the Society of Environmental Journalists, featured a lively audience Q&A session at the end. This is the last in a four-part series on this briefing.

Dennis Dimick, executive editor of environment at National Geographic, spoke of a nexus where food, water, and energy issues meet. Much of the petroleum extraction being done today, including water-intensive fracking operations, is being done in arid regions. Many arid regions in the U.S. are under stress because of decreases in the mountain snow pack that replenishes rivers and lakes every year.

Heavy demands from the extraction industries, agriculture, and growing cities have tended to push aside concerns for the indigenous animal and plant life. This neglect could have serious repercussions for human populations because of complex cause-and-effect relationships and the interconnecting roles that drive environmental effects. “It’s not just a water supply for people, you have to look at the whole ecosystem,” Dimick said.

At the same time that arid regions in the western U.S. are dealing with extended drought periods and diminishing snow melt, they are experiencing significant population growth. Cities in these regions, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, are already experiencing water shortages. Their demand for water is outstripping the ability of their aquifers to replenish themselves, and in essence, they are “mining fossil water”, said Dimick. Water stress is not limited to the southwestern deserts, however. Orlando, Atlanta, and the San Francisco Bay area are also feeling the pinch. (See this article in Yahoo Finance on the ten largest U.S. cities dealing with water shortages.)

Snowstorm

Slow drips, hard knocks. Shifts in climate patterns produce weather extremes of all kinds.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

These stories are sometimes not covered in the news as well as they could be, noted Andrew Revkin, the science and environmental author who runs The New York Times blog “Dot Earth”. In part, this is because the long development times for phenomena including climate change and ecosystem degradation are hard to report on a journalistic time scale. It’s much easier to generate a news item about a particular wildfire in California than to report on a decades-long increase in the number and intensity of wildfires across the Southwest. However, “it’s a world of slow drips that set up hard knocks,” Revkin noted.

Dramatic elements of a news story often overshadow the factors that contributed to the drama, Revkin continued. For example, Tacloban, a city in the Philippines that sustained massive damage during last November’s Super-typhoon Haiyan, saw its population triple over the past 40 years, according to the National Census Office for the Philippines.

Poverty and infrastructure neglect are common in this city, located in a particularly storm-prone area. About one-third of Tacloban’s homes have wooden exterior walls. One in seven homes has a grass roof (down from about a quarter of all homes in 2000), according to the National Census Office report. (Revkin discusses this in detail in his Dot Earth blog.)

More humans means more human loss when a “fairly typical” disaster hits, Revkin said. This is especially true when more humans concentrate in particularly sensitive or disaster-prone areas. He noted that “misguided incentives” encourage people to build in harm’s way, including insurance policies that cover rebuilding in risky areas. “Insurance costs should rise” to cover the risks, he said.

Revkin noted the effects of confounding factors in creating climate models and predicting resource levels in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Changes in the environment and living standards there are driven by more than just greenhouse gas levels. He noted complexities in climatology and widespread mismanagement of water resources as examples.

When considering the effects of population growth and resource consumption on climate change, “consumption is key,” said Revkin in response to a question from an audience member. “Nine billion vegan monks” would have a much smaller impact on global resources than, say, a world of upper-middle-class Americans. However, large family sizes can reduce the quality of life for dense local pockets of urban poor people, and localized family planning efforts can have positive effects on such things as deforestation. The issue doesn’t get discussed much, he added.

Suzanne Goldenberg, the U.S. environmental correspondent for The Guardian, noted that rich nations are the “main perpetrators” of climate change effects because the scale on which they extract and consume fossil fuels so far outstrips that of less prosperous countries. Large international agencies and treaty organizations have made little progress on targeting efforts toward getting rich nations to act, but small side negotiations could produce significant results, she said.

