Ecologists go online, the world benefits?

Science can take a page out of the World Health Organization’s book when it comes to tracking and aiding in global health.  Its online database, the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN), is an early disease detection system developed by Health Canada; it collects data on unusual disease events by monitoring news wires, websites and online newspapers in eight languages.

As a result, GPHIN currently captures the first hints of about 40% of approximately 200 subsequent disease outbreaks. Most notably, GPHIN gave one of the first warnings of a suspected flu outbreak in China in 2002; three months later, it was identified as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

But what can ecologists take away from this? According to Victor Galaz from the Stockholm Resilience Center in Sweden, who also contributes to the blog Resilience Science, they can use this same style of information tracking to monitor and aid ecosystem services on a global scale.

Already ecological scientists are taking advantage of internet resources through forums such as Ecolog-L, blogs on ecology and conservation, wikis, online databases and even Twitter. In Galaz’s study, published in the March issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, research on social and ecological systems have pointed to developments that could provide early warning of damage to ecosystem services.

For example, the live reef fish trade, which supplies seafood to restaurants in Asia, follows a “boom-and-bust” pattern mostly affecting reefs and marine life. Galaz proposes using a web crawler, like the GPHIN, to track trade advertisements, availability of products, prices, number of suppliers and announcements, among others.

In addition, he suggests submitting these data to be analyzed: “The collection and presentation of signals need to be supplemented by expert analysis, knowledge management approaches and an understanding of local ecological and social conditions. Only then will we be able to obtain robust estimates of possible impacts and to evaluate the possible countermeasures or adaptation strategies that might be used in response.”

Galaz, V., Crona, B., Daw, T., Bodin, �., Nyström, M., & Olsson, P. (2010). Can web crawlers revolutionize ecological monitoring? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 8 (2), 99-104 DOI: 10.1890/070204

Author: Katie Kline

Moderator of EcoTone and ESA's communications officer.

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