• An aggregator with a twist: links to breaking news, research, blogs, websites, reviews, videos. Curated for contextual relevance.

  • TrackerNews Index

  • Special TrackerNews Haiti Resources page

  • Twitter

    • How much did reducing the carbon in new iPhone add to the record price points? #VERGE2017 1 day ago
    • To the panel: Puerto Rico needs to build a new grid / microgrids / distributed generation - What do you suggest? #VERGE2017 @elaineishere 1 day ago
    • If all the buses go EV, but the utility doesn't source clean energy, what's the bottom line? #VERGE2017 1 day ago
    • UPS has been experimenting with EVs - predictions about the future of the fleet? Batteries? Hydrogen? #VERGE2017 1 day ago
    • Have there been any studies on living buildings and human health? comparisons looking at rates of asthma, cancer, depression? #VERGE2017 1 day ago
    • How does the Circular City paradigm embed environmental justice principles (per Van Jones)?#VERGE17 @elaineishere 1 day ago

The TrackerNews Editor’s Blog Has MOVED…

The complete archive of posts can now be found here.

 

 

The Days, Years After: Recovering from Bigger, Badder Disasters

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Link suite overview: on recovering from disasters; the lessons of Irene, Joplin, Fukushima, Pakistan flood, Queensland flood, Christchurch quakes, Haiti quakes, Katrina; collateral damage and eco-smart design as insurance

Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

It has been a banner year for disasters in the US with  a record-breaking 10 “billion-dollar-plus” knock-out punches, and still four months to go. So far: massive blizzards, epic floods, murderous tornadoes and one staggeringly large, coast-shredding hurricane. As  a grace note, an earthquake on an previously unknown fault in Virginia put cracks in the Washington monument—a wound as disturbing symbolically as structurally.

Globally, the news is no less jaw-dropping: Floods stretching to the horizon in Australia and Pakistan. Two devastating earthquakes each for New Zealand and Haiti. And a trifecta of tragedy in Japan where an earthquake triggered a tsunami that drowned a nuclear plant.

Droughts—comparatively stealthy as disasters go—only grab headlines when people start keeling over from starvation by the tens of thousands (Somalia), or crop losses are so large, sticker shock sets in at the grocery store, while global food security—which means global security—becomes notably less secure (Russia, US).

The only bright spot in this litany of gloomy news is that communication during and about disasters has improved markedly.  As Hurricane Irene buzz-sawed its way up the eastern seaboard, The Weather Channel went into overdrive, leading a media mob—both mainstream and “citizen”—reporting, tweeting, crowdmapping, photographing, making videos, texting donations, aggregating, blogging, facebooking, and sharing every last little nugget of awful news.

It made a difference. People got out of harm’s way. Although the death toll has now climbed into mid-forties, with likely a few thousand more injured, an estimated 65 million people felt some part of Irene’s fury. Most stayed safe, which is remarkable.

Yet for all the technical brilliance that made it possible to track a weather blip off the coast of Africa to its lethal landfall an ocean away, or to plan mass evacuations, share safety tips and keep track of loved ones, there was no stopping Irene. Financial losses may have been less than expected—mostly because property values are lower in Vermont than in New York City—but they are enormous and devastating. Homes have been torn apart, lives turned upside down.

The collateral damage has yet to be tallied from lost incomes, delayed school starts, exposure to toxic mold, toxic water, mosquito-borne illnesses and weakened infrastructure.

It becomes a vicious circle: Until businesses affected by the storm are up and running again, tax revenues will decline, making it that much more difficult to pay for repairs or proactive maintenance. In Japan and New Zealand, bonds and special taxes are now on the table to cope with recovery costs estimated in the tens of billions of dollars.

In fact, the high cost of these mega-disasters—often quoted a percentage of a country’s GDP—can itself become a cost. Insurance companies, faced with catastrophic losses, are hiking rates and cutting coverage. But the more businesses and home-owners are forced to spend on insurance and out-of-pocket expenses, the less money they have to expand businesses or make purchases.

There are also more people than ever in harm’s way. Much of the development in Queensland, Australia over the last 30 years, for example, was on a floodplain.

Although specific storms are difficult to link directly to climate change, our warmer world holds more moisture in its atmosphere than it did even just a few decades ago. That means there is more rain to to be rained, and more energy to interact and magnify well-known weather drivers such as El Nino / La Nina.

Whether or not this is the “new normal” remains to be seen. It certainly seems to be the “more frequent.”

IN RECOVERY

“The Days, Years After,” a new link suite story on the TrackerNews aggregator, looks at a half dozen disasters from the last few years, focusing on recovery efforts. Each disaster is tragic in its own way, but patterns emerge.