A Matter of National Security
What about the impact of climate change on national security? Coral Davenport, who covers climate and energy for The New York Times, noted the 20-year effort by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to address climate change issues. She asserted that the State Department is heavily focused on climate effects and their influence on national security. She also noted that the Department of Defense is acutely aware of the issue. “The awareness is there … and it’s growing,” she said.

Goldenberg noted that the U.S. military’s leadership is pushing to reduce or eliminate dependence on petroleum-based fuels. They have put great pressure on unit commanders to “green” their establishments (but they don’t call it “green”), she said. Davenport explained that the military’s push toward alternative fuel sources is driven by security concerns, with the environmental benefits as a fortuitous side effect. Transporting fuel to remote or hostile locations is prohibitively expensive in terms of money and danger to the lives of servicemen, and oil convoys are prime targets for attack, she added.

Food shortages are another national security concern. Several recent riots in other countries have been attributed to food price increases driven by crop failures brought on by drought. The problem is beginning to make itself felt in the U.S. as well, said Dimick. Farmers in the southern high plains of Texas can no longer grow corn, he said. Instead, they have begun to raise dry-land crops such as grain sorghum. (Other sources note that the high plains water shortage is caused both by drought and by depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer. Farmers have switched to short-season corn, grain sorghum, and cotton to reduce demand for water.)

Effecting Changes in the Political Climate
Given the polarized and combative atmosphere in Congress, is there any hope that legislators representing deeply conservative constituents in the “red states” could support efforts to address climate change? Is there hope for a carbon tax, or will big business defeat any efforts in this direction?

Davenport stated that when large companies see their profitability threatened by climate effects, they often come around to support climate change mitigation efforts. She noted that Monsanto, an agricultural products company whose customer base is largely in the red states, is concerned about volatility in weather patterns. Droughts, tornadoes, and wildfires threaten the farmers who make up the company’s customer base.

Cloudy future

Conflicting political, public, and industrial priorities create an uncertain future.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

Exxon Mobil, the petroleum producer, has acknowledged the role of carbon emissions in climate change. This company, which is a major donor to Republican campaigns, has developed a proposal for a carbon tax. Davenport noted that this change of heart occurred when Exxon Mobil bought natural gas producer XTO Energy in 2009, adding that their embrace of climate science is now good for their bottom line.

Despite support from major corporations (and campaign donors), conservative lawmakers are still fighting regulations that address climate change, Davenport said. Larry Pearl, Bloomberg BNA’s director of environmental news, noted that support from business could give moderate legislators the political cover they need to support legislation without being branded anti-business. “Business is out ahead of the lawmakers on this,” he said.

Davenport noted that significant legislative changes will come when red-state Republicans have the constituent backing and political will to support these changes. This, in turn, will happen when local effects — depleted or contaminated water supplies, or increases in insurance rates because of floods or wildfires — drive citizens to push for change. In some ways, she said, the push for action from the left impedes change because it hardens the opposition and politicizes the issues. This makes it harder for moderates to speak up without paying a price politically.

This is the last in a four-part series on the January 24 briefing, “The Year Ahead in Environment and Energy”. Previous posts: Global Issues, Local Actions, Coal: Politics and Power Supplies, and Keystone Capers and Ocean Issues.

Keystone Capers and Ocean Issues

by Nancy McGuire, Wordchemist.com

protester arrested

The Keystone Pipeline mobilized public protests in 2013. Shown here: A man is arrested near the White House during a protest rally (not related to Keystone).
Photo by Nancy McGuire

On January 24, a panel of seven journalists gathered at Washington, DC’s, Wilson Center to brief an overflow crowd of policy wonks, issue advocates, writers and reporters, and other interested citizens on the likely hot topics in environment and energy for 2014. The annual event, co-sponsored by the Global Sustainability and Resilience Program, the Canada Institute, the Science and Technology Innovation Program, and the Society of Environmental Journalists, featured a lively audience Q&A session at the end. This is the third in a four-part series on this briefing.

