However, the most consequential changes being fostered by digital technologies involve issues that range beyond the quantities of data generated.6 Today, researchers can access a rapidly expanding range of digital information from around the world almost instantaneously. They can use this information to analyze their results, as when biologists compare DNA sequences they have generated to sequences stored in worldwide databases. They can incorporate information from others with their own data to make discoveries that would otherwise have been impossible, as when epidemiologists combine census and economic data to analyze the prevalence of disease. They can analyze data produced by others to answer questions that could not have been anticipated by the data’s creators, as when astronomers use digital sky surveys to investigate newly recognized phenomena in distant galaxies. For some areas of science, engineering, and medical research in the digital age, carrying out laboratory experiments to corroborate or disprove hypotheses has given way to a process of hypothesis testing based on computational analysis and modeling.
The creation of inexpensive, complex sensors is contributing to the data explosion by enabling new research approaches in a variety of fields, particularly in the earth sciences. Projects such as the National Science Foundation’s Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation and National Ecological Observa-