Have you spotted a UFO? There is an app for that
The technology startup Enigma Labs wants to turn UFO sightings into data science.
In the past, people who saw strange lights racing across the sky couldn’t help but tell their friends – or call the secret services. Soon, anyone with a smartphone will be able to use an app to report the unexplained event.
The Enigma Labs mobile app was released today, initially by invitation only while they work out the bugs, though they plan to make it available to the wider public. For now, it will be free to download and use, although the company may charge for additional services later. The company won’t just be collecting new data—it’s already gobbled up data from some 300,000 global observations over the past century and incorporated it into its system—and while their dataset will be available to the public, their algorithms for evaluating it will not. .
“We are essentially a data science company. We are building the first data and community platform dedicated solely to the study of unidentified anomalous phenomena,” says Mark Douglas, COO of the New York-based company.
Part of their goal is to de-stigmatize the meaning of the unexplained—even if the viewer doesn’t actually think they’re visiting aliens. (Some government agencies and companies, such as Enigma Labs, use the term UAP instead of UFOs: Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena, Unidentified Flying Objects. The change is intended to cover a wide range of objects that cannot be of extraterrestrial origin. , and to make the terminology sound less pejorative.)
Identifying an unknown and distant object or explaining a phenomenon never seen before is a unique challenge. Still, the app asks users structured questions, such as when and where the user saw something in the sky and the approximate shape of the object. It also gives them space to tell the story of their sighting and provide additional details, as well as upload a photo or video. It’s a bit like citizen science projects where volunteers help classify telescope images of galaxies, but in this case the images are submitted by volunteers and an algorithm does most of the grading.
But the company wants to do more than just a lot of data: They want to use their proprietary models to rule out things that aren’t UAPs, such as determining whether lightning strikes or unclassified aircraft are nearby. They also want to filter the credibility of the data sources, distinguishing between “highly credible military pilots, trained observers, observers supported by multiple sensors, and then at the other end of the spectrum … a single witness who may have had a few drinks too many. and saw a point of light in the sky, says Douglas.
“The basic question in studying this was a data problem: ‘What’s authentic, what’s not, who’s authentic and who’s not?’ he argues. “What we’re trying to do is bring a level of standardization and rigor to it.”
Of course, the challenge will be applying scientific standardization to something that may not be scientific at all. Eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable, and people interpret what they see based on factors such as current events and their scientific, political, and cultural backgrounds. “The data you get is socially constructed,” says Kate Dorsch, a University of Pennsylvania historian who specializes in the production of scientific knowledge.
UFO sightings began as an American obsession following World War II and the 1947 Roswell Incident, when people found mysterious debris in New Mexico that may (or may not) have come from a downed military balloon. According to Dorsch, the sightings quickly spread throughout much of the world, and interest in Roswell and the nascent space programs of the United States and the Soviet Union encouraged people to view the skylights as alien technology. But, he continues, there were fewer UFO sightings after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957—when people saw something strange in the sky, they chalked it up to a man-made spacecraft. And the geopolitics of where you live matters too. He says that when Germans witness strange phenomena these days, they often attribute them to Russian and American craft. “If you’re looking for something specific, you’ll see it,” he says.
Government agencies have always been interested in UFO reports for national security reasons, as sightings of flying saucers may actually be sightings of a rival’s secret aircraft. (Or if the craft was actually the nation’s own secret project, describing the sighting might reveal how it appeared to others.)