Tag Archives: internet

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!

Information and communication technologies in the Anthropocene

UPDATED: Slides from the talks at the end of this blogpost

The use of social media for political mobilization during the political uprisings in Northern Africa and the Middle East during 2010 and 2011; digital coordination of climate skeptic networks during “Climategate” in 2010; and the repercussions of hackers in carbon markets the last years. These are all examples of intriguing phenomena that take place at the interface between rapid information technological change, and the emergence of globally spanning virtual networks.

Exactly how information and communication technologies affect the behavior of actors at multiple scales, is of course widely debated. The question is: how do we make sense of these changes, from a wider resilience perspective?

Some of these discussions took place at the 2011 Resilience conference in Arizona in a panel convened by us at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and with generous support from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC, Canada). Ola Tjornbo from Social Innovation Generation (SIG) at the University of Waterloo, explored some of the opportunites, but also profound challenges, related in trying to design effective virtual deliberation processes. Ola noted that while several success stories related to crowd-sourcing (Wikipedia) and collective intelligence (e.g. Polymath) do exist, we have surprisingly little systematic knowledge of how to design digital decision-making processes that help overcome conflicts of interest related to issues of sustainability. Some if these issues are elaborated by SiG, and you can find videos from an interesting panel on “Open Source Democracy” here.

Richard Taylor from SEI-Oxford presented a rapidly evolving platform for integration and dissemination of knowledge on climate adaptation – weADAPT. This platform combines the strengths of a growing community of climate adaptation experts, a database of ongoing local climate adaptation projects, semantic web technologies, and a Google Earth interface. The visualizations are stunning, and provide and interesting example of how ICTs can be used for scientific communication.

Angelica Ospina from the Centre of Development Informatics at the University of Manchester, showcased some ongoing work on mobile technologies and climate adaptation resilience. As Ospina noted, ICTs can provide some very tangible support for various features of resilience, ranging from self-organization, to learning and flexibility. You can find a working paper  by Angelica here.

To summarize: three very different yet complementary perspectives on how ICTs could be harnessed in the Anthropocene: by building new types of virtually supported decision making and collective intelligence processes; linking expert communities and local natural resource management experimentation together; and by exploring the resilience building strengths of decentralized mobile technologies.

Slides from the talks

Victor Galaz (intro)

Ola Tjornbo

Richard Taylor

briefly noted: disruptive technological change

1) The Atlantic on the Digital Underground of North Korea

2) New York Times Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software about innovations in AI that allow textual analysis of large sets of documents. The article discusses two approaches it terms “linguistic” and “sociological.”:

The most basic linguistic approach uses specific search words to find and sort relevant documents. More advanced programs filter documents through a large web of word and phrase definitions. A user who types “dog” will also find documents that mention “man’s best friend” and even the notion of a “walk.”
The sociological approach adds an inferential layer of analysis, mimicking the deductive powers of a human Sherlock Holmes. Engineers and linguists at Cataphora, an information-sifting company based in Silicon Valley, have their software mine documents for the activities and interactions of people — who did what when, and who talks to whom. The software seeks to visualize chains of events. It identifies discussions that might have taken place across e-mail, instant messages and telephone calls.
Then the computer pounces, so to speak, capturing “digital anomalies” that white-collar criminals often create in trying to hide their activities.

3) An interactive example on game theoretic AI that plays rock paper scissors quite well.

4) New Yorker’s Letter from China interviews Rebecca MacKinnon on Internet in China – censorship, the state, the public, and corporations.

Google Flu á la Sweden

The fact that the spread of flu could be predicted by tapping into searches on Google, gained much attention during 20098-9. (See however here). The idea to tap into web searches to find early warnings of disease outbreaks seems to be spreading, this time however, applied on something that Swedes know far too well: the extremely infectious norovirus. The virus is known to give nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.

A research team at the Swedish Institute for Infectious Disease Control, recently published data showing that queries for *vomit* (asterisks denote any prefix or suffix) submitted to the search engine on a medical website in Sweden (www.vardguiden.se), match the number of laboratory-verified cases almost perfectly (see figure).