Opposition to Canada’s Keystone Pipeline, a story that generated significant heat inside the Beltway last year, may be producing some unintended effects. “Canada is committed to developing its oil sands, Keystone or not,” said Larry Pearl, Bloomberg BNA’s director of environmental news. If the Keystone construction project is prevented or delayed, the industry could resort to railroads and ships to bring crude oil to market. As of today, though, Canada doesn’t have the shipping routes to be able to do this, countered Suzanne Goldenberg, U.S. environmental correspondent for The Guardian. “Every day that the oil stays in the ground … is a small victory for the environmental movement,” she said, adding that this delay gives natural gas a chance to further dominate the U.S. market.

Politically, the Keystone protests were effective in mobilizing citizen groups on both sides of the issue and stirring up awareness and interest in issues surrounding petroleum extraction and transport. In an imperfect way, Keystone was used as a proxy in the debate surrounding climate change response versus job creation. However, the Keystone issue has not mobilized people enough to effect real change, said Goldenberg. Real changes have come about in the last three or four years through “little movements” centered around oil, gas, and fracking issues. It’s hard to quantify, she said, but the big groups are starting to listen.

Pearl noted that “people need to be stimulated somehow” to take action on issues such as the Keystone Pipeline. Often, people are focused on issues of more immediate concern, including unemployment and food prices. Oil pipelines in Canada seem remote, and the effects are slow to develop.

Andrew Revkin, the science and environmental author who runs The New York Times blog “Dot Earth”, mentioned the divestment movements on many college campuses, where student activists have pushed their administrators to stop investing in businesses that pursue practices that are harmful to the environment. The dollar amounts are small, he said, but the influence on university investment strategies and the awareness-raising effects are significant.

Cheryl Hogue, senior correspondent for Chemical and Engineering News, noted that “moms who blog and tweet” are another group whose influence greatly exceeds its economic clout. Companies are willing to go to great lengths to avoid the kind of damage that a social media campaign gone viral can cause. Coral Davenport, who covers climate and energy for The New York Times, cited the example of the “no GMOs” advertising campaign that Cheerios launched this year, but she noted that oats don’t contain GMOs anyhow. The threat of fallout from an anti-GMO campaign, however, was enough to motivate General Mills to emphasize this fact. (This writer notes that Cheerios also contain corn starch and corn syrup. Presumably, these ingredients will no longer contain GMO corn, if they ever did.)

Revkin noted that the U.S. must move wisely in developing a policy around Keystone. “Obama needs good relations with Canada,” he said. Davenport concurred: The world is looking to see what Obama does on environmental regulations and the Keystone Pipeline to see whether he is negotiating in good faith, she said. Dennis Dimick, executive editor of environment at National Geographic, added that commitments to infrastructure building projects set the energy path for decades because of the large scale and expense of these projects. A choice in one direction closes off other choices for years, he said.

The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Clouds over water

Sky-darkening geo-engineering projects would not alleviate ocean acidification.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

What stories about the ocean are likely to dominate the news in 2014? asked one audience member. “One word: plastics,” quipped Hogue.

Acidification is another strong candidate, according to Davenport. It’s a concrete problem with immediate economic effects, she added. This type of story creates more of a spur to action than some of the more abstract issues or those that develop over longer periods of time.

Dimick warned that many of the geo-engineering schemes being proposed would mitigate atmospheric warming by injecting light-scattering or light-shielding particles into the atmosphere, but these efforts would have no effect on the amount of carbon entering the ocean from the atmosphere. This carbon is a major cause of ocean acidification.

Honolulu penguin

Arctic thawing opens migration paths. A penguin in a Honolulu zoo (he didn’t migrate there).
Photo by Nancy McGuire

Pearl and Revkin discussed the effects of new open-ocean corridors opening up as a result of the shrinking Arctic ice cap. Some species of marine animals are currently migrating to new areas, along paths that were previously blocked by ice. Revkin noted that invasive species of all kinds consume a major part of the time and resources for managers of fisheries, wildlife, and national parks.

