Category Archives: Networks

Ethan Zuckerman reviews Infotopia and discusess social decision-making

On My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman reviews Cass Sunstein’s book “Infotopia”, which discusses how the internet changes group decision making processes. Zuckerman writes:

Infotopia… In his new book, Infotopia, [Sunstein’s] become a cyber-enthusiast to an extent that would have been hard to imagine a few years ago. Specifically, he’s excited about the ways new online tools make it possible for groups of people to assemble information and accumulate knowledge. He’s become a devotee of Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian economist who saw markets, first and foremost, as a way to aggregate information held by a large group of people. There’s ample evidence that Hayek was right in an examination of the failure of planned economies – smart men sitting in a room do a far worse job of setting the price of copper ore or bread than the collected actions of thousands of consumers, iterated over time.

Markets aren’t the only way to aggregate information from a large group of people. Deliberative groups, where a set of people get together and share the knowledge they have on a problem or an issue, are favored by many political theorists, including Jürgen Habermas, who bases much of his political philosophy on the establishment of a public sphere where deliberation can occur. Sunstein is deeply suspicious of the optimistic claims made for deliberation, and cites a wealth of studies that demonstrate that deliberation, in many cases, leads to bad decisions and the reinforcement of extreme views.

(You can think of Infotopia as a caged deathmatch between Hayek and Habermas, streamed live on the Internet. Habermas taps out somewhere around page 200.)

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Two faces of India: water and wind

india sanitationIn two recent articles the New York Times has written about different faces of India: environmental crisis and environmental innovation both driven by failures to effectively govern energy and water systems.India’s water management crisis is described in the article In Teeming India, Water Crisis Means Dry Pipes and Foul Sludge. The article focuses on New Delhi and how India’s inequality limits its ability to govern public goods, such as aquifiers, rivers, and even its water system.

The crisis, decades in the making, has grown as fast as India in recent years. A soaring population, the warp-speed sprawl of cities, and a vast and thirsty farm belt have all put new strains on a feeble, ill-kept public water and sanitation network.

The combination has left water all too scarce in some places, contaminated in others and in cursed surfeit for millions who are flooded each year. Today the problems threaten India’s ability to fortify its sagging farms, sustain its economic growth and make its cities healthy and habitable. At stake is not only India’s economic ambition but its very image as the world’s largest democracy.

…New Delhi’s water woes are typical of those of many Indian cities. Nationwide, the urban water distribution network is in such disrepair that no city can provide water from the public tap for more than a few hours a day.

An even bigger problem than demand is disposal. New Delhi can neither quench its thirst, nor adequately get rid of the ever bigger heaps of sewage that it produces. Some 45 percent of the population is not connected to the public sewerage system.

Those issues are amplified nationwide. More than 700 million Indians, or roughly two-thirds of the population, do not have adequate sanitation. Largely for lack of clean water, 2.1 million children under the age of 5 die each year, according to the United Nations.

[New Delhi’s] pipe network remains a punctured mess. That means, like most everything else in this country, some people have more than enough, and others too little.

The slums built higgledy-piggledy behind Mrs. Prasher’s neighborhood have no public pipes at all. The Jal Board sends tankers instead. The women here waste their days waiting for water, and its arrival sets off desperate wrestling in the streets.

Kamal Krishnan quit her job for the sake of securing her share. Five days a week, she would clean offices in the next neighborhood. Five nights a week, she would go home to find no water at home. The buckets would stand empty. Finally, her husband ordered her to quit. And wait.

“I want to work, but I can’t,” she said glumly. “I go mad waiting for water.”

Elsewhere, in the central city, where the nation’s top politicians have their official homes, the average daily water supply is three times what finally arrives even in Mrs. Prasher’s neighborhood.

The same public failings have also lead to an unexpected wind power boom in India. This boom, lead by Suzlon Energy, is described in The Ascent of Wind Power.

Not even on the list of the world’s top 10 wind-turbine manufacturers as recently as 2002, Suzlon passed Siemens of Germany last year to become the fifth-largest producer by installed megawatts of capacity. It still trails the market leader, Vestas Wind Systems of Denmark, as well as General Electric, Enercon of Germany and Gamesa Tecnológica of Spain.
Suzlon’s past shows how a company can prosper by tackling the special needs of a developing country. Its present suggests a way of serving expanding energy needs without relying quite so much on coal, the fastest-growth fossil fuel now but also the most polluting.

Roughly 70 percent of the demand for wind turbines in India comes from industrial users seeking alternatives to relying on the grid, said Tulsi R. Tanti, Suzlon’s managing director. The rest of the purchases are made by a small group of wealthy families in India, for whom the tax breaks for wind turbines are attractive.