Figure. Number of queries for *vomit* submitted to a medical Web site (blue), number of laboratory-verified norovirus samples (red), with baselines and 99% prediction intervals, and number of media articles about winter vomiting disease (black) in Sweden, 2005–2010. From: Hulth A, Andersson Y, Hedlund K-O, Andersson M. Eye-opening approach to norovirus surveillance [letter]. Emerg Infect Dis. 2010 Aug: http://www.cdc.gov/EID/content/16/8/1319.htm

The original article in Emerging Infectious Diseases can be found here.

Roving Bandits 2.0


Red or precious coral Corallium rubrum, A proposal the regulate the trade, especially on the internet in this species was defeated at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Photograph: Giovanni Marola/AFP/Getty Images

As a brief follow up to my previous post on Cyber-environmental politics, the Guardian and Techradar.com, both report on how the evolution of the Internet speeds up the extinction of endangered species, pretty much the same phenomena explored by Fikret Berkes and colleagues in Science in 2006 denoted “Roving Bandits”. The Guardian reports:

The internet has emerged as one of the greatest threats to rare species, fuelling the illegal wildlife trade and making it easier to buy everything from live lion cubs to wine made from tiger bones, conservationists said today.

The internet’s impact was made clear at the meeting of the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

Delegates voted overwhelmingly today to ban the trade of the Kaiser’s spotted newt, which the World Wildlife Fund says has been devastated by internet trade.

A proposal from the US and Sweden to regulate the trade in red coral – which is crafted into expensive jewellery and sold extensively on the web – was defeated. Delegates voted the idea down mostly over concerns that increased regulations might damage poor fishing communities.

Trade on the internet poses one of the biggest challenges facing Cites, said Paul Todd, a campaign manager for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

“The internet is becoming the dominant factor overall in the global trade in protected species,” he said. “There will come a time when country to country trade of large shipments between big buyers and big sellers in different countries is a thing of the past.”

Cyber-Environmental Politics?


Google and renewable energy? Hackers, deforestation and carbon emission rights? This might sound like an odd mix of events, but something is definitely in pipeline. Global environmental change and rapid information technological change have for a long time been viewed as parallel, and decoupled global phenomena. A number of events in the last month indicate that this is likely to change. Just consider the following events:

GoodMorning! Full Render #2 from blprnt on Vimeo.

Internet giant Google recently got an approval in the US, to buy and sell energy. This happens after the company’s explicit ambition to become one of the major players in renewable energy. According to the New York Times: “The company’s Green Energy Czar Bill Weihl said the company was fully committed to accelerating the development of renewable energy technologies that can prove more cost-effective than coal power, as a means of both curbing carbon emissions and trimming its own giant energy bill”.

In addition, computer hackers seem to have found a new pool of resources to steal from – emissions trading. As reported by Wired recently, hackers have been successful in stealing millions of dollars by launching “a targeted phishing attack against employees of numerous companies in Europe, New Zealand and Japan, which appeared to come from the German Emissions Trading Authority”. A similar attack was assumed in Brazil in December 2008 when hackers managed to get in to the government logging databases. The impacts? Illegal harvest of 1.7 million cubic meters of timber, according to Wired.

One final example is of course the ongoing bashing of the IPCC, and the now infamous e-mail hack of UK climate scientists. An interesting follow up is this op-ed in The Australian, arguing that the Internet is allowing climate change skeptics to gain traction. One of the more thought-provoking quotes from the article states:

The `climate consensus’ may hold the establishment — the universities, the media, big business, government — but it is losing the jungles of the web. After all, getting research grants, doing pieces to camera and advising boards takes time. The very ostracism the sceptics suffered has left them free to do their digging untroubled by grant applications and invitations to Stockholm.

See also John Bruno of climateshifts.org, who asks “Who is orchestrating the cyber-bullying?”.

Are moving into an era of cyber-environmental politics? I’m pretty sure that we are.

Digital Democracy or Increasing Returns?

