Tag Archives: monitoring

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!

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.

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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.

Improve Devlopment Lending to Build Resilience

Andrew Revkin writes in the New York Times about a recent world bank report that finds that the world bank is not lending in ways that invest in natural capital or resilience (The report is online at worldbank.org/oed). However, there is increasing awareness that that is a big problem.  Revkin writes that the report states that:

it was vital for the bank and its partners to intensify their focus on measurable environmental protection, given rising vulnerability to environmental risks and the increasing flow of financing for projects related to climate change.

“They need to begin to see the inextricable link between sustaining environment and reducing poverty,” Vinod Thomas, the director-general of the evaluation group, said in an interview. “It is clear now from the Amazon to India that if environmental sustainability is not raised as a priority then all bets are off.”

… Cheryl Gray, the director of the review group for the World Bank, said the lack of consistent internal tracking of the environmental facets of projects was an indicator of how much work needs to be done.

The World Bank Group approved its first set of common environmental standards in 2001, for the first time making environmental stewardship part of its core mission of reducing poverty.

But the new evaluation found a persistent lack of environmental focus in each step along the lending chain — from the priorities that shape development projects to the environmental standards and monitoring required in the field.

Revkin also asked the report’s authors about World Bank’s lack of investment to reduce or mitigate disaster damage. On Dot Earth Revkin quotes

Vinod Thomas, the director-general of the World Bank Group’s independent evaluation group, said a recent report on the Bank’s work on disasters found the same problem. “The bank has done well on the reconstruction side,” he told me. “But even where disasters recur, the preventive side gets neglected, for political reasons. Reconstruction gets photos.”

Things appear to be improving, though, Mr. Thomas said, partly because analysts for the bank and its lending partners are running the numbers on the economic benefits of resilience. “The rate of return on prevention can be 4 to 12 times the investment,” he said.

Often, he noted, there is no inconsistency between environmental conservation and resilience to disasters. He cited the example of maintaining coastal mangrove forests as a buffer against flooding. Communities bounded by mangroves persist while those exposed to the waves vanish. There’s no need to crunch numbers to figure that out.

Using the web to track disease outbreaks

HealthMap an interesting global health alert system that was recently accounted in a PLoS Medicine article Surveillance Sans Frontières: Internet-Based Emerging Infectious Disease Intelligence and the HealthMap Project (Brownstein et al 2008).  They explain the motivation for the project:

As developed nations continue to strengthen their electronic disease surveillance capacities [1], the parts of the world that are most vulnerable to emerging disease threats still lack essential public health information infrastructure [2,3]. The existing network of traditional surveillance efforts managed by health ministries, public health institutes, multinational agencies, and laboratory and institutional networks has wide gaps in geographic coverage and often suffers from poor and sometimes suppressed information flow across national borders [4]. At the same time, an enormous amount of valuable information about infectious diseases is found in Web-accessible information sources such as discussion sites, disease reporting networks, and news outlets [5,6,7]. These resources can support situational awareness by providing current, highly local information about outbreaks, even from areas relatively invisible to traditional global public health efforts [8]. These data are plagued by a number of potential hazards that must be studied in depth, including false reports (mis- or disinformation) and reporting bias. Yet these data hold tremendous potential to initiate epidemiologic follow-up studies and provide complementary epidemic intelligence context to traditional surveillance sources. This potential is already being realized, as a majority of outbreak verifications currently conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO)’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network are triggered by reports from these nontraditional sources [5,6]. Summary Points

In one of the most frequently cited examples [9], early indications of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in Guangdong Province, China, came in November 2002 from a Chinese article that alluded to an unusual increase in emergency department visits with acute respiratory illness [9,10]. This was followed by media reports of a respiratory disease among health care workers in February 2003, all captured by the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) [10,11,12]. In parallel, online discussions on the ProMED-mail system referred to an outbreak in Guangzhou, well before official government reports were issued [13].

These Web-based data sources not only facilitate early outbreak detection, but also support increasing public awareness of disease outbreaks prior to their formal recognition. Through low-cost and real-time Internet data-mining, combined with openly available and user-friendly technologies, both participation in and access to global disease surveillance are no longer limited to the public health community [14,15]. The availability of Web-based news media provides an alternative public health information source in under-resourced areas. However, the myriad diverse sources of infectious disease information across the Web are not structured or organized; public health officials, nongovernmental organizations, and concerned citizens must routinely search and synthesize a continually growing number of disparate sources in order to use this information. With the aim of creating an integrated global view of emerging infections based not only on traditional public health datasets but rather on all available information sources, we developed HealthMap, a freely accessible, automated electronic information system for organizing data on outbreaks according to geography, time, and infectious disease agent [16].

Wired news writes:

HealthMap … creates machine-readable public health information from the text indexed by Google News, World Health Organization updates and online listserv discussions.

While aimed at public health workers, HealthMap is also usable by the general public. It locates the outbreaks on a world map and creates a color-coding system that indicates the severity of an outbreak on the basis of news reportage about it. Users of the site can then analyze and visualize the data, gaining unprecedented views of disease outbreaks.

By doing it all with publicly available news sources and low operating costs, the service itself remains free. After a small-scale launch in 2006, the site’s model and potential attracted a $450,000 grant last year from Google.org’s Predict and Prevent Initiative, which is focused on emerging infectious diseases.

It would be great if a similar systems could be used to map and monitor environmental change.