The demand for wind turbines has particularly accelerated in India, where installations rose nearly 48 percent last year, and in China, where they rose 65 percent, although from a lower base. Wind farms are starting to dot the coastline of east-central China and the southern tip of India, as well as scattered mesas and hills across central India and even Inner Mongolia.

WorldChanging also comments on wind power in India.

Building more resilient neighborhoods

Elena Bennett writes:
If, as Alex Steffen argued recently on World Changing, increasing neighborhood resilience is important, how can we go about ensuring that our communities are resilient as possible? Steffen writes, for example that, “Communities which have been designed to be walked and biked rather than driven can better withstand a disruption in the supply of gas.”

The Orion Grassroots Network has a new member, an informal organization that could increase neighborly communication, effectively making communities more resilient. The organization is called the Professional Porch Sitters.

The group was started by Claude Stephens (a.k.a. Crow Hollister) in Louisville, KY, who writes:

“There are no dues, no membership requirements, no mailings, no agenda, no committees, no worries. PPS believes that the radical act of sitting around sharing stories with no specific agenda is critical to building sustainable communities….To become a member you simply need to say you are a member and agree to sit around with friends and neighbors shooting the breeze as often as possible or practical. Preferably on a porch but that’s not critical…

Television and air-conditioning have moved far too many people off their porches and into their homes where they quickly become isolated from their communities. We believe that sometimes the most effective course of action is to sit down and relax while sipping lemonade and sharing stories.”

National Public Radio’s show All Things Considered recently had a story on the merits of porches which mentioned the Professional Porch Sitters in which they write:

“Porches, debate and democracy go together.”

You can find out more about starting your own chapter of the Professional Porch Sitters at the Orion Grassroots Network

Resilience networks in global environmental change science

In a new paper, Scholarly networks on resilience, vulnerability and adaptation within the human dimensions of global environmental change, Marco Janssen and others have analyzed the networks of co-authorships and citation among research on resilience, vulnerability, and adaptation in human dimensions of global change research. They analyzed co-authorship and citations among 2286 publications between 1967 and 2005 (3860 unique authors and 10,286 co-authors).

Janssen et al identified the most central scholars, publications, and journals in the knowledge domains of resilience, vulnerability and adaptation.

network of coauthorship

Figure 2 Co-author network of most productive and best connected authors with the strongest co-authorship relations. Circles denote author nodes and are labeled by the authors’ last name and first initials. The larger the node, the more publications. The darker the node, the more the co-authors. Black nodes refer to 50 or more co-authors, while white nodes refer to less than 10 co-authors. Edges represent co-authorship relations. The width of an edge represents the relative number of co-author relationships (Janssen et al 2006).

Janssen et al found that the number of publications in all domains increased rapidly between 1995 and 2005, while co-authorship increased from 1.5 authors to 2.5 authors per paper between the 1970s and early 2000s. Despite this increase in number of publications and co-authorship, the resilience knowledge domain is only weakly connected with the other two domains. However, overall there is an increasing number of cross citations and papers contributing to multiple knowledge domains.

The complete database of papers can be analyzed online, on Marco Janssen’s website. However, because this is the Resilience Science weblog, I’ve an image showing the citation network among the most cited papers on resilience (in human dimensions of global change) is shown below. Size corresponds to the number of citations.

Citations within resilience domain
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Emergent news: a discussion by Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired Magazine, author of Out of Control, and former editor of the Whole Earth Review, an early systems and sustainability magazine writes about collaborative web filtering sites. The sites he mentions are interesting for technology news and entertainment, but are not good at international news, environmental and development news, science news, or many of the other types of news that I find interesting. However, the collaborative filtering approaches behind these approaches are quite interesting. Science sites that attempt to do the same thing include Faculty of 1000, which isn’t free but uses reviews by many academics to identify interesting papers in different fields (previously mentioned on this weblog). Nature had a news article Science in the age of the web (Nov 2005) on the slowness of scientists in adopting such tools. Kevin Kelly reviews a bunch of sites and their approaches:

What’s new? Consensus Web Filters

Like a lot of people, I find that the web is becoming my main source of news. Some of the sites I read are published by individuals, but I find the most informative sites are those published by groups of writers/editors/correspondents, including those put out by Main Street Media (MSM). However for the past three months my main source of “what’s new” has been a new breed of website that collaboratively votes on the best links.

This genre does not have an official name yet, but each of these sites supplies readers with pointers to news items that are ranked by other readers. None of these sites generates news; they only point to it by filtering the links to newsy items. Using different formulas they rank an ever moving list of links on the web. The velocity of their lists varies by site, but some will have a 100% turnover in a few days. I check them daily.

