March 20, 2009
Using Search and Social Media to Save the World
Can search save the world? That’s a question ecological researchers are asking themselves as they look at the global use of keywords in search queries and social media posts. A study from the UK and Sweden published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment suggests using web crawlers to find and spider this information could speed currently ponderous environmental monitoring procedures. While human activity is altering the Earth’s ecosystems at an unsustainable increasing pace, human observation is tracking, recording and documenting environmental destruction in every part of the planet. As this information is thought about and recorded, it is applied to web documents, used in search queries and placed in blog and social media posts. Once on the web in one way or another, information can be crawled or spidered and thus “discovered” and compiled into an overview of the planet’s health from the perspective of its human inhabitants. The idea is similar to the concept of Google Flu Trends which uses search queries from across the United States to give a very accurate assessment of the spread of flu viruses across the nation. Author of the study, Tim Daw of the University of East Anglia said in a press release, “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.” According to the blog kept by the study’s authors,
“The challenge is that existing monitoring systems are not at all in tune with the speed of social, economical and ecological changes. The implication: rapid and often irreversible loss of ecosystem services vital for human well-being and security for example, clear water, food from marine resources and agricultural landscapes, and mitigation of natural hazards. Meanwhile, the development of informal communications and information sources across the internet offers a novel source of monitoring data to track, identify and perhaps even foresee vital changes in ecosystem services. For example the potential for webcrawlers to detect disease outbreaks based on news reports on the web has already been demonstrated. We explore the potential for similar technologies to revolutionize ecological monitoring.”Daw and his colleagues at the Stockholm University Resilience Centre are seeking ideas, suggestions and inspiration from web users and other ecologists in comments on their blog.