Archive for December, 2009

GIS Applications in Epidemiology

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Thanks, JZ for the post

Applications of GIS aren’t new to epidemiology. Dating back to 1854, during a cholera outbreak in London’s Soho district, Dr. John Snow plotted the location of every individual case on a map and determined that they were distributed in a certain pattern that was linked to a contaminated water pump used by the local citizens. Now GIScience is being used to used to track the spatial distribution of all sorts of diseases.

H1N1 is a current epidemiological problem. Although H1N1 has been tracked since the outbreak, a lack of effective analysis tools (and countermeasures, of course) meant that the flu spread throughout the world within a few months. According to the latest update from the WHO, over 11,516 have died in the pandemic.

ESRI’s GIS is being used to track H1N1. According to ESRI’s own whitepaper, ‘GIS and Pandemic Influenza Planning and Response’, ESRI believes that geographic accuracy is essential in any infectious disease outbreak, and GIS applications can be critical in assessing risks, evaluating threats, tracking outbreaks, and ensuring the focused allocation of resources (e.g., vaccines and antivirals).

GISs tend to be rather static in their ability to model time. What is especially important is to be able to dynamically run a geospatial model of the outbreak. According to a recent article in Nature, agent-based modeling (ABM) can be used in modeling the disease’s possible spread, and designing policies for its mitigation. The ABM is basically an artificial society. Every person is represented by an autonomous software agent. Agents interact with each other; the computer tracks the agents’ health status as they interact in the virtual social network. Unlike classical epidemic modeling which based on differential equations, the ABM can simulate the complexity of social network. ABMs can be used to answer questions like, ‘What if a significant number of people refuse the H1N1 vaccine out of fear?’ ‘What is the best way to allocate the limited supplies of vaccines?’ or ‘How effective are school closures?’

A U.S. scale ABM (containing 300 million agents) can be run in approximately 10 minutes and can present the results on a map-based interface. Thus GIS and ABMs can provide the decision-makers a quick feedback on how their interventions work. As H1N1 moves through time and space and other possible pandemic influenza emerge in the future, GIS and ABM will play important roles in improving the efficiency of health agencies.

Geospatial Technology to for Wildlife Management and Conservation

Monday, December 28th, 2009

From KT, Intro GIS.

Geospatial technology, especially GIS, is often viewed as an application for analyzing and understanding social distributions (e.g., literacy rate, birth rate, and death rate). Increasingly, geospatial technology is used to monitor wildlife migration to better understand and develop conservation and management techniques.

In the Achanakmar Wildlife Sanctuary in India researchers measured a variety of variables to determine suitable habitat space for tigers. To develop the model, GIS data layers for the area were created by digitizing topographic maps (i.e., contours, roads, and settlement patterns). Satellite information was used for forest type and forest density. Forest type information was derived using a false colour composite. To complete the data sets, researchers also collected field data on the ground truth of forest type, current habitat area and the habitat area of prey. They also performed a statistical analysis. The result was a map that illustrates habitat suitabile for tigers.

A similar study was undertaken in Florida to analyze suitable habitat areas for the highly endangered Florida panther. The method of this study however differed slightly from that of the tiger study. Here, researchers used GIS to overlay maps of many different parameters (i.e., land type, road structure, vegetation, and protected areas). They obtained shapefiles from government and private sources. Their conclusions mimicked what was seen in the tiger study: only small regions are suitable for long-term panther sustainability.

The GIS approach to these problems is particularly important because it is repeatable over time as variables such as land use and forest type change. It also gives researchers a large spatial context and ensures that maps and models only contain relevant information. I think these models are very useful, as they provide a way for a researcher or conservation official to easily look at many variables and how the variables overlay each other spatially.

preserving North American indigenous cultures with GIS

Monday, December 28th, 2009

Thanks, NM for this post…

GIS is the branch of geography that generates the most interest from the wider public these days, with geographic apps ranging from Google Maps to trip advisor. Yet when it comes to talk up about its integration in indigenous communities, this optimism suddenly turns into mistrust because of the history of Western imposition of culture (including technology!) on traditional cultures. Nevertheless, it has been proved in many of those same communities that it can constitute an effective tool for perpetuating their cultures.