Dimmick added that the shrinking Arctic ice cap affects migration of the jet stream, and he cited the “polar vortex” cold weather system that has plagued much of the eastern U.S. and Canada this month.

This is the third in a four-part series on the January 24 briefing, “The Year Ahead in Environment and Energy”. Previous posts: Global Issues, Local Actions and Coal: Politics and Power Supplies. Upcoming topic: A World of Slow Drips.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Last in a three-part series on unmanned vehicles
(see Part 1 and Part 2)

NASA parrot drone

The Parrot flying AR Drone can be flown using an iPhone or iPad. Photo: NASA/Sean Smith

At present, unmanned aerial vehicles — “drones” in the popular parlance — are used for military surveillance and strikes, civilian environmental and wildlife monitoring, and scientific research purposes. Private citizens use remotely operated toy airplanes and helicopters for entertainment, and sometimes to spy on their neighbors. (“So This Is How It Begins: Guy Refuses to Stop Drone-Spying on Seattle Woman” by Rebecca J. Rosen, The Atlantic, May 13 2013)

“What we don’t have now is tabloid paparazzi drones chasing celebrities, pizza delivery drones enticing packs of dogs Pied Piper-like down the street, or advertising drones cluttering the night sky. This could change after September 2015, the deadline given in the 2012 FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) Modernization and Reform Act for the full integration of unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System — the common area that begins a few hundred feet above your back yard (the FAA has several definitions of just where this begins). The new FAA rules will apply only to drones flying below 400 feet (122 meters) and weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kg). (“Uncertainties remain as FAA integrates drones into American skies” by Josh Solomon, McClatchy, April 29, 2013)

Current privacy and public safety laws cover much of the mischief that weaponized or camera-bearing drones could do. However, any new technology enables new dangerous and annoying misuses that aren’t covered in existing laws, simply because they weren’t possible before.

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) summarized some of the legislative and policy challenges facing expanded drone use at “The Drone Next Door“, a May 7 seminar in Washington, DC, put on by the Future Tense consortium: The New America Foundation, Arizona State University, and Slate (Twitter hashtag #FTdrones).  Gosar stated that he supports Second Amendment (right to bear arms) and individual privacy rights, but that the implications of new drone capabilities must be “fleshed out”.

Do we even have a Constitutional framework for something like this? “I think so,” he said. Legislators must “break the Constitution into simple parts, and address this as personal responsibility.” But do 2nd Amendment rights apply to remotely operated vehicles? “We’re having that conversation. It needs to be open to the public and make sense to the public,” Gosar said.

Still to be determined is who regulates this aspect of drones. Is it the FAA (whose mandate includes public safety, but not privacy rights)? Is this the domain of local police departments? Is it legal for me to shoot down my neighbor’s drone if it flies over my property? The consensus of several panel speakers at the Future Tense event was that privacy issues will probably be hashed out in the civil and criminal courts over a period of years as specific cases arise.

Drone Drivers

Determining the degree of human oversight is a safety issue, but it’s also a public support issue. People are naturally uncomfortable with a machine making the decision whether to pull the trigger on a weapon (autonomous lethality). But more benign applications must win the public’s trust as well before they can be adopted widely. Self-parking cars are on the market today, and Google tested a driverless car (with a human in the driver’s seat just in case) in Manhattan on April 2 of this year.

One driverless car running over a three-year-old could “shut down the industry” according to Missy Cummings, MIT associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and a former Navy fighter pilot. “Google cars slipped in while we were stressing over UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles], but they are more likely to hurt you,” she said. Personal air vehicles might be on the horizon, and this will bring up further safety issues.

Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, disagreed with this assessment, stating that government and industry leaders must emphasize how autonomous vehicles bring down the rate of auto accidents overall. Automated navigation takes human reaction time, emotional states, boredom, and distraction out of the equation. This will be especially important in dealing with cognitive decline as our population ages. He also noted that if your car drives itself, it doesn’t matter if its passengers can’t resist the urge to send text messages from the road. Safety and accountability are paramount when determining the necessary degree of human oversight, Toscano said.