Thomas Slee reviews The Myth of Digital Democracy by ASU political scientist Matthew Hindman.  Slee is the author of the popular economics book No One Makes You Shop at Walmart, which shows how game theory and increasing returns can eliminate much of the choice that some argue is found in markets.  Hindman finds that the internet can amplify similar dynamics in politics.

The last sentence of Matthew Hindman’s The Myth of Digital Democracy is “It may be easier to speak in cyberspace, but it remains difficult to be heard”. The book is about collecting and analyzing the following large data sets on the way to this conclusion:

  • The links among 3 million American political web pages together with data showing how Google leads its users to political sites. Hindman concludes that “link structure is an effective proxy for audience share” and that “communities of Web sites on different political topics are each dominated by a small set of highly successful sites”. The scale of online concentration is so profound, he argues, that claims the Internet “democratizes” politics are misleading. For example, when it comes to blogs, “the top blogs are now the most widely read sources of political commentary in the United States”, but these widely-read bloggers are very few in number (a few dozen) and they are “overwhelmingly.. well-educated white male professionals”. The kind of voices that get heard in political discussion are the same kind that were heard through offline media, only perhaps more so. “The vigorous online debate that blogs provide may be, on balance, a good thing for US democracy. But as many continue to celebrate the democratic nature of blogs, it is important to acknowledge that many voices are left out.”
  • Data from Hitwise of search-engine-directed traffic show that online politics is a tiny sliver of Internet traffic, and that “Scholars, public officials, and journalists have paid a great deal of attention to online politics. Citizens themselves, though, have directed their attention elsewhere.” Not too surprising perhaps.
  • Data from Hitwise and other sources, of patterns of concentration in [American] online and traditional news media. He concludes that online media is much more concentrated (a few outlets get a larger share of the traffic) than many offline industries, particularly radio. The biggest story is what he calls “the missing middle”:

From the beginning, the Internet has been portrayed as a media Robin Hood – robbing audience from the big print and broadcast outlets and giving it to the little guys. But the data in this chapter suggest that audiences are moving in both directions. On the one hand, the news market in cyberspace seems even more concentrated on the top ten or twenty outlets than print media is. On the other, the tiniest outlets have indeed earned a substantial portion of the total eyeballs… It is the middle-class outlets that have seen relative decline in the online world. Moreover, it is overwhelmingly smaller, local media organizations that have lost out to national sources. [p100]

It is a refreshing change to read a book about the cultural and political impact of the Internet that actually looks closely at Internet traffic (what people read) rather than at the number of sites (what people write), and it’s this perspective that leads Hindman to his myth-busting conclusions. The main flaw of the book is that it falls between two stools: it’s clearly an academic work that started as a set of papers or a thesis, but it is looking for a wider, popular audience. To reach that audience, Hindman should have got rid of many technical details and written a book with more narrative, but if you don’t mind reading technical studies, this is a good one, and I recommend it.

The book was also reviewed in Nature:

Most of Hindman’s book is directed towards the second, more significant, question of whether digital technologies change the balance of powerful political voices. There is much interest in whether the Internet can empower groups, such as younger people, who are seen as disengaged from the traditional political process. Hindman’s answer is in line with the ‘myth’ of his book title: political voices remain heavily filtered and concentrated on the Internet.

Using data from automated tools that analyse links between websites, Hindman demonstrates that search engines have a powerful effect in concentrating the sites that people visit to find political information. This is because a small number of sites consistently rise to the top of search lists because they have many links from other sites, and incoming links are used to assign priority by search algorithms. Political influence will be strongest in this handful of heavily linked websites, many of which belong to traditional media organizations. These will therefore continue to be of most interest to politicians.

…Political parties everywhere have great interest in digital campaigns, especially on the back of Obama’s success; it is now recognized that online activity has moved from an optional extra to an essential element of campaigning. These campaigns may bring different supporters, donors and activists into the political process. We would be right, however, to follow the considered approach of this book in not assuming that enhanced automation of campaigns will effect significant changes in political power. Based on current evidence, any claims that we are reaching a digitally powered democratic Utopia are indeed more myth than reality.