  • Political gridlock (Japan) can be just as devastating as corruption (Haiti) in slowing recovery
  • Good communications networks make a tangible difference (Joplin, New York)

On a more encouraging note, all sorts of new and better tools for  mapping, clean-up, construction and communication have emerged since Hurricane Katrina, all made accessible, and some made possible, by the web.

Many of the technologies are eco-smart, which turns out to be a good disaster defense strategy as well.

Imagine, for example, the difference it would have made if the electric grid in the Northeast had been based on a distributed power paradigm. Rather than large central power plants generating electricity transported over long distances on vulnerable wires, individual buildings and neighborhoods would generate their own, preferably green, power. Batteries capable of storing enough energy from solar panels and wind-turbines to power as many as 2,000 homes would be tied into local grid, which could, in turn, could be tied into a larger grid. A hurricane would still knock lights out, but not to millions of people.

Clean, green energy independence means energy insurance, too.

Additional highlights of the link suite include:

… and much more (all links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database)

RELATED

— @TrackerNews

More Incentive to Clean Up the Gulf: The X Prize Foundation Announces the Wendy Schmidt Oil Clean-up X Challenge

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Idea first floated at the TEDxOilSpill conference by Francis Belland of the X Prize Foundation and David Gallo of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute becomes real.

Since the BP gusher started spewing millions of gallons of crude oil and methane into the Gulf of Mexico more that three months ago, there have other high profile spills, including one of China’s largest, near the city of Dalian, that created a 170 mile slick. Closer to my home in Chicago, a pipeline break released over 800,000 gallons into western Michigan’s Kalamazoo river, which flows into Lake Michigan.

Last year, Australia took a one-two punch, first with a tanker spill that fouled 40 miles of Queensland’s coast, then an oil rig blow-out eerily similar to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. In Nigeria, oil spills have become such an every day nightmare – an estimated 7,000 between 1970 and 2000 – that the tally is measured in units of “Exxon Valdez” (over 50 and still counting).

Clearly, if you drill, it will spill. Although the X Prize Foundation’s Oil Clean-up Challenge was developed in response to the mess in the Gulf, its importance goes far beyond our local oily waters. “The oil industry has focused on,”How do you drill deeper, further, more efficiently. Little money has actually been spent so far on “How do you clean it up properly?’, ” notes Peter Diamandis,  X Prize CEO.

With $1.4 million in incentive prizes provided by the Schmidt Family Foundation, the Challenge is designed to wrap up next summer, with demonstrations of the promising technologies at the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility (OHMSETT) in Leonardo, New Jersey.

RELATED READING:

“Introducing the Oil Clean-up Challenge,” by Wendy Schmidt, Huffington Post

“TEDxOilSpill: Surface Slicks, Deep Water Despair, Galaxies of Oil Platforms and Why We Really, Truly, Don’t Need Oil” by J.A. Ginsburg, TrackerNews Editor’s Blog

Hot, Cold, Wet, Dry: When Weather Becomes Climate

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The past as prologue: fortune-telling from tree rings; The Green Revolution hits the skids: genetically resilient pathogens and monoculture crops

What happens when the future comes early? When does record-breaking weather segue from unfortunate inconvenience to an inconvenient truth?

Trailer from Al Gore's documentary on climate change

When…

  • the Rio Grande actually looks like a big raging river? Some sections along the U.S. / Mexican border have risen 17 feet and more above flood stage, cutting off clean water supplies, affecting tens of thousands of people, destroying thousands of homes and triggering mass evacuations. Or…

“Warmer than average global temperatures have become the new normal,” says Jay Lawrimore, chief of climate analysis at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, which tracks these numbers. “The global temperature has increased more than 1 degree Fahrenheit [0.7 degree C] since 1900 and the rate of warming since the late 1970s has been about three times greater than the century-scale trend.”…

…”Frankly, I was expecting that we’d see large temperature increases later this century with higher greenhouse gas levels and global warming,” Stanford climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh, who headed up the research, said in a prepared statement. “I did not expect to see anything this large within the next three decades.”

Was last Spring’s  Nashville flood, which took the region by surprise after 13 inches of rain fell in 24 hours, a local catastrophe or part of much larger trend? What about the 8 inch deluge than drowned Milwaukee last week? Or the second tornado ever to hit the Bronx?

WEATHER HAPPENS / CLIMATES CHANGE

If man-made greenhouse gases are behind the deadly weather, that’s good news: We can still do something about it. But as a new study of historic droughts in Asia shows, the ramifications of disturbed weather patterns can be devastating, no matter what the cause.

Scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory spent 15 years collecting samples from more than 300 sites across Asia to create an atlas of tree ring data for monsoon weather patterns. The correlations between major droughts and political unrest are striking, if not completely surprising. From the collapse of the Khmer civilization to the demise of the Ming Dynasty and the French Revolution, nothing topples a government faster than a desperate hungry mob.