The idea is fairly simple. By going into North American Native communities, researchers have been able to collect certain types of information on the environment and pinpoint it in GISs, which can then be used to educate the community. This information includes photographs, videos, stories and other traditional knowledge elements in both English and the local language. An example of this is the Names-Places Project, which has been active in Idaho with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe for more than fifteen years and for which Elders have shared their knowledge about the environment.

According to senior archeologist Ben Hjermstad, who works with Saskatchewan’s First Nations, it is a good way to contribute to youth education. “It is showing them how people have used the land for hundreds of generations” as he says, while also creating “a link between the Elders of the nation and the youth”. GIS also can be a useful tool for land management for indigenous peoples as it displays both scientific and cultural information about the landscape, thereby giving them greater ability to negotiate when a development project is proposed to the community. For instance, if a project of forestry activity comes up in the nation, they will know whether or not the area is already reserved for gathering traditional medicinal plants or if it contains burial grounds.

It is clear that such a body of cultural information might end up in the hands of malicious people if it were to be available to everyone. This is why a confidentiality agreement, which stipulates that the information displayed on the maps is the local communities’ property, exists between First Nations and the people who help create the maps, and why indigenous communities are glad that they can password-protect those maps.

Many indigenous peoples like the idea that there is a way to digitally take stock of their environment, but their satisfaction lies in the fact that this information can also be cultural. Indeed, this method may enable them to perpetuate a rich culture that is intertwined with a deep respect for nature. “The land is our heaven and our wealth” says Innovative GIS Solutions president Jhon Goes In Center, a Lakota Indian in Fort Collins, Colorado. Moreover, the fact that such work can be made available in both English and indigenous languages, that is in the languages the people who both study and live the effects of land exploitation, might also show an open-mindedness that will prove increasingly fruitful as issues such as climate change must be addressed.

opening up GIS to urban planning through open source

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

Thanks, PB, for the post

Geospatial technologies have once again paved the way for a new social learning experience. Mark Gordton, the mind behind Limewire, has teamed up with a team familiar with geospatial editing to bring you GeoServer: an open source urban planning app. This new project allows users to map out their transportation routes and daily geographical events to then vote for more bicycles paths or public transportation. Also, users will be able to vote on whether they would rather have a gas station or a public park built on a new piece of land. Much like Google Maps allows its users to customize maps to display routes on a pre-existing grid, GeoServer hopes to provide similar urban planning opportunities.

Thomas K. Wright, who is executive director of the Regional Plan Association, is very positive about its potential:

“99 percent of planning in the United States is volunteer citizens on Tuesday nights in a high school gym….Creating a software that can reach into that dynamic would be very profound, and open it up, and shine light on the decision-making. Right now, it becomes competing experts trying to out-credential each other in front of these citizen and volunteer boards… [Gorton] could actually change the whole playing field.”

GeoServer is allowing citizens to voice their concerns and be engaged in community planning processes.

This is going to have some very beneficial effects on the way urban planning can and will be undertaken. Planners will now have access to information from the people themselves about what they want and what they think would be beneficial for the neighbourhoods with which they are most familiar. With these tools at their disposal, non-expert residents will be more involved and tools like this will allow for more of a democratic approach to urban planning decisions.

Possibly the most important aspect of allowing the average person to voice their concern without having knowledge of planning practice and/or Geospatial Information Systems is the question of compatibility among user information and program datasets. Luckily GeoServer can display the spatial and mapped data people upload to a P2P server onto various mapping software/application [ArcGIS or Google Maps]

This new program is just another step in the growing world of open source media and peer to peer sharing of ideas, files and information. GeoServer is just another step in adapting to and planning for our world’s ever increasing complexity and interconnectivity.