Peeping Drones

At present, private citizens in the U.S. have more leeway to spy on each other than does the government because of regulatory restrictions, according to Daniel Rothenberg, a law professor at Arizona State University.

“Could the government do an end run around these restrictions by encouraging citizens to spy on each other?” asked ACLU staff attorney Catherine Crump. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, local authorities asked bystanders to provide cell phone photos to help identify suspects. How far could law enforcement agencies take their requests for citizens to monitor and report each other? Lawsuits will drive the development of legal guidelines and restrictions on citizen surveillance, Crump said.

Where drone surveillance differs from past incursions on personal privacy, Crump continued, is that the public is finding out about drones as the technology is rolling out. In contrast, the general public found out about the extent of personal data collection done by Google, FaceBook, and other online platforms only after their systems were fully in place and had been operational for some time.

Crump cites an “opportunity to get in on the ground level” with privacy protection regulations for drones. In the U.S., it’s typical for legislation to be implemented sector by sector, enabling the development of a drone-specific body of laws. This requires that law enforcement agencies have a specific purpose in cracking down on specific activities, and that they be able to demonstrate that such restrictions are beneficial to society overall.

Drawing the Lines

Unmanned aerial vehicles in the domestic airspace should be required to broadcast an ID signal and conform to traffic control and limitations on functionality, noted Matthew Waite, founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Fellow panelist Joseph Hall, of the Center for Democracy and Technology, cited a need to strike a balance between a chaotic patchwork of customized state and local regulations and an unworkable one-size-fits-all regime. Captain Don Roby of the Baltimore County Police Department urged engagement with communities to find out what citizens are willing to accept.

Roby predicted that as more and more businesses find application for unmanned vehicles, the price will start to come down, spurring even wider adoption. “It’s like the PC revolution,” he said. Hall cautioned that not everyone will have the skills to pilot the larger drones, which he referred to as “flying lawnmowers” because of their helicopter-like rotors.

How will regulators know where to draw the lines? Waite suggested that regulations should be relaxed somewhat before the full integration of commercial drones, in order to experiment and see how things work out. Hall proposed an open-source community of hobbyists posting their experiences and test results.

Overall, the panelists agreed that current laws cover many of the issues surrounding privacy, property rights, probable cause for persistent surveillance, and how long data may be retained. Crump and Rothenberg noted that recent court cases have tackled the limits of remote surveillance using, for example, GPS units surreptitiously affixed to a suspect’s car or heat sensors monitoring activity inside a suspect’s home. The “war on terrorism” has prompted extensive debate over the distinction between civilian law and the law of war. Drones could potentially collect information on “patterns of life” tracking people’s habits and routines 24 x 7, but the concerns this introduces has less to do with the actual drone technology than with the privacy issues arising from new surveillance capabilities.

“Technology is an equal-opportunity enabler,” write Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen in their bookThe New Digital Age. It empowers diplomats and terrorists alike. (“Turn on, log in, opt out?” by Lauren Kirchner, Columbia Journalism Review, May 1, 2013) The drone plane providing the dramatic aerial shots of your kid’s wedding could come back and peek through your bathroom window tomorrow. The main issue isn’t the technology itself, but how we choose to use it.

Don’t Drone Me, Bro

by Nancy McGuire (wordchemist.com)

Don't Drone Me, Bro

Reddit

Drones Make Enemies

sharondelgado.org

(Washington, DC) A quick news search on the word “drone” pulls up associated words including “strike”, “attack”, “secrecy”, and “protest”. Polls and surveys indicate that the word “drone” triggers an anxious response, based on military-heavy news coverage and fears of the various things that drones have come to symbolize. Often, these responses are based on factors not specific to the drones themselves government intrusion, loss of privacy, possibility of attack.

