Magnetic Fields, Data Collection, and You(r dog)

Assignment 1: Read the following abstract for a scientific paper.

Dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s magnetic field

Not too bad, right? Now read this more palatable explanation of what this really means:
Dogs align their bodies along a North-South axis….

Finally, here’s a composite image I’ve put together:
Screen Shot 2014-02-16 at 8.09.41 AM

For all of these, the top of the phone was facing the same direction as my dog’s nose during the act. These were all in different locations in the same yard, so it was clear to me that he wasn’t just finding the same spot every time. It took copious treats and showing my dog the photos to convince him that I was not taking a picture of him while he did his business.

It’s possible to get over the social peculiarity of remembering to pull out your phone, start the compass application, and take a screenshot whenever your dog pops a squat. To me, this seems like a ripe opportunity for a student project in statistics and data analysis. Furthermore, the potential for doing this now (compared to just a few years ago) is better than ever. Why?

  1. There are lots of dogs around, because dogs are awesome. They all have to unload at some point in the day. That makes for a large potential sample set of data to work with.
  2. It’s all about number two, which is (of course) hilarious and engaging to all of us. I chuckled first when I read the headline of this story, and then a second time when I realized that scientists observed 1,893 defecation events and then sorted them according to magnetic field activity. I propose that this paper might include the term ‘defecation events’ more frequently than any other academic paper, and for that reason alone, it is special.
  3. Now more than ever, we have these great devices in our pockets that are not just capable of capturing such screenshots easily, but combine other useful information that might be important factors for students to consider. Time, date, geotagging information for location – all useful things students might choose to analyze in seeing if the results of this study are repeatable.
  4. Crowdsourcing. I took eight of these pictures, my wife took a few more. Imagine the potential of getting a photo stream of defecation event data for students to analyze from dogs around the world. Wolfram Alpha pegs the number of dogs in the US at 78.2 million.

Here’s what I propose. If you’re into this, take some data on the next outing with your dog. Some suggestions to maintain data integrity:

  • Stand behind the test subject and align the phone so that the top of your phone points in the direction your dog is looking while he/she concentrates on the task at hand.
  • Make sure your compass is calibrated when you take data.
  • Snap a screenshot of the compass screen. On iOS, hold the Home and Power buttons simultaneously, then release the power button. I found out from Lifehacker that in Android 4, you just hold down the power and volume-down buttons.
  • Now’s the time to take a big (data) dump – upload those screenshots to Flickr, Instagram, etc. with the hashtag #DogsPoopNorth .

I don’t teach statistics, but I’d love to see a class take a chunk of data and show that there is signal in the noise. The original researchers clearly showed this, but it’s a great experience to have students do their own analysis work and come to their own conclusion about whether dogs have this unique ability or not.

Get to work, interwebs. I’m really interested to see what comes out.