Use of Digital Earths for Good and Evil

Friday, December 18th, 2009

CH, from Intro GIS, continues our surveillance posts

Google Earth is a virtual globe that contains fairly high resolution images of certain locations on the globe. A multi-featured version of Google Earth has been freely available to the public since its release several years ago. Users can browse the entire globe where they can search and zoom into cities, places of interest and specific addresses. Anyone who has the minimum requirements necessary to run Google Earth, can use it however they please. This unrestricted use of Google Earth may pose an alarming security threat. Although certain government facilities are hidden on it, terrorists and criminals have used what is available to commit crimes with precision and efficiency thanks to the satellite pictures. It is alarming that a group like the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade have admitted to using this freeware to plan and execute attacks on Israel. The use of Google Earth for attacks like this is one of the results of such accurate, complex imagery being provided for anyone and everyone to access.

Another example of when this information has been accessed by the wrong people was the 2008 Mumbai terror attack on two luxury hotels. The terrorists responsible were able to familiarize themselves with the area of their attack that left 171 dead. There is no question that without free programs such as Google Earth, terrorist attacks will not stop, but they simply make it that much easier for the terrorists to carry out such attacks. It makes sense to block out sensitive information and images; however, this alone will not prevent the ability to plan attacks on the public. It would be far to difficult for authorities or Google to screen each user, every time they look something up. This would also raise privacy issues for the common user. The concept of virtual earths is a complicated one that will always have safety and privacy issues due to the function it performs.

Africa GIS International Conference

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

The Africa GIS International Conference is held every two years to discuss problems with and applications of GIS across the African continent. The conferences in 2005 and 2007 were held in South Africa and Burkina Faso respectively, while this year’s conference was held in October in Kampala, Uganda. The conference deals with identifying the limitations of Africa’s current geo-information technologies and systems and its goal is to discuss possible solutions and set up relationships between individuals and organizations collecting data throughout the continent. The conference is a place for geo-information specialists to gather and share new developments, as well as to find others who would be interested in contributing to new projects. It also provides a forum for data and ideas to be shared, and for pressing issues to be brought to attention.

The problems facing Africa today numerous and complex, and every two years the conference draws up a list of themes to focus on and invites people to present papers and projects in those fields. This allows the conference to focus on problems that are unique to the continent, and create geo-information systems and datasets that are specifically suited to these problems. The themes for this year’s conference were climate change, natural resource management, challenges created by urbanization and the business aspect of creating and storing data in Africa. From these themes we can see that the difficulties are all related to development. The countries themselves are still developing and coping with impacts on their environment and natural resources, as well coping with the emergent infrastructure that is lagging behind the rapid development or urban centers and the rapid rise in population. GIS can be used to monitor these changes and to analyze them to be better prepared to respond to them, but a lack of infrastructure will limit their data collection and distribution, as well as storage and analysis. Since the first conference in 2005, Spatial Data Infrastructure has been an important topic, and part of Africa GIS’ goals is to bring people together who can created this infrastructure, share information and communicate with outside sources who could provide data to fill in the gaps, such as high quality satellite imagery.

The challenges of a developing nation can be overwhelming, and these conferences may be placing a lot of hope in Geographic Information Science to resolve these issues, but since a recently developed technology is being applied to a situation where nothing of the sort has previously been attempted, it can be done right the first time instead of having to correct datasets and procedures that were begun decades ago. This is a chance to create a community of geo-information specialists in Africa where data and ideas are shared to bring new developments and advances to this system as soon as they arise. Hopefully this conference can facilitate the sharing of information and the creation of a standard for GIScience in Africa, and can be used to find new approaches to the problems at hand.

Thanks to VB, Intro GIS

all eyes on North Korea

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

Though stringent border security and diplomatic isolation may give North Korea the reputation of a “hermit kingdom,” geospatial technology allows Westerners, from the comfort of their personal computers, to view past the smiling gymnasts of the Pyongyang Mass Games and explore the workings of the world’s most secretive society. An initiative called North Korea Uncovered uses Google Earth as a platform for mapping North Korea’s features- from power lines to government offices to forced labor camps. Since it launched in May 2007, the project has added features successively to their publicly-available map. The latest version, released in June 2009, contains thousands of point, line, and polygon features sorted into dozens of layer categories and hundreds of subcategories. As a mashup, the project maintains active links between locations on the map and online information resources; for example, at the mapped entrance to Labor Camp 15, users can click on a link to a Youtube video containing footage of the camp.