These points surfaced throughout the day during “The Drone Next Door“, a May 7, 2013, event hosted by Future Tense. Speakers and panels including journalists, legislators, academics, think tank fellows, representatives from industry and advocacy organizations, law enforcement officers, and scientific researchers discussed all things drone-related: what are they used for now, how are they likely to be used in the near future, and what does this mean for ordinary people at home and abroad.

Future Tense is a collaboration comprising Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. The small auditorium at New America Foundation’s Washington, DC office suite was packed with journalists, policy specialists, hobbyists, and other interested parties, with more people watching via webcast and C-SPAN. Pithy quotes and amusing anecdotes lit up the Twitterverse at @FutureTenseNow #FTdrones.

The May 7 event focused on unmanned aerial vehicles, what most people associate with the word “drone”. These range in size from the airplane-sized Predators to sparrow-sized helicopter toys to robotic flies (still under development). Most of these drones rely on human pilots at the far end of a physical tether or sending radio signals from a remote control station.

Will Salatan, national correspondent for Slate, opened the session with a summary of polls and surveys designed to measure public support for using drone vehicles in various situations. Unsurprisingly, the phrasing of the questions influenced the answers that people gave. More people were willing to support drone strikes abroad if they were authorized by “the U.S.” rather than “The President”, indicating discomfort with the idea of authority resting with one person. People indicated support for antiterrorism missions and military uses than for things like local law enforcement. The overall sense was that it’s OK to monitor “them” but not “us”, Salatan said. A significant number of people claimed that they would shoot down a drone flying over their property. (Unless it was delivering beer, a potential commercial application that was mentioned later in the day.)

Does having more information increase public support for using drones? If it’s a military application, the answer is yes, said Salatan. For domestic uses overall, having more information doesn’t increase support. This varies when you break it down to specific cases. People tend to view search and rescue operations, drug law enforcement, and immigration law enforcement more favorably than surveillance of suspected criminals (we might get caught in that net), and we really don’t want drones photographing our car as we speed through a school zone.

When people aren’t worrying about unmanned vehicles “raining down death out of the sky” (another phrase that popped up during the day), they stress out over Big Brother peering into their daily activities. Why do people freak out over drones more than social media or credit card companies, voracious collectors of your data? Much of this reaction has to do with the well-publicized military and CIA surveillance applications, according to law professor Daniel Rothenberg of Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies.

Commercial and government snooping make the news, but usually long after the fact. There’s a sense that you can’t do much about this type of data collection. Government spy drones are “over there”, and we don’t necessarily want them coming home. There is a sense that it’s still early enough in the game to push back against drones doing domestic surveillance.

Under current FAA rules, it’s illegal to use a drone in the United States for commercial purposes. This is slated to change in September 2015, the deadline that Congress has given the FAA to come up with a plan for integrating commercial UAVs to the domestic airspace. Some local governments have already enacted legislation restricting drone use for law enforcement purposes.

There was no consensus at the May 7 event as to how various local and state regulations would affect the FAA’s plan. The FAA’s mandate covers safety issues, not personal privacy, but it would be very difficult to treat these aspects as completely separate, several of the panelists noted. Many of the practicalities will be worked out case by case in the civil and criminal courts, the panelists agreed.

Toward the end of the day, Rothenberg summed up the current situation: “It may not be a rational debate, but at least we’re having the debate.”

More to come
Technology: How are we using unmanned vehicles now, and how will we be using them in the near future?
Hashing it all out: How will we deal with the practical effects of having more unmanned vehicles in our daily lives?

Resources
What the Drone Debate Is Really About (Daniel Rothenberg, May 6, in Slate)
The Golden Age of Privacy Is Over (Brad Allenby, April 30, in Slate)
Will Bureaucracy Keep the U.S. Drone Industry Grounded? (Martin Kaste, April 30, National Public Radio)