For a sense of where public outreach in science is headed, go to OBIS-SEAMAP — where “Marine mammal, seabird and sea turtle data are being organized into a spatially referenced database.”
Once there, you can search a wealth of tracking and sighting data about these animals. Click on any dataset — say, the Dolphin Project — and you are taken to a page where the spatial data can be viewed and downloaded. There might be an ESRI Shapefile aimed at researchers, but the data is also available as KML, ready for viewing in Google Earth.
This puts interested civilians on par with researchers when it comes to accessing the data, and that’s a wonderful thing. What we get is not dumbed down, and there is no patronizing — instead, there is a recognition that the best way to spur on the next generation of scientists is to give them a sense that they have the same access to quality data as the researchers.
OBIS-SEAMAP is not the only project of this kind that endeavors to just dump the data and see what the public does with it — A whale shark was tracked live last summer, and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility exposes its database to Google Earth as well. I hope this amounts to the leading edge of a trend, one that shows off scientists as open, collaborative people, deserving of public support.