To supplement Google Earth’s remotely sensed images of North Korea (most of which come from SPOT), the project matches higher-resolution aerial photos and maps to the ground layer of satellite imagery. For instance, see the image embedded below containing a high-resolution photo of Camp 15 matched to the SPOT satellite graphic.

The creators of the project are receptive to user-contributed content. Because very few members of the general public have access to information on North Korea, most information comes from self-selecting experts including former members of the US military, political researchers, and North Korean expatriates. Curtis Melvin, who began the project, cross-checks all submitted information to maintain the site’s credibility and accuracy. Information is contributed to the system in a method known as “crowd sourcing.” When the project was launched, the directors posted it on relevant websites in an effort to attract attention and information from the “crowd,” or unidentified public. The submitted information becomes the property of the project itself, rather than the submitter. Many nonprofit internet information projects use this same model, as do many private businesses (which sometimes even offer financial rewards for information submissions). The key uniqueness and power of crowd sourcing is that, by encouraging any member of the informed public to contribute their knowledge, valuable information can come from sources the project organizers would never have known to consult.

The implications of a project like “North Korea Uncovered” shake our notions of power structure in the age of the Internet. Thanks to the simple technique of crowd sourcing and the knowledge of scattered members of the public, anybody with access to the Internet can view information which a totalitarian regime has dedicated itself to restricting. However, questions must be drawn to Google’s role in disseminating and controlling such information. With its history of catering to China’s demands on restricting information, can users rely on Google Earth to provide a groundwork for information sharing of a controversial nature? If a similar project called “The US Army Uncovered” were initiated by members of the public to investigate conditions at US war prisons, would Google make its system equally available to their use? It is ironic that in this age of information overload, crowd sourcing, and public data sharing via the Internet, we still rely on either private corporations or government agencies, in spite of their priorities or agendas, to provide us mediums for information exchange such as Digital Earths and search engines.

From JL, Intro GIS

Greener Streets Thanks to GPS?

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

Nitrogen oxide and reactive hydrocarbons from motor vehicle exhaust make up the majority of urban pollution. This, along with ever increasing congestion, has prompted Dutch legislators and environmental activists to attempt to change driving patterns. The Nederlands government has decided to abolish its annual road and car purchase tax for drivers and instead to charge the average car 0.03€ per kilometre driven, and an even higher rate for driving done during rush hour or periods of congestion. For larger automobiles, trucks and commercial vehicles, this charge will be even higher, considering that these motor vehicles emit more pollutants. The kilometre tax will increase every year until 2018 (when it will reach 0.068€), and will be augmented if driving patterns do not change. But how will the government monitor how much each individual is driving and during which times? By using Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking technology. By 2012, a monitoring device will be installed in every car in the Netherlands and will track the amount of kilometres traveled, the time of travel and the location of the vehicle. This information will then be sent to a billing agency.

The Dutch government is pressed to do something about vehicle use, because their road network has some of the most congested and often used roads in all of Europe. With the GPS technology in place, the Dutch Ministry of Transportation hopes that congestion will decrease on roads during rush hours, and there are already estimates that overall driving will decrease by 15 percent and that rush hour congestion will be halved. On top of this, the ministry also hopes that car accidents will decrease by 7 percent due to less stressed drivers, and that carbon emissions will decrease by 10 percent. There are several opponents in this debate, because firstly, people who drive for business reasons will be heavily taxed, and it could cost the government over 1 billion Euros ($1.5 billion US) in tax income that would otherwise be earned by an annual road tax. At the same time, some argue that the GPS system will be like “Big Brother” –-constantly monitoring the locations of drivers at all hours. However, the Ministry of Transportation has assured the public that the information from the individual GPSs would be “legally and technically protected” and that the data would only be available to the government for the purpose of kilometre billing.

