Making Sense of Our Sensored Planet

Geography—the scientific foundation of GIS—has for many years been concerned with exploring and describing our world. Historically, explorers lead grand expeditions to the farthest reaches of the globe. This golden age of exploration contributed greatly to our understanding of how our world works.

This was followed by the space age—an era where we left the planet and turned our cameras and sensors to look back on our home, giving us an entirely new perspective. Bound to the surface of earth for millennia, humankind was getting its first opportunity to look at our planetary system as a whole—from a few hundred miles up in space.

Live Stream Data Displayed via USGS real time KML file

Exploration 2.0

While data remotely sensed from satellites continues to play an important role in monitoring and understanding our planet, “earth observation” has more recently taken on a whole new dimension thanks to deployment of an increasingly complex and pervasive network of earthbound sensors.  These sensors are practically everywhere you look—and in places you could never imagine. From stream gauges to seismographs, from weather stations to air quality monitors, from ocean buoys to even our cell phones, countless sensors are measuring and collecting important data about our planet at a rate that seemed impossible just a short time ago.

The rise of crowdsourcing applications means that every citizen becomes a sensor, empowering everyone to participate and contribute.

The rise of crowdsourcing applications means that every citizen becomes a sensor, empowering everyone to participate and contribute.

We’re collecting more information about the geography of planet earth today than ever before.  New data sources, along with the sheer volume of data being collected, are spawning a new age of exploration. But the new explorers are navigating a vast, uncharted sea of data. What do we do with all of this sensed data?  How can we make sense of the sensor web?

A Global Dashboard

Modern science and advanced technology have resulted in unprecedented access to global environmental information through the placement of countless sensors across the planet—and the linking together of this information through the Internet.  The sensor web has inundated us with data that needs to be stored, managed, analyzed, and used to inform better decisions about our many social and environmental challenges.  Integrating and synthesizing all of this disparate sensor data into a single, comprehensive view—a global dashboard—is our next great opportunity for exploring our world.

GIS enables real time integration of sensors from multiple sources, using maps as a means to help us understand our world.

GIS enables real time integration of sensors from multiple sources, using maps as a means to help us understand our world.

A global dashboard is a decision support tool that helps monitor current conditions, identify change, and drive informed action. It enables exploration at scales from local to global.  It allows people to visualize large, complex spatial data sets in the context of their neighborhood, their street, and their house.  The ability to explore a world of data from a personal perspective is a very powerful idea.

The New Explorers

We live in a world full of sensors.  Thanks to the rich information flow they provide, and the availability of new mapping tools to display and analyze this information in context, now everyone can be an explorer. This has far-reaching benefits to both society and the environment, ushering in a new era of understanding and leading us towards more informed, equitable, and sustainable action.

Matt Artz

About Matt Artz

Matt Artz joined Esri in 1989. In his current role as GIS and Science Manager, he helps communicate the value of GIS as a tool for scientific research and understanding. He writes extensively about geospatial technologies, manages the GIS and Science blog, and is the editor of Prior to joining Esri he worked as an Environmental Scientist at a large science and engineering consulting company, on such diverse projects as highway noise modeling, archaeological impact assessment, and chemical weapons disposal. His educational background includes an M.S. degree in Environmental Policy and Planning and a B.S. degree in Anthropology and Geography.
This entry was posted in Vision and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply


  1. azolnai says:

    Hi Matt you have a gift for words. Perhaps it comes from living in the Middle East or growing up a Hungarian refugee, but I’d make it double sure there is no “double entendre” in the word ‘sensored’. I know what you mean and perhaps this audience does. But in days of Wikileaks and all that, I’d worry if it were misread as ‘censored’. Cambridge University did a study, whereby we only register a fraction of what we read (first and last letters) and fill in most of the rest.

  2. Michipoo says:

    It is true what azolnai says. My brain read the word as ‘censored’.

  3. lachezarhf says:

    Of course one can read the first and the last letter in order to complete the word. Without being a native American nor fluent in English, I do feel that the information is more important than the letter itself. Moreover, the reaction to the blogpost, gives me the feeling of censorship more than the word ‘sensored’ itself.