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Fishing through marine foodwebs

Tim Essington, Anne Beaudreau and John Wiedenmann have a interesting new paper in PNAS Fishing through marine food webs.

The paper elaborates on Pauly and others influential 1998 paper Fishing Down Marine Food Webs that showed that the mean trophic level of global fisheries statistics declined from 1950 to 1994 (from an average of 3.3 to 3.1).

Essington et al analyzed regional fisheries data from 1950 to 2001. They also found a decline in trophic level in 30 of 48 large marine ecosystems, and that the average decline was .42 trophic levels (almost twice as large as the decline found by Pauly et al). However, they did more than replicate Pauly et al’s work at a regional level, they also tested two alternative models of fishing down foodwebs – sequential collapse (the removal of top levels) vs. sequential addition (adding lower level fisheries). They evaluated these models by examining the temporal dynamics of upper-trophic-level fishery catches when fishing down the food web was occurring:

Under the sequential collapse replacement mode, a decline in the mean trophic level should be accompanied by reduced catches of high-trophic-level species as these species become economically extinct. Under the sequential addition mode, however, we expect catches of upper-trophic-level species to be maintained or even increase.

In the 30 large marine ecosystems that exhibited a decline in trophic level , they found 15 that matched the sequential addition model, 6 that showed no pattern, and 9 that showed sequential collapse. They differences between the two models are illustrated in Figure 1 from the paper, shown below.

Fishing down food websFig. 1. Illustrative examples of the sequential collapse replacement (A) and sequential addition (B) mode of fishing down the food web. Total yearly catch for each 0.1 trophic-level increment is indicated by the color bar on the right (104 kg yr 1). The mean trophic level (white line) was smoothed by using a locally weighted regression smoother. (A) The Scotian Shelf ecosystem exhibited a sharp decline in mean trophic level from 1990 to 2001 owing to the collapse of the cod fishery followed by a decline in the herring fishery and then the growth of the northern prawn fishery. (B) The mean trophic level of the Patagonian Shelf declined from 1980 to 2001, during which time catches for upper-trophic-level species (Argentinean hake) grew substantially while new fisheries for shortfin squid developed.

Essington and his coauthors point out that fisheries science, at least in the published literature, has assumed that fishing down food webs follows the sequential collapse model, and this model has different policy implications to the sequential addition model.

Perhaps the most important policy consideration of the sequential addition mode is that, in most ecosystems of the world, several trophic levels are now exploited simultaneously. These diverse fisheries impose conflicting demands on marine ecosystems that are not generally well represented in single-species management plans that do not consider the effects of these alternative fisheries on each other. As the structure of fisheries and the management environment evolve, the scientific community faces a new challenge of conducting broad-scale ecological research to support the development of more holistic, ecologically based approaches to fisheries management.

Another description of the research is provided in a U Washington press release.

Visualization of Complex Networks

Flight density during one week between international airports. From SD Magazine (Japan).

VisualComplexity is a website that collects visualizations of complex networks. The project aims to display the results of visualization methods used in different disciplines to stimulate the creation of new visualizations and new visualization approaches.

Example categories include food webs, knowledge networks, social networks, and art.

An online tool for visualizing networks on the internet or in’s database is TouchGraph. For example, the related sales network of Panarchy editted by Gunderson and Holling or the google network of Resilience Science.

Robustness of the Internet

Router-level topology of Abilene. Each vertex represents a router, and each link represents a physical connection; however, each physical connection can support many virtual connections, giving the appearance of greater connectivity at higher layers of the IP stack. End-user networks are shown in white, peering networks are shown in blue, and high-degree routers can only be found at the network periphery (not shown).

John Doyle and his colleagues published a very interesting paper on the structure of the internet and its implications for robustness. It is a popular belief that the structure of the Internet follow a scale free distribution of the number of connections, which then results in being sensitive to target attacks at the hubs. Doyle et al. dig deeper in to the real structure of the internet and falsify this myth. Indeed the number of connections follow a scale free distribution, but there are various ways to derive such a distribution. Doyle et al. find that the components of the internet with the most connections are not the crucial hubs of the internet.

Doyle et al. define an alternative model to generate networks structures of the internet (an alternative to the preferential attachment models). This alternative model is based on the highly optimized tollerance (HOT) concept and includes specific technological (bandwidth) and economic (costs) constraints. The resulting model generates statistics more in line with the real internet, and an important finding is that this structure is robust to targeted attacks to highly connected nodes.

