Seaside vista on Titan

I’m a little behind in my reading of Nature News, so I only just read this article from mid-January: Amateurs beat space agencies to Titan pictures.

A group of enthusiastic amateurs managed to process raw images of Titan from the Huygens probe faster that any of the giant space agencies in charge of the mission.

This is remarkably timely, since just a couple of days ago I read chapter 3 of Dan Gillmor‘s We The Media, in which he discusses hacking – which he defines “in its most benevolent sense” as essentially product tinkering – and hackers who do more product testing than businesses do, or at least more than they make public. Gillmor argues that

…businesses should encourage some level of hacker behavior, not shun it. …companies should be doing everything they can to support and encourage the “lead users” … to find flaws in products and improve them. Just as journalists should not be threatened by a more knowledgeable audience, companies should not be threatened by smart customers who care enough to make products better. When your customers offer their expert assistance, the smart move is to say Thanks.

Now, the “company” here is NASA, and the product is photos of Titan taken by Huygens, so this metaphor will only take us so far. But it seems to me that NASA got this absolutely right and totally vindicated Gillmor’s point: NASA released the raw images from Huygens right away, and as a result got more and better image processing than they could do themselves. Openness led to more and cooler science.