[NetBehaviour] Crawling the Web to Foretell Ecosystem Collapse.

marc garrett marc.garrett at furtherfield.org
Sat Mar 21 11:40:26 CET 2009

Crawling the Web to Foretell Ecosystem Collapse.

By Alexis Madrigal.

The Interwebs could become an early warning system for when the web of 
life is about to fray.

By trawling scientific list-serves, Chinese fish market websites, and 
local news sources, ecologists think they can use human beings as 
sensors by mining their communications.

"If we look at coral reefs, for example, the Internet may contain 
information that describes not only changes in the ecosystem, but also 
drivers of change, such as global seafood markets," said Tim Daw, an 
ecologist at the UK's University of East Anglia in a press release about 
his team's new paper in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

The six billion people on Earth are changing the biosphere so quickly 
that traditional ecological methods can't keep up. Humans, though, are 
acute observers of their environments and bodies, so scientists are 
combing through the text and numbers on the Internet in hopes of 
extracting otherwise unavailable or expensive information. It's more 
crowd mining than crowd sourcing.

Much of the pioneering work in this type of Internet surveillance has 
come in the public health field, tracking disease. Google Flu Trends, 
which uses a cloud of keywords to determine how sick a population is, 
tracks epidemiological data from the Centers for Disease Control. Less 
serious projects --- like this map of a United Kingdom snowstorm based 
on Tweets about snow --- have also had some success tracking the real world.

These research efforts seem to indicate that people are good sensors, 
but pulling the information from what they post in human-readable 
formats and transforming it into quantitative models of the world is 
tough. The Global Public Health Intelligence Network has developed an 
epidemic warning system that pulls in data from news wires, web sites, 
and public health mailing lists. The GPHIN, which is probably the most 
advanced and uses highly variegated information, only picks up on about 
40 percent of the 200 to 250 outbreaks that the World Health 
Organization investigates each year.


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