Using Google to predict the present

Google’s Chief Economist Hal Varian and Hyunyoung Choi write on Google’s research blog about using google search queries, such as Google Trends and Google Insights for Search,  to estimate economic activity in Predicting the Present with Google Trends:

Our work to date is summarized in a paper called Predicting the Present with Google Trends. We find that Google Trends data can help improve forecasts of the current level of activity for a number of different economic time series, including automobile sales, home sales, retail sales, and travel behavior.

Even predicting the present is useful, since it may help identify “turning points” in economic time series. If people start doing significantly more searches for “Real Estate Agents” in a certain location, it is tempting to think that house sales might increase in that area in the near future.


Ecology and Wikipedia pt 2

To follow up on my post Wikipedia and ecology, the ESA blog EcoTone has posted an interview with the authors of the recent TREE paper on wikipedia (DOI:10.1016/j.tree.2009.01.003):

Why don’t you think more scientists contribute to Wikipedia?

EB: I know exactly why they don’t contribute. It’s because they don’t get any credit for it. We get credit for certain things to get promoted in science, and writing Wikipedia entries isn’t one of them. We work on an incentive system, and the incentive isn’t there.

Touché. What are some incentives that could be added?

EB: At a university, the ways to get credit would enhance your publication record, enhance your teaching program, and — if you’re at a land-grant university — enhance your extension program. Incorporating revision of Wikipedia entries into classes is a really creative way to get these entries revised. Students are on the cutting edge in terms of knowledge of the literature and they can further practice their writing by editing entries. Assigning them as projects hits all those goals we have as teachers: writing, critical thinking, and revisions of the literature. And it also gets that quality of thinking and writing out there for everyone else to see.

Kristine, as a student, what was your most valuable experience with this project?

KC: We were much more motivated to do a good job than if we were just turning this assignment in to a professor. This was going to go out to everybody, so we wanted to triple-check everything and make sure that it was exactly the way that we wanted it. If you’re just doing a term paper, sure, you do a good job, but it only influences your reputation with the professor. Not only did we learn something, but we also gave back to society. Also, we didn’t just learn how to publish, but we learned how to publish collaboratively. It’s very easy when there are just two or three authors on a paper, but …how many did we have, twelve authors?

EB: Fourteen. There were fourteen student authors on the paper, besides me.

KC: It’s a whole new ball game when you have fifteen different authors trying to agree on things.

So, given your experience, how would you convince scientists that they should contribute to Wikipedia?

KC: No matter where you publish, even if you’re publishing in Science or Nature, you’re not getting your research out to as many people as you will through Wikipedia. And it’s so important today because so much of the general public doesn’t understand or appreciate the science that goes on. Disseminating knowledge can really help motivate more appreciation and more funding for the sciences. If we continue to publish only in journals that scientists read, the public will continue to be in the dark.

EB: It’s a way to do the things that we want to do as teachers while also doing the things that our universities want us to do for the public.

Wikipedia and Ecology

Journal Watch Online reports on a recent TREE paper Callis et al Improving Wikipedia: educational opportunity and professional responsibility (DOI:10.1016/j.tree.2009.01.003 ) in Open Source Ecology

A University of Florida professor directed those energies towards a more noble cause: surveying and improving Wikipedia entries on ecological topics. The graduate students, enrolled in a seminar on plant-animal interactions, found the entries on frugivory, herbivory, pollination, granivory and seed dispersal to be lacking in breadth, and sometimes sidetracked by irrelevant topics (they were especially piqued by a long discourse about fruitarians – humans who choose a fruit diet — in the frugivory entry).

In Trends in Ecology and Evolution, the class reports that, although occasionally frustrated by other authors determined to repeatedly delete their changes, improving the entries was a valuable educational experience not too much different than writing a term paper.

They argue that updating Wikipedia, an increasingly influential public information source, is among the civic duties of scientists and should be an activity incorporated into student coursework, professional meetings, and even the peer-review publication process