Other countries are also considering this option as a way of reducing car use, but it must be remembered that the Netherlands is roughly the size of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia and, unlike Canada, has an extensive and highly developed public rail and transportation network. This means that commuting from rural to urban areas or vice versa is far less of a problem than it would be in a Canadian city. If this kilometre tax were to be implemented in a city like Toronto for example, those living in rural areas and being forced to commute into the city would often have no choice other than to drive, there being no alternatives available. At the same time, it has not yet been talked about what occurs when an in-car GPS system breaks down. And what happens when the noise, bias or blunder errors from GPS are so bad that individuals are being charged fines that do not correspond to the number of kilometres they drove? Lastly, GPS satellites are owned by the U.S. military. Without an agreement or contract, the Dutch government cannot be sure that this service will be available to them forever and at all periods of time. Despite these possible problems, it is good to see that governments are finally taking serious action to decrease the use of motor-vehicles, even if this means accepting a little help from Big Brother.

Thanks, MV, Intro GIS

“Environmentalism and the rethinking of intellectual property,” Prof. Mario Biagioli, 4 December 2009

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Prof. Biogioli began his lecture by describing the patenting of the oncomouse, a genetically modified mouse used as a “tool” in cancer research. Concerns over the ethics of patenting living things aside, this struck me as an interesting and disturbing trend in scientific discovery. Not only are the final products of the research patented, in this case anti-cancer drugs, but also the methods whereby these discoveries are made. In this age of increased concerns over environmental problems, such as climate change and fisheries which are by their nature collective action problems, we require scientists to work together as never before. A research environment in which scientists jealously guard the secrets of their methods is antithetical to this end.

In other cases, however, it appears that the method is not important. For example, in the US, when applying for a patent of a new plant line, the breeder does not need to specify the specific techniques used when he or she applies for a patent for a new line. This bypasses what would (could?) otherwise constitute a problem in the differentiation between “invention” and “discovery” – plant breeding depends in large part on natural processes of genetic mutation and recombination, and so in many cases these really are cases of discovery, not invention. Where then does the responsibility for these “inventions/discoveries” lie – is the inventor responsible for her own creation? And how do we consider the products of other human inventions? To take the question to an extreme, how then do we consider climate change, the product of many different human, and perhaps patented, inventions? Is the role of the patent only to protect those who hold it from having their work plagiarized? Where is the mechanism that protects the rest of us from the invention? Presumably, the patenting process is ultimately a tool for meeting the needs of society as a whole. Currently in Canada, there has been ongoing debate over copyright law, which is another, related form of intellectual property protection. Debate has raged because of this very question: ultimately, who is intellectual property law designed to protect, and what is its larger purpose within society? Should it be concerned with only the short term gains of those who hold the rights to intellectual property, or is there a larger, longer-term goal which it should be meeting? What is its ethical mandate, and what are the consequences for local, national and global society if it does not meet this mandate?

Emergent Diseases and Urbanized Environments

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Prof. Lea Berrang Ford’s seminar at the Institute for Health and Social Policy looked at the effects of climate change, present and predicted, on human health, in particular on the emergence of infectious diseases. Prof. Berrang Ford began her seminar by discussing McMichael’s four major historical transitions in human population dispersal which led to periods of high rates of emergence of new diseases. I found this to be a particularly interesting way to frame the problem of emergence diseases, because it places them firmly within the context of the environment. Often we only think about infectious diseases after their emergence, when our concerns are regarding cure and slowing of spread within a population. We forget the important relationship these diseases have with the environment, especially in their original emergence. The first of these historical phases was during the advent of local agrarian ecology, which coincided with a settling phase, leading to a concentration of people, their animals and their wastes. The second phase was characterized by an increase in multiregional overland trade and warfare (e.g., interactions between the ancient Greek and Roman empires). The third coincided with European transcontinental travel and colonial exploitation. McMichael hypothesizes that we are now into the fourth phase, which is characterized by air travel. This has changed the dynamics of the spread of disease, from continuous overland spread to “hopping” between cities, which act as “hubs” for further spread. This is due to an increase in human travel, but also in animal travel and “globalization” of food production. The importance of the movement of animals is of particular importance when we consider that more than 50% of emergent infectious diseases are zoonoses (i.e. diseases originating in domestic animals and wildlife).

