Big data and more

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Themes from the last fortnight have been big data, divestment from fossil fuels and high air pollution.

Big data revolution

Big data is the most commercially and politically significant technology of the decade. It’s a series of techniques and technologies that enable governments and commercial companies to monitor and collect huge amounts of data on the behaviour of internet users, but until recently the advantages weren’t fully utilised by the scientific community.

Headlines were made last year when Edward Snowden leaked the extensive big data global surveillance programme being run by the National Security Agency in the US, and the technology has never been far from the news since; the Guardian recently held a live online chat session on what governments should do with big data that was designed to “transform public services and kickstart innovation”, and the technology is being used to analyse electronic voting in the Indian elections.

Although the commercial industry in big data and associated marketing services is growing and predicted to reach $32 billion by 2017 a surprising laggard in uptake has been the science community. The reason is that non-open access publishers have refused to allow text mining of their copyrighted research papers without permission being sought. This could change, though, thanks to a new report from the European Commission recommending legal reform of text and data mining (TDM) that would enable science papers to be included in online searches.  Added to a new European law opening up clinical trial data, this has been a good fortnight for big data in science.

But the big data revolution doesn’t solve all ills. It was recently reported that Google Flu Trends failed for the third year running this winter. The software attempts to trace the spread of flu across America by location mapping key search terms like ‘fever’ and ‘cough’ and thereby anticipate outbreaks so medical resources can be allocated more effectively. Its repeated failure shows the limits of big data, however, wide investment along with more accessible information, like what will soon be provided by Nature in their soon-to-launch journal Scientific Data, shows that the big data revolution is only just beginning.

Fossil fuel divestment

The divestment movement picked up pace with the news that Harvard University signed a UN-backed code of responsible investment. An article in the BMJ also called for divestment from medical institutions and Archbishop Desmond Tutu talked of a “moral pressure” to boycott fossil fuel investment. But what is divestment? It’s simply the selling of stocks and shares in fossil fuel companies then using the money to buy stocks and shares in other companies.

On global markets, the value of fossil fuel companies is based on all known fossil fuel reserves and is around £900 billion. If burned, the known fossil fuel reserves would emit five times more carbon dioxide (2,795 gigatonnes) than is permitted to limit global warming to 2°C (565 gigatonnes). So if the current international consensus brings global warming down to the agreed level of 2°C then stock in these companies is massively overvalued. In the light of climate science and international consensus it is therefore sensible to sell that stock while the price is still high and use the money to buy stock elsewhere. Universities don’t lose any money by divesting, and by not divesting they’re financially supporting the continued burning of known fossil fuel reserves as well as the exploration for more reserves. More on divestment is available from I, science here and here.

Alongside the oil and gas industry being overvalued, the BBC recently exposed how the world subsidizes the fossil fuel industry with £500 billion a year. Clearly, both financial markets and government subsidies don’t seem to have caught up with the international consensus on limiting CO2 emissions. Eric Chivian pointed out there are also negative medical consequences of climate change in a recent article in the BMJ, which has prompted MedAct and Healthy Planet UK to call for the fossil fuel divestment of medical institutions including the British Medical Association, the Royal Colleges and the Wellcome Trust. A response from some medics accused Chivian of “sixth form activism” but Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the Guardian pointed out that divestment pressure helped end apartheid in South Africa, and should be used to do the same with the fossil fuel industry. Right now we can only guess at what effect divestment in fossil fuels by the most learned institutions around the world would have on the mindset of sluggish governments and power-drunk oil and gas executives.

Red dust blues

Earlier this fortnight, red dust from the Sahara desert swirled to such heights that it traveled all the way across Europe and came to ground on parts of the UK, causing respiratory problems for some. News bulletins warned that people suffering from lung or heart difficulties should not exercise outside during the high pollution period and Prime Minister David Cameron announced he was foregoing his morning run to set an example.

Although the Saharan dust alarm soon blew away, the dissatisfaction with UK air pollution levels remained. The Guardian reported that pollution is responsible for one in eight deaths worldwide, the Independent announced that pollution takes six months off the life expectancy of the average Briton and the Telegraph pinned the death of Robert Berry in the London Marathon squarely on smog. The EU now seem completely justified in the recent legal proceedings they launched against the UK for persistently failing to bring pollution levels down to safe levels. So what’s the solution?

Cars are big emitters in built up areas but plans to mediate their pollution levels are contradictory. Some say switch from diesel to petrol cars to reduce nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons while others insist the more fuel-efficient diesel cars reduce CO2 emissions and therefore reduce warming and the amount of pollution held in the air. There is a third option, which is turning to electric cars and the last fortnight has seen steady progress for this emerging technology. Electric cars are being taken up in Bournemouth hospitals and in Wokingham among other places, plus EU legislation recently passed to standardise power sockets, and to force cars to make noise in order to overcome safety fears. The electric car sharing service Autolib will be starting in London soon so you can drive one yourself for as little as £5 for 30 minutes and from this summer ten major cities around the world will host Formula E racing for the first time. Which drivers will you support?

 

IMAGE: Infocux technologies, Flickr

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