Friday, August 20, 2010

Google Flu a' 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.

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.

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 (, match the number of laboratory-verified cases almost perfectly (see figure).

The original article can be found here.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Roving Bandits 2.0

by Victor Galaz

As a brief follow up to my previous post on Cyber-environmental politics, the Guardian and, 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."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Linked Data

Really interesting TED-talk about the potential of "linked data": raw and open data. I'd love to see this happening for data on ecological and social change to better get early warnings of pending catastrophic shifts.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

This makes sense: InSTEDD and information fusion

Just found this post by the staff at InSTEDD on harnessing a range of information sources to help people recover from disasters. Should be relevant for ecology 2.0 solutions by allowing people to post information via SMS. Read more here.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Satellites, Google and the Politics of CO2-Monitoring

As the international climate negotiations move into a more intense phase, one additional issue seems to contribute to the deadlock: CO2-monitoring. According to the New York Times (14th December 2009), China "is refusing to accept any kind of international monitoring of its emissions levels". As a result, the United States is insisting that "without a stringent verification of China's actions, it cannot support any deal".

Obviously, any failure to agree on appropriate monitoring mechanisms during COP-15, is likely to have serious repercussions not only for the post-Kyoto agreement in general, but also for the effectiveness of carbon markets, and other reduction mechanisms such as REDD. Luckily, there seems to be a few reasons for optimism, at least in the longer perspective.

Tom Downing at Stockholm Environment Institute-Oxford reports via
Twitter, on an initiative launched in collaboration with Internet giant Google, the Carnegie Institute for Science, and Imazon. As Google reports through its official blog, it is now possible to not only view deforestation in Google Earth, but also analyze raw satellite data and "extract extract meaningful information about the world's forests, such as locations and measurements of deforestation or even regeneration of a forest".

Orbiting Carbon Observatory
Orbiting Carbon Observatory

What's more, additional improvements of satellite data seem to be in the pipeline. Despite the failed launch attempt of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) plummeting into the ocean near Antarctica in end of February 2009, there seems to be wide agreement that a new satellite could drastically change the CO2 monitoring game. Hence not only would it be possible to track and analyze deforestation, but also measure its true CO2 impacts, in addition to the emissions from "large local sources, such as cities and power plants".

On a similar optimistic note,
Wired Science reports that a team of U.S. Geological Survey scientists have developed a web service that combines seismic data about an earthquake, with Tweets from the popular microblogging service’s users.


Quaketweets (from Wired Science)

This sort of collaborations between science, and the massive data and technology capacities of major ICT actors, can drastically improve the sort of monitoring systems needed to underpin international environmental agreements.

The question is of course: who will be the first to design similar systems to track surprising ecosystem change in for example marine ecosystems, agricultural landscapes, or urban ecological contexts?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Why You Don't Need an iPhone

Old School Cell PhoneWired Science reported on a project a while ago, based on innovative ecological crowd-sourcing in New York. The idea was quite simple. "Participants in the NYC Cricket Crawl will go out between dusk and midnight to record cricket calls for one minute, and then immediately send their results and location to the scientists by cellphone. The researchers are hoping to find evidence that the Common True Katydid, once plentiful in New York City but now rare, is still thriving in some regions of the city." Quite innovative approach if you ask me, and the results are now up on their website.

But actually, many of the most innovative uses of information and communication technologies does not at all require fancy (and expensive) mobile technologies such as sound-recording iPhones. The Economist's September issue features the role of simple cell-phones in emerging markets. The most interesting examples are from Kerala (India) and Niger. In the first case, the spread of cellphones seems to have increased fishermen’s profit by 8%. The reason was that fishermen ”could call several markets while still at sea before deciding where to sell”. In Niger, increased mobile-phone coverage seems to have reduced price variation for grain, between local markets. As the Economist reports ”during a spike in food prices in 2005 grain was 4,5 % cheaper in markets with mobile coverage”. You can find a beautiful documentary of the societal impacts of increased use of mobile phones in Africa here.

A range of additional example of smart uses of quite simple communication technologies, such as SMS-messages and e-mail-lists - can be found in the health community. The moderated e-mail list ProMED has become a fundamental tool for rapid dissemination of information during health contingencies. Bangladesh as an additional example, is conducting active Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza surveillance through an Short Message Service (SMS) gateway to collect data and report on disease and death in poultry. Since October 2008, 21 HPAI outbreaks out of a total of 35 have been detected through this active surveillance programme.

Simple technologies, big impacts. Even in an era of rapid information technological change, less is more.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Are Epidemic Early Warnings, Really "Early" Warnings?

Information technological innovations seem to have played quite an important role in detecting early warnings of the current "new flu", "swine flu" or H1N1.  This topic is elaborated in today's issue of New York Times. Apparently, WHO received the first warning already on April 10th through its web-crawler based monitoring system. This again proves the usefulness of mining inofficial data for monitoring.

One point missing in the debate however, is the fact that other emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) - such as avian influenza (H5N1), Ebola hemorrhagic fever, and West Nile viral encephalitis - emerge not only as the result of changes in host dynamics or in the pathogen. On the contrary, a range of underlying social- ecological changes such as land use change, deforestation and biodiversity loss seem to contribute to the rise of EIDs globallyDurell Kapan and colleagues article on the social-ecological dimensions of avian influenza is a nice synthesis of how land-use change contributes to increases in H5N1. 


So, even if ICT innovations such as Google Flu or GPHIN provide the first signals of pending epidemic outbreaks, they are really not designed to capture changes in underlying social-ecological interactions that induce EIDs. For example, if you want to predict novel outbreaks of Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS) in Brazil, you might want to keep an eye on deforestation patterns and increases in sugarcane production. Or if you want to stay ahead of increasing risks of Ebola hemorrhagic fever outbreaks in Central West Africa, you might want to track coastal fish stock decrease in the region. These are known to increase "bush-meat" hunting and hence the risk of Ebola outbreaks.

The question is what to call such a system. If field epidemiologist Nathan Wolfe is doing early warning, maybe this approach should be called ecological "early-early warning"?

See here for comments to this post as well.