This year marked a significant global demographic shift: for the first time more people are living in cities than in rural areas. From what we know about the environmental impacts of cities (e.g., they are heat islands, they are large concentrated sources of waste, and they require the burning of large amounts of fossil fuels to bring in sufficient supplies, etc.), this should already signal a necessary shift in how cities are planned and managed. From the perspective of emergent infectious diseases, we should be even more concerned. High density centres, paired with high travel between these centres, sets up super-highways along which diseases can spread. Paradoxically, it seems that now more than ever, when more and more people are living “away from nature,” we need to consider the place of cities within the environment when we are planning them.

Redistricting, Gerrymandering, and the role of GIS

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

The periodic redrawing of electoral district boundaries through the process of “redistricting” is necessary in a representational democracy with changing population distributions and compositions. In the redistricting process electoral districts are manipulated to achieve fair representation and competitiveness in elections. For example, redistricting can ensure that minority communities of interest receive fair representation through the creation of districts where these communities have a local majority. However redistricting can also be used maliciously, for example to generate electoral outcomes that favour one political party over another. The process of intentionally manipulating electoral district boundaries, through the creation of unusually shaped districts to produce desired electoral outcomes is known as “gerrymandering”. Historically gerrymandering has been difficult to prove; however, the widespread development of GIS in the 1990s fundamentally changed the redistricting process and generated hope of a solution to the problem of gerrymandering. It was initially thought that this technology would increase transparency, making gerrymandering easier to distinguish and prevent. While GIS has revolutionized the process of redistricting, producing many benefits, it has not yet provided a solution to gerrymandering. According to some, GIS has exacerbated the problem.

GIS enables those who are adept to manipulate, analyze, and cartographically display spatially-referenced population data with greater ease than ever before and has certainly made redistricting far less labour intensive. This has made the process of redistricting more open to citizens and various interest groups. The ability to display and represent vast amounts of information has made the identification and location of communities of interest infinitely easier. GIS has also been effectively used to monitor and enforce voting laws. For example in the United States the Department of Justice has used GIS to enforce the Voting Rights Act, helping to democratize political participation. However some argue that it is the political parties who have benefited most from GIS technology. Through GIS, political parties have gained the ability to generate and compare thousands of gerrymanders very quickly, while the use of analytical GIS techniques allows parties to predict electoral outcomes with increasing precision. The end result being that political parties are now able to produce increasingly sophisticated gerrymanders.

GIS has not increased our ability to identify precisely what a gerrymander is and when one occurs. This is largely due to the fact that the definition of gerrymandering remains ambiguous. GIS may be able to analyze spatially-referenced data, helping us to identify and locate communities of interest; however it cannot tell us how to make socially acceptable redistricting decisions regarding the community. Ultimately the decision as to whether a community should be concentrated in a single electoral district or dispersed through many districts, and what constitutes an unusually shaped district, is a value-based judgment made by people. Therefore, although GIS has undoubtedly transformed the process of redistricting and facilitated desirable analyzes, it has not provided a solution to the subjective process of defining and identifying gerrymandering.

Eagles, M., Katz, R.S., Mark, D. 2000. “Controversies in political redistricting: GIS, geography, and society”. Political Geography. 19 2, pp. 135-139

Forest, B. 2005. The changing demographic, legal, and technological contexts of political representation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America.

From CE, Intro to GIS

The Nature/Society Divide

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Our society has developed by excluding ourselves from nature. Although we may not be conscious of it, we hold a deeply rooted belief that nature and society are distinct. Everyday, we affirm this separation through our resources extraction policies, bulging cities and increasing levels of pollution. Such a disconnection from the natural world can have negative impacts on the environment, which, to spite our conviction that we are exempt from nature, can lead to detrimental consequences for social systems.

Mario Biagoli, speaker at the D. Lorne Gales Lectures on December 4th, provides interesting insight on how the nature/society divide emerges in the debate over intellectual property rights. Copyright law supports the distinction between humans and nature, attributing intellectual property rights to human ideas and works, but not those of nature. However, through imagery of the commons as a natural and productive meadow, the opponents of intellectual property rights apply the same logic of the nature/society divide to express their opinion that information and ideas should remain in the public domain. Mario Biagoli suggests that we must alter our perceptions of humanity and nature in order to clearly address the issue of intellectual property rights. After all, “a person is original because a person is nature.”

