Using the internet to provide early warning of ecological change

It all started with a discussion I had with Resilience Alliance member France Westley a couple of years ago about early warning and response challenges related to epidemic emergencies. Frances recommended I have a look at a lecture by Google’s Larry Brilliant.  A great lecture, and it triggered some new thinking. Maybe there are smart ways to tap into the noise of the Internet, and find early warnings of pending ecological crises? This lead to a first meeting with colleagues at Stockholm University, where we tried to explore the issue. Some were very positive, others very skeptic. The first group moved on with the idea, which is just about to be published in an article Can Webcrawlers revolutionize ecological monitoring in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (doi:10.1890/070204).  See also this press release from Stockholm Resilience Centre and an article in Wired.

worldwhiteSo, here is the key message: Sure there is a lot of junk on the Web (just Google for ”Britney Spears” and ”war Darfur”, and compare the number of hits). And people are certainly using emerging social media and Web 2.0 applications – such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr – in ways that seem quite useless from a resilience perspective. But if you look at how the health community is exploring this topic, you are likely to end up much more optimistic. Information and communication technology (ICT) innovations such as GPHIN , Google Flu , and ProMed , has had a tremendous impact on the speed and amount of information that epidemic intelligence can tap into. And nowadays, around 60% of all early warnings of emerging epidemic emergencies that reach the WHO come from these ICT tools. Not bad compared to the failure of conventional epidemic monitoring systems that were based on official data from governments that preferred to keep things to themselves. And that always reported events only after they had escalated out of control.

I’m pretty sure there is a revolution in the pipeline for ecological monitoring if we are smart enough to tap into emerging ICT innovations. Feel free to agree, or disagree by posting your comments on our discussion site.

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