A tech startup Enigma Labs wants to turn UFO sightings into data science.
Before, people who saw strange lights around the sky could do nothing but tell their friends or call the intelligence agencies. Soon, anyone with a smartphone will be able to use the app to report an unexplained incident.
Enigma Labs’ Mobile app was released today, initially on an invite-only basis 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 features later. Not only will the company collect new data — it has collected data on nearly 300,000 global observations over the past century and incorporated them into their system — and while their dataset will be available to the public, their algorithms for evaluating it will not. .
“At our core, we’re a data science company. We’re building the first data and community platform dedicated exclusively to the study of anomalous phenomena,” says Mark Douglas, chief operating officer of the New York-based company.
Part of their goal is to reduce the stigma of reporting something vaguely—even if the viewer doesn’t think it’s actually being visited by aliens. (For the record, some government agencies and companies like Enigma Labs now use the term UAPs instead of UFOs: unidentified flying objects rather than unidentified flying objects. The change is intended to cover a wider range of objects that may not have an extraterrestrial origin, and to make the terminology less offensive. .)
Identifying an unknown and distant object or explaining a never-before-seen phenomenon is a unique challenge. Still, the app asks users structured questions, such as when and where the user saw something in the sky, and what the shape of the object was. It gives them space to tell their visual story and provide additional details, and they can upload photos or videos. It’s a bit like citizen science projects in which volunteers help classify telescope images of galaxies, but in this case the images are submitted by volunteers and most of the classification is done by algorithms.
The company wants to do more than ingest a lot of data: They want to apply their proprietary models to rule out things that UAPs don’t, such as by determining whether lightning or an unclassified aircraft is nearby. And they also want to filter the reliability of the data sources, saying, “There’s a difference between highly reliable military pilots, trained observers confirmed by multiple sensors, and then at the opposite end of the spectrum … a single witness who probably had too many drinks. And saw a point of light in the sky,” Douglas says.
“The key issue for studying this has been the data problem: ‘What is reliable, what is not, who is reliable, who is not?'” he argues. “What we’re trying to do is bring a level of standardization and rigor to it.”
Of course, the challenge is to apply scientific standardization to anything that may not be scientific. Eyewitness testimony is 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’re getting is socially constructed,” says University of Pennsylvania historian Kate Dorsch, who specializes in scientific knowledge production.
UFO sightings began as an American obsession after World War II and the Roswell incident in 1947, when people in New Mexico discovered mysterious debris that may (or may not) have come from a crashed military balloon. Sightings quickly spread to most parts of the world, Dorsch says, and interest in Roswell, as well as the early space programs of the US and USSR, may have encouraged people to think of the lights in the sky as alien technology. But, she 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 where you live matters too. Today, she says, when Germans see strange phenomena, they often attribute it to Russian and American-made craft. “When you’re looking for something in particular, you’ll see it,” she says.
Government agencies are always interested in reports of UFOs for national security reasons, as sightings of flying saucers may actually be sightings of adversary stealth aircraft. (Or, if the craft was actually the nation’s own classified project, a description of the scene might reveal what it looked like to others.)