Perhaps, then, it follows that the path to solving to our wide-ranging problems, from ecological degradation to intellectual property rights begins with dissolving the barrier between nature and society and envisioning ourselves within the realm of the natural world. 

assessing sea level rise using geographic information systems

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Increased attention is given to environmental issues at the meeting of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. As carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere due to anthropologenic activities, more and more solar radiation gets trapped inside Earth’s atmosphere, increasing the average temperature. This had a direct impact on continental glaciers as well as alpine glaciers, causing them to melt and flow into the oceans. A large part of Earth’s freshwater (about 70%) is stored in glaciers, which is why their melting has the potential to increase sea levels of several meters. This rise can cause many problems for people living on islands or in coastal regions. As water rises, part of land will be completely submerged and others will get severely eroded due to the increase in wave energy and increased storm magnitudes. Expensive operations like community relocation or community protection will have to be put in place in order to avoid human losses. To be able to assess the need for action, several methods have been developed, using GIS.

Scientists at the University of Kansas have developed a technique for analysing the internal structure of glacial ice, which will then help them assess the status of the glacier. When more ice melts from the glacier than is accumulated due to precipitation, the glacier shrinks. This is the current state of most of he world’s glaciers. Although they have rates of decrease that seem insignificant at a human time scale, these rates are very fast when analysed at a geological time scale. By looking at glacial profiles using radar, not ice cores, the analysis becomes less time-consuming and data easier to gather although the costs may be higher.

In Australia, GIS is incorporated in a climate model to allow for the fast first analysis of impacts of sea level rise at the scale of a beach. This method is cost-effective as it does not involve expensive aerial photography on a range of years. It allows a management committee to have an overview of the upcoming situation without spending large amounts of money that could be better invested in damage control.

For the general public, a Google Maps application has been developed to visualize sea level rise. Users can choose three values of sea level rise, each of which corresponds to a colour. When the user runs the app, a series of coloured dots appear on the landmasses displayed on Google Maps. The use of this app requires no computing skills and is very fast. It is perfect for educational purposes or for aspiring environmentalists, although it is insufficiently accurate to use for spatial analysis that would eventually lead to decision making.

thanks to CA, Intro to GIS, for the post.

livestock in Kenya aided by remote sensing and cellphones

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

Imagine being a livestock herder, subsisting in a small community south of Nairobi in Kenya. Drought is a cyclical phenomenon in your grassland environment, and whenever it hits, you might come across a zebra carcass, or weep at the loss of one of your own cattle. One of the largest repercussions begins the moment drought becomes pervasive; everyone starts trying to sell animals before they die, and the price for livestock plummets. This is potentially the original meaning of the “stock” market, and the large investment you made in your animals over time is now nearly worthless. Frustrated, you wish you had sold your animals earlier, just before the drought when the price was normal.

The technology of remote sensing actually has large repercussions for communities such as yours, because of its capacity to observe large-scale trends and extrapolate into the future. Data collected by satellite avoids the high cost of groundwork in such large areas, and can provide global climate information that is not otherwise evident to people on the ground. Many researchers have extolled the virtues of remote-sensing operations for predicting drought and enabling mitigation strategies by those who would otherwise be adversely affected, and advocate for local policy-makers to institute this technology.

Hearing this, as a member of the local community, you might wonder how you will receive such information. You are aware that your tribe has extensive methods for predicting droughts, but feel open to the idea of reinforcing your predictions based on remote sensing data. However, you are not regularly in touch with the Internet. The families of your tribe are located at great distances throughout the landscape so it is difficult to approach everyone at once. Here, again, geospatial communications technologies can serve their own purposes! All the adults you know have a cell phone (even if they don’t read), and everyone can be connected to a larger network of information dissemination almost instantly. This type of alert has been proposed for fires in South Africa, and could revolutionize your access to drought early-warning systems. If everyone who was interested was able to register their phone number at the outset, information could be transmitted easily and quickly around the area, in a fashion timely enough for people to hedge their bets on when to sell their animals and prepare for a coming drought. Indeed, a relatively easy-to-use cell phone alert platform has been developed for crisis situations in developing countries. It is thought-provoking to anticipate that the food insecurity pervasive in the current Kenyan drought could be potentially mitigated.

