Archive for July, 2006

environmentalists need sunlight

Tuesday, July 25th, 2006

Ran across a nonprofit organization called the Sunlight Foundation. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to providing Internet tools for educating the American public about the democratic process and making the federal political process more transparent. Their best known project is Congresspedia, a wiki encyclopedia in which individuals (presumably from the US) can edit and view information about the US Congress, its politicians, legislation, etc.

Sunlight’s latest tool is the pop-up politician. It’s a AJAX widget that’s similar to Google Maps’ pop ups in which a profile of a Congress person appears when you move your mouse over a related bit of information. You can download the widget to be used for your own website or blog.

pop-up politician

Wouldn’t it be cool to have a foundation like this for the environment, in which cutting edged Internet tools were developed (and evaluated!) for the environmental community? I can already see the possibilities: the pop-up David Suzuki or Gary Snyder. it would be even better to have a Flash-like animated pop-up. Then you could have, for example, Inuit elders pop up to discuss the impacts of global warming. The possibilities are endless.
Suzuki

distributed computing for curing malaria

Thursday, July 20th, 2006

Nature has a new article on the use of spare computing time to cure malaria. The public is being asked to download software on to their computers so the software can run on their machines while they’re idle. The article explains the need for multiple processers:

The model attempts to individually simulate malaria infection in each of 50,000 to 100,000 people over a lifetime. It simulates how often each individual is bitten, becomes infected and fights off an infection, plus their age, health, changing number of parasites in the blood and level of immunity. It updates this information every 5 days over a population’s lifetime, a computing feat that takes about an hour to tot up on an average PC.

To refine the model, the researchers have to adjust each component multiple times until it best mimics real data collected from infected areas. This means they must run the simulations many thousands of times, eating up thousands of hours of computing time.

This project uses the same approach as the one used to model climate prediction and analyze data in the search for extra-terrestrial life.

Not a bad use for your computer’s idle time: to spare individuals a lifetime of illness.

Canadian math gurus falsify methods used to derive “Hockey Stick”; a revival emerges.

Sunday, July 16th, 2006

A prime example of the public bootlegging of science:

“…discussion of [the 'Hockey Stick' global warming curve] has been so polluted by political and activist frenzy that it is hard to dig into it to reach the science. My earlier column was largely a plea to let science proceed unmolested. Unfortunately, the very importance of the issue has made careful science difficult to pursue.” – R Muller, Technology Review – full article here.

The article is a summary of the high-calibre mathematic mystery – does the so-called “Hockey Stick” really portray history’s temperature spiking? No, not really. The standardization technique was blurred into the analysis itself, but the result’s “principal component will have a hockey stick shape even if most of the data do not.”

I would argue that no matter what degree of error was found in the original opus, the “Hockey Stick” concept has made an indellible impression. Public opinion on the matter will not likely let go – just the contrary, it seems that more and more agreement is emerging for rapid global warming.

However, there is a healthy backing from scientists who know more than mere journalistic perspectives: the blog “Real Climate” opened up an extensive back-and-forth that supports the initial findings and message.

conservationists, climate change and Google Earth

Monday, July 10th, 2006

Thanks to Howie for pointing this out. The Sierra Club of Canada, British Columbia Chapter has released a Google Earth application that shows what a 6m rise in water would do to the Greater Vancouver Area. The map shows that much of the lower mainland of Vancouver would be under water after climate change I like the combination of virtual and physical tools to demonstrate the problem:

Executive Director Kathryn Molloy will unveil the map outside the office of Liberal MLA Olga Ilich (Richmond Centre) at 8120 Granville Ave, Richmond, at 11:30 a.m.[, May 4, 2006]. The MLA’s office building is in an area that will be completely flooded according to calculations based on the Science article. Molloy will use a kayak paddle held against the building to illustrate how far the water will rise if global warming continues unchecked. [emphasis added]

sierra club google

further restrictions on public data

Thursday, July 6th, 2006

On the 40th anniversary of the US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the federal government has given a $1million grant to a Texas Law School to determine how to limit the act. The goal is to craft a statute for state governments and the federal government specifying what public data can and cannot be released. That is, specify which public data that is currently accessible should be no longer accessible.

Keep in mind that laws for releasing public information are not uniform state to state. Many states do not have FOIAs, that is mechanisms to automatically release data to the public. Also there have always been restrictions on access for privacy and security concerns. So it’s not like you or I can get any type of public information we want.

Consider the following “harrowing” scenario posed by the professor at the law school who received the grant:

In 2003, he said, a simulated cyberattack on San Antonio’s water and government information systems showed that computer security data that was protected under federal law could have been accessed by terrorists under Texas legislation.

