Scanning the Internet for Ecological Early Warnings

If Google Flu Trends can, why can’t we? The possibility to mine large amounts of individual reports and local news posted on the Internet as early warning signs of pending epidemic outbreaks has been a part of global epidemic governance for quite some time. The question is; could we do the same for ecological crises? A couple of years ago, a couple of colleagues and I wrote a conceptual piece in Frontiers entitled “Can webcrawlers revolutionize ecological monitoring?” where we elaborated issue. Until today however, the idea hasn’t moved much from its conceptual phase. Luckily, analysts and GIS-experts at the USDA Forest Service, now have begun to test the concept with real world data. In a new paper entitled “Internet Map Services: New portal for global ecological monitoring, or geodata junkyard?”, Alan Ager and colleagues, present initial results from runs with a geodata webcrawler . They report:
At the USDA Forest Service’s Western Wildland Environmental Threat Assessment Center (WWETAC), we are exploring webcrawlers to facilitate wildland threat assessments. The Threat Center was established by Congress in 2005 to facilitate the development of tools and methods for the assessment of multiple interacting threats (wildfire, insects, disease, invasive species, climate change, land use change)
The Threat News Explorer (see image) visualizes some of the results.

However, they also note that
much of the online data is stored in large institutional data warehouses (Natureserve, Geodata.gov, etc.) that have their own catalog and searching systems and are not open to webcrawlers like ours.  In fact, most federal land management agencies do not allow services to their data, but allow downloading and in-house viewers (i.e. FHTET 2006). This policy does not simplify the problem of integrated threat assessments for federal land management agencies.
The group is now developing a more powerful webcrawler. You can find and search the database for geospatial data and map here. Still a long way to go it seems, but a very important first step!

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