Thanks to EC, Intro to GIS, for the post

microbe diversity

Saturday, December 5th, 2009

GIS has been an integral part of epidemiological research for more than a decade and its roles in this particular field of research have been diverse: the mapping of disease incidence and prevalence, modeling of patterns of spread, correlation of morbidity and mortality to specific geographical, climatic or political zones. It has often also been used in projection modeling – for example to attempt to estimate the changes in disease vector range in response to climate change. McGill’s own Dr. Lea Berrang Ford’s work is a prime example of the modern applications of GIS in public health science.

Another field where GIS has penetrated quite rapidly was that of biodiversity and conservation. Neither of these disciplinary partnerships are particularly surprising, considering the strong spatial component of both areas of research.
Never the less, it is always possible to count on GIS to surprise us with its potential to drastically change the direction of a long-lived scientific debate, methodology or paradigm. As I [MP] was browsing through New Scientist during one of those procrastination moments typical of undergraduate midterm period, I stumbled upon an article that did just that. It was about microbial diversity. Whenever was microbial diversity a subject for debate? Oh, only since the very beginnings of evolutionary science. The problem is an interesting one: considering the thousands of species that can be found in a mere 30g of soil (usually, this is defined by bacteria that differ in more than 30% of their genome), the diversity of microbial life on earth must be staggering. It is also incalculable – one cannot sample all bacteria found in soil. At best, we can only extrapolate. When biologists do, they tend to place their estimates of bacterial diversity to about 1011 species worldwide. That’s 1011 different types of organisms, fulfilling myriads of different functional roles, living in myriads of different environments. How do we study their response to human processes like agriculture, or their response to phenomena like climate change? How do we integrate them in disease spread models? How do we know when a keystone organism has gone extinct?

David Wilkinson attempted to answer (more…)

Technology as Accomplice: The use of GIS in criminal activity

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

Last month, GIS and satellite imagery made international news when it was shown that a group of teenaged burglars who are being called the “Bling Ring” used voyeuristic websites dedicated to celebrities as a tool to take jewelry from stars’ homes. These burglars monitored victims through gossip sites like TMZ and studied their houses from satellite imagery available online.

One site used by the burglars that has come under great scrutiny was Torontonian David Ruppel’s The site offers “unprecedented access to the sort of lifestyle your favorite celebrity can afford” as well as satellite images of these homes and information on their layout.

While various applications of GIS have been used in crime prevention—by police mapping out better routes based on the frequency of crime during certain times of day or year, or by citizens reporting crimes via Google Earth pushpins—the use of this same technology by criminals is a legitimate concern.

In an interview with the Toronto Star, David Ruppel defended his use of satellite imagery for profit as simply a modern version of a “star map.” He professes no guilt about providing critical information to the Bling Ring, nor about using technology to surveil the lives of stars.

When people debate whether or not certain uses for GIS constitute an invasion of privacy, it is often in a theoretical sense. Arguments made reference “Big Brother” and often hinge on slippery slope fallacies. In a recent L.A. Times editorial on the burglaries, the columnist claims that “it’s not long before a satellite is capable of zooming in on a nude sunbather inside his or her own fenced backyard.” While that comes off as a bit absurd, these burglaries are a concrete, demonstrable situation in which the use of satellite imagery had a negative impact on the lives of individuals.

In weighing the benefits of public access to GIS technologies against harm caused by crimes like these, there are a few key questions: By making surveillance of victims easier, does GIS technology—like satellite imagery or Google’s new Latitude application that tracks your real-time location—encourage crime? Would these crimes still have transpired? Did GIS give the criminals advantages they wouldn’t have had otherwise?

From AF, Intro GIS