Protecting national security is important; however, there’s been no instance like this in the US. This example is particularly poignant since Texas has one of the best repositories for spatial data that is generated by state agencies. Restrictions on FOIA have horrible implications for access to spatial data. The ostensible reason may be national security but the goal is to write the model law broadly to cover all contingencies. Granted, flexibility is important. But so is transparency and accountability. This won’t be the first time that governments have used restrictions on access to public data as a way to limit exposure to liability, protect special interests, or prevent embarassment. The first victim will likely be environmental protection. You want to protest the extension of the road network because of its adverse envionmental impacts? Sorry, but you can’t get the digital data because access is a “security risk”. Adds the critics:

Lucy Dalglish, director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says the research program is in keeping with a recent federal trend to use “homeland security” as an excuse to restrict unrelated material.

Overall, a poor birthday present for an act that makes the US government so transparent.

new input devices for simulation

Thursday, July 6th, 2006

The project description is here, although the video players are better at veoh and at youtube.

According to the creators,

Since refining the FTIR (frustrated total internal reflection) sensing technique, we’ve been experimenting with a wide variety of application scenarios and interaction modalities that utilize multi-touch input information. These go far beyond the “poking” actions you get with a typical touchscreen, or the gross gesturing found in video-based interactive interfaces. It is a rich area for research, and we are extremely excited by its potential for advances in efficiency, usability, and intuitiveness. It’s also just so much fun!

Our technique is force-sensitive, and provides unprecedented resolution and scalability, allowing us to create sophisticated multi-point widgets for applications large enough to accommodate both hands and multiple users.

The video shows a great example of how the interface could be used with cartography and GIS (e.g., think of how it could be integrated with Google Earth!). I think it has enormous implications for environmental modelling, simulation, presentation and group work. Just think about how it could be used in describing the impacts of climate change or exploring future scenarios in community planning.

impacts of climate change being felt now

Thursday, July 6th, 2006

The Associated Press reports on a recent paper in the journal Science that links wildfires in the Western US to global warming (notice the hedging in the AP article: Wildfires may be linked to global warming). According to the article:

Beginning about 1987, there was a change from infrequent fires averaging about one week in duration to more frequent ones that often burned five weeks or more, they reported. The length of the wildfire season was extended by 78 days.

The researchers said the changes appear to be linked to annual spring and summer temperatures, with many more wildfires burning in hotter years than in cooler years.

They also found a connection between early arrivals of the spring snowmelt in the mountainous regions and the incidence of large forest fires. An earlier snowmelt, they said, can lead to an earlier and longer dry season, which provides greater opportunities for large fires.

The paper is called Warming and Earlier Spring Increases Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity. In typical Science magazine style, it is quite readable, albeit brief so if you want further details you have to read other articles by the authors. The authors examined counter-explanations such land-use history (e.g., conversion of forests to grazing that would cause older trees to be cut down to be replaced by younger and skinnier trees called “fuels”) and cyclical changes in temperature (e.g., El-Nino). Their spatial models showed that climate change still was the culprit.

Note also, in the Science article, that climate change doesn’t just mean increasing temperatures but a whole host of interacting changes to the biosphere (FYI: numbers in parentheses below refer to citations in the bibliography):

climatic explanations posit that increasing variability in moisture conditions (wet/dry oscillations promoting biomass growth, then burning), and/or a trend of increasing drought frequency, and/or warming temperatures, have led to increased wildfire activity (13, 14).

On decadal scales, climatic means and variability shape the character of the vegetation (e.g., species populations and their drought tolerance (23), and biomass (fuel) continuity (24), thus also affecting fire regime responses to shorter term climate variability). On interannual and shorter time scales, climate variability affects the flammability of live and dead forest vegetation. (13–19, 25)

About the only quibble I have with the model is the assumptions in fitting different data sets together (technically, downscaling and interpolation) but that’s a problem you have with any large computer model, whether it models urban growth, national security risks, or climate change. (Also, they should have made use of a GIScientist because they would probably have seen even larger correlations if they looked at the data topologically.) Other than these issues, this is powerful evidence that climate change effects are being felt now.

(For those of you who’d like to point out that events, such as permafrost melting in Northern North America, are being felt now, let me amend the previous to be this is powerful evidence that climate change effects are being felt now in places where many people live.)

Update: Argh! CBC TV gets it wrong! CBC covered the article on the national news tonight. In the report, a university professor says that the article did not address the drivers of climate change. True, the authors do not address the issue of whether or not climate change is induced by humans. But then the reporter states that the authors don’t say whether the wildfires are due to cyclical weather patterns or from climate change. No. The article clearly rules out cyclical patterns. So much for our insightful reporters.

worth the wait

Tuesday, July 4th, 2006

A lesson in evolution and a great beer. Watch and learn.