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Spotted a UFO? There’s an app for that

Enigma Labs’ mobile app was released today, initially by invitation only as they work out bugs, though they have plans to make it available to the wider public. For now, it will be free to download and use, though the company may later charge for additional features. The company won’t just amass new data: It’s already absorbed data on some 300,000 global sightings over the past century and included it in its own system, and while their dataset will be publicly available, their algorithms for evaluating it won’t. they will.

“At heart, we are a data science company. We are building the first community and data platform dedicated solely to the study of unidentified anomalous phenomena,” says Mark Douglas, chief operating officer of the New York-based firm.

Part of their goal is to reduce the stigma of reporting something unexplainable, even if the viewer doesn’t actually think they’re visiting aliens. (For the record, some government agencies and companies like Enigma Labs now use the term UAP instead of UFO: unidentified anomalous phenomena, rather than unidentified flying objects. The change is intended to encompass a broad range of objects that may not have an extraterrestrial origin, and to make the terminology less pejorative.)

Identifying an unknown and distant object or explaining a never-before-seen phenomenon presents a unique challenge. However, the app asks users structured questions, such as when and where in the sky the user saw something and roughly what shape the object was. It also gives them space to tell their sighting story and provide more details, and they can upload a photo or video. It’s kind of like citizen science projects where volunteers help classify telescope images of galaxiesbut in this case the images are submitted by volunteers and most of the classification is done by an algorithm.

The company wants to do more than just ingest a lot of data: it wants to apply its own proprietary models to exclude things that aren’t UAP, such as determining if there’s lightning or unclassified aircraft nearby. And they want to filter the credibility of data sources as well, distinguishing between “highly credible military pilots, trained observers with confirmation from multiple sensors, and then at the opposite end of the spectrum… a single witness who perhaps had a few too many drinks and I saw a point of light in a sky,” Douglas says.

“The central problem in studying this has been a data problem: ‘What is credible, what is not, who is credible, who is not?’” he argues. “What we’re trying to do is bring a level of standardization and rigor to that.”

Of course, the challenge will be applying scientific standardization to something that may not be scientific at all. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliableand 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 University of Pennsylvania historian Kate Dorsch, who specializes in producing scientific knowledge.

UFO sightings started as an American obsession after WWII and the Roswell crash in 1947, when people in New Mexico found mysterious debris that may (or may not) have come from a crashed military balloon. The sightings quickly spread across much of the world, Dorsch says, and interest in Roswell, as well as the nascent US and USSR space programs, may have encouraged people to think of the lights in the sky as a technology. alien. But, he continues, there have been fewer UFO sightings since the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957: When people saw something strange in the sky, they thought it was man-made spacecraft. And the geopolitics of where you live also matter. Today, he says, when Germans witness strange phenomena, they often attribute it to Russian- and American-made boats. “When you’re looking for something in particular, this is what you’ll see,” he says.

Government agencies have always been interested in UFO reports for national security reasons, since flying saucer sightings could actually be sightings of a rival’s secret aircraft. (Or, if the aircraft was in fact the nation’s classified project, the descriptions of the sighting could reveal what it looks like to others.)

Agencies within the US government have expressed renewed interest in UAPs in recent years. The The Pentagon has released a report in June 2021 by evaluating 144 incidents witnessed by military pilots dating back to 2004, only one of which investigators could fully explain. Last May, the House of Representatives held a hearing on UAPs, in which government and defense officials spoke about the report and the national security and aviation safety issues it raises. Last year, the Department of Defense also formed a new organization, the Office for the resolution of anomalies in all domains, to coordinate efforts to “detect, identify and attribute objects of interest” near military areas. I am already get UFO reports.

And in October, NASA announced a nine-month independent study to understand how data from government and commercial groups could be used to shed light on UAPs and what the agency could do in the future to analyze sighting data. (A NASA spokesperson declined an interview, but said the agency will have an update on the study this spring.)

Enigma Labs is also not the only private UFO-related effort. The To the Stars Academy of Arts & Science, cofounded by Blink-182 guitarist Tom DeLonge, employs scientists and former government employees to bring UFO research, sometimes called ufology, into the mainstream.

Dorsch says that regardless of who is collecting the data, he hopes these groups are interacting with users transparently and in good faith, not exploiting their data for financial gain or making people feel disrespected. “I think the overwhelming number of people who have seen a UFO have had an experience they can’t explain,” she says. “The UFO community deserves to be taken seriously.”