[Fireball image: Flickr user Schill | Artwork: BrollyFlock! by the Flux Foundation 2012]

When Meteors Streak Across The Sky, This “Fireball Coordinator” Swings Into Action

Lessons on crowdsourcing and protean job titles, with the American Meteor Society’s Robert Lunsford.

Last week, a meteor flared across the eastern United States, burning brightly enough to be classified a “fireball.” The American Meteor Society, a organization of volunteer citizen scientists, was flooded with reports of the event last Friday; within an hour, the AMS’s operations manager, software developer Mike Hankey, was coordinating with contacts at NASA, which based part of its official report on AMS data.

It’s science in the age of constant, ubiquitous connectivity. “Years ago, you wouldn’t have had this data for days at best,” says Hankey. Himself a businessman who has built many technological tools for enterprise, Hankey calls his volunteer work for the AMS the most exciting he’s ever done. He thinks there’s a business lesson in it, too: “There’s a lot of value in leveraging the data that’s out there for free,” he says. “A lot of people will do the work for you without even asking them to do it, if you give them the right tools.”

What especially caught our eye here at Fast Company about the reports on the fireball was mention of an especially curious title, belonging to another AMS volunteer: Robert Lunsford, identified as the society’s “fireball coordinator.” Lunsford, who assists Hankey with flowing data into the AMS’s databases, was kind enough to speak with us about fireballs, crowdsourcing, and the significance of his strange job title.

FAST COMPANY: Maybe I just played too much Mario Bros. as a kid, but I have a deep-seated fear of fireballs.

ROBERT LUNSFORD: A lot of reports say that people were scared. But I can assure you, meteors occur very high in the atmosphere, even though they look close. They’re many miles away. Meteors can’t be seen below five miles, since at that point they lose the velocity necessary to produce light.

So I should put my childhood fear to rest?

There’s no need to wear a helmet out at night. It wouldn’t do any good anyway.

What exactly do you do, as “fireball coordinator”?

This position didn’t exist before 2005. Back then, it was very time consuming. I’d receive reports by email, type them into Excel, then upload them to the website. I would basically copy the reports, one after another. Back then, 10 reports a day was a busy day. Now, that’d be totally impossible. That’s where Mike [Hankey, whose software has automated much of the workflow] comes in. It’s a life saver. I can wipe through hundreds of reports in less than an hour.

Reports of fireballs have gone up? That doesn’t sound encouraging.

Lots of folks think there’s more fireballs. The DoD says everything remains the same. I believe it’s due to more people knowing about the AMS report and having access to the website. Not all reports are true fireballs. People send pictures of the contrails of an aircraft and think it’s a fireball. That’s why I have to go through each one, look at the duration, and verify whether it’s a true fireball or not.

I think your job title left some people confused. “Fireball coordinator” sounds like the guy at the circus who juggles fireballs.

I’m just a guy behind the scenes that does the grunt work, to be honest. There’s nothing glorious about it.

What you coordinate is fireball reports.

Reports, exactly. If I coordinated fireballs, I’d make sure there were ones outside when it was clear.

You’ve personally seen fireballs?

Oh, I’ve seen hundreds. Of course, I know when to go out--major meteor showers. In 1998, I saw a fireball at 3 a.m., right overhead. It turned the entire sky blue, like daytime.

So why didn’t you tell Reuters that you were a fireball report coordinator?

Good question. I never thought about saying “report coordinator.” To be honest, I’m not big on titles. I have several titles: treasurer, journal editor... When you wear three hats, titles begin to lose their meaning.

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