National Geographic Society Newsroom

Can We See the Invisible, Together?

About three years ago, I was staring at a monitor wall of 2 million crowdsourced “clues” to identify archaeological tombs in Mongolia when three people in black suits walked up and stopped in their tracks.  Two of them were from the Department of Defense, and the third was a gruff young doctor named Eliah Spencer...

About three years ago, I was staring at a monitor wall of 2 million crowdsourced “clues” to identify archaeological tombs in Mongolia when three people in black suits walked up and stopped in their tracks.  Two of them were from the Department of Defense, and the third was a gruff young doctor named Eliah Spencer (M.D. & PH.D.) from the infectious disease department of UC San Diego’s School of Medicine.  Looking back now, this is the exact moment that the Oasis Project was born.

Screen Shot 2014-01-13 at 5.20.48 PM
Crowdsourced satellite analytics data (left – photo credit Alex Matthews) and field confirmation (right – photo credit Ben Horton) of archaeological sites across the Mongolian Steppe, the Valley of the Khans Project.


As they walked by this wall of technicolor data, Eliah exclaimed, “this is exactly what I am talking about!”

What he was seeing was lots (millions) of independent annotations on a satellite image of the earth, collectively identifying features on the ground as if they were trends.  Online volunteers had actually mapped many thousands of miles remote Outer Mongolia for dirt roads, rivers, and potential archaeological anomalies that I had the honor of ground truthing on horseback over the course of three summers.

I explained that these were crowdsourced annotations made by over 20,000 public online volunteers, at which point Eliah practically started convulsing with excitement.

Screen Shot 2014-01-13 at 5.00.50 PM
Andrew Huynh, Lead Data Scientist, visualizing data using software developed at the Distributed Health Labs, photo credit: Wes Vetter

“Health is geospatial” he said. “If we can see trends spatially, we can start to ‘see’ health.”

Soon our conversations sprawled out in many directions, tumbling through concepts like citizen sensing, crowdsourcing, mobile health, and the slew of things that we could actually “see” if people were empowered and mobilized to begin collecting and sharing data (areas affected by water pollution, for example).

We talked about the idea a “living map”, where citizen-sensing could create real-time knowledge about the status of things on the ground.  It turns out this is partly how Google traffic maps work.  The individual action of looking up one’s location is simultaneously providing a point of data (position, speed, and vector) that, when combined with the unknowing contributions of other GPS users, can provide a very useful assessment of the traffic flow for that road, to be used by those users  It’s a “digital mutualism.”  If we could create this kind of perpetual knowledge-sharing ecosystem for things like public health and pollution, we could see and solve real problems as never before.

To cultivate this kind of ecosystem we need three things: 1) Ubiquitous (and therefore low-cost) technology that can sense indicators of health and pollution; 2) sensors that are connected through cell phones or other networks; and 3) figuring out the “digital mutualism” incentives that would drive people to use such a system.

That day we decided to try to create such an ecosystem, and the Distributed Health Labs was born.  Our idea was to build the technology stack that would enable a human-powered sensor network for problems that really matter, like tracking pollution or infectious diseases.

Oasis “living map” concept illustration, courtesy of @DHlab
Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 2.15.49 PM
DH Lab member Beke Chuluun demonstrating how OASIS will be used in the field, photo credit: Ben Wong

One of our first targets is water, the substance upon which all life on this planet depends.  From fracking to mining, our use of land has transformed our water systems. The biggest problem is that much of this is invisible. There is no smoke alarm for water pollution.  But what if we could empower indigenous communities to become the citizen sensors to map pollutants as they appear?  Our thought was that by “seeing” the problem, communities could start to deal with the problems.  This was how the OASIS Project was created: an effort to get low-cost, connected water sensors into the hands of global citizens around the world.

This same sensor technology stack, built upon the concept of connected networks, could be augmented to measure vital health metrics, so that people could start to see their health in a similar way.

Dr. Sanjay Mehta MD, checking the vital signs of a young patient, photo credit: Ben Wong

It goes back to what Eliah said that day: “Health is geospatial, if we can see trends spatially, we can start to ‘see’ health.”  And to us, health is both medical and environmental.

Three years later, and with a motley team of hackers, makers, doctors, and explorers, we have actually built the physical sensors and technical infrastructure to make this possible.

Screen Shot 2014-01-13 at 5.00.39 PM
Project co-Directors Eliah Spencer, MD, Ph.D. and Albert Lin, Ph.D., showing off the latest prototype, photo credit: Alex Matthews

We have built the first prototypes of what could become a “Tricorder for the Globe”, a citizen sensing network to see and tackle some of our biggest challenges, together… and it’s all open source. Now all we need are the people to bring this network to life. The OASIS project is now looking for people like YOU to join, and support the sensor network by becoming part of it yourself.  Visit our project on Indiegogo to learn more and see how you can join!






About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Albert Yu-Min Lin
Albert Lin is a Research Scientist at UC San Diego and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. He has dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge at the boundary of science, technology, and exploration. He leads an international effort known as the Valley of the Khans Project and heads a group he calls the "Exploration Laboratory . Here he develops new methods to push the boundaries of non-invasive exploration including, unmanned drone technology, advanced geophysics and National Geographic's first citizen science effort: ( Albert is an avid rock climber, surfer, mountaineer, photographer, sailor, and traveler.