John C. Doyle, David L. Alderson, Lun Li, Steven Low, Matthew Roughan, Stanislav Shalunov, Reiko Tanaka, and Walter Willinger (2005) The “robust yet fragile” nature of the Internet, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 102: 14497-14502

Building resilience to deal with disasters

Last week Science had a special issue on Dealing with Disasters with focus on the role of building or conserving resilience. The Tsunami disaster on 26 December 2005 clearly highlighted the vulnerability of coastal communities, and has triggered a global discussion on how to deal with increasingly severe natural and human induced catastrophes. Today humanity increase the risk for extreme events by simultaneously e.g. accelerating climate change, simplifying ecosystems, and concentrating human populations in coastal areas and cities.

In the special issue, Neil Adger and co-authors focus on coastal communities and explore their social-ecological resilience by looking at the diverse mechanisms they have developed for living with, and learning from, change and unexpected shocks. The authors also discuss the complexity of how resilience can be both increased and decreased through the same development. For example, global tourism increases the risk of infectious and vector borne diseases, but enhance resilience through the development of interlinked local communities, improved communications and the growth of national and international NGO network that link societies.

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Networks of Innovation

The New Yorker had an long (but I thought very interesting) article – Battle Lessons – some months ago on how soliders have developed novel learning networks/online communities to exchange knowledge about how to cope with constantly shifting guerrila war in Iraq.

From the article:

the Iraq that Wong found is precisely the kind of unpredictable environment in which a cohort of hidebound and inflexible officers would prove disastrous.

Yet he found the opposite. Platoon and company commanders were exercising their initiative to the point of occasional genius. Whatever else the Iraq war is doing to American power and prestige, it is producing the creative and flexible junior officers that the Army’s training could not.

The younger officers have another advantage over their superiors: they grew up with the Internet, and have created for themselves, in their spare time, a means of sharing with one another, online, information that the Army does not control. The “slackers” in the junior-officer corps are turning out to be just what the Army needs in the chaos of Iraq. Instead of looking up to the Army for instructions, they are teaching themselves how to fight the war. The Army, to its credit, stays out of their way.

In March of 2000, with the help of a Web-savvy West Point classmate and their own savings, [Majors Nate Allen and Tony Burgess] put up a site on the civilian Internet called It didn’t occur to them to ask the Army for permission or support. Companycommand was an affront to protocol. The Army way was to monitor and vet every posting to prevent secrets from being revealed, but Allen and Burgess figured that captains were smart enough to police themselves and not compromise security.

The sites, which are accessible to captains and lieutenants with a password, are windows onto the job of commanding soldiers and onto the unfathomable complexities of fighting urban guerrillas. Companycommand is divided into twelve areas, including Training, Warfighting, and Soldiers and Families, each of which is broken into discussion threads on everything from mortar attacks to grief counselling and dishonest sergeants. Some discussions are quite raw. Captains post comments on coping with fear, on motivating soldiers to break the taboo against killing, and on counselling suicidal soldiers. They advise each other on how to kick in doors and how to handle pregnant subordinates. Most captains now have access to the Internet at even the most remote bases in Iraq, and many say they’ll find at least ten or fifteen minutes every day to check the site. They post tricks they’ve learned or ask questions like this, which set off months of responses: “What has anyone tried to do to alleviate the mortar attacks on their forward operating bases?”

Little by little, the Army is absorbing and In 2002, West Point put Platoonleader on its server, and a year later added Companycommand; both sites now have military addresses. The Army also began paying the Web site’s expenses. It sent all four of its founders to graduate school to earn Ph.D.s, so that they can become professors at West Point, where they will run the sites as part of their jobs. And the Army is starting to pay the Web sites the sincerest form of flattery: in April, the commanding general of the First Cavalry Division, Major General Peter Chiarelli, ordered up a conversation site for his officers. Cavnet, as it’s known, exists only on siprnet, and is vetted, as an official Army site. “We had a guy put up something that wasn’t within the rules of engagement,” Major Patrick Michaelis, who created the site, told me, “and within half an hour the staff judge-advocate guys put a response up.” But, of all the Web-based means of sharing combat information, Cavnet is the most immediate. While call is used mostly in training units in the U.S., and both Companycommand and Platoonleader are intended to build leadership skills and share general tips and tricks about fighting in Iraq, Cavnet is oriented, Michaelis said, to “the next patrol, six to nine hours out.” Lieutenant Keith Wilson, for example, read a “be on the look out” posting about insurgents who were wiring grenades behind posters of Moqtada al-Sadr, counting on Americans to detonate the explosives when they ripped the posters down. He spread the word among his men, and a few days later a soldier whom he’d sent to peel a poster off a wall peeked behind it first. Sure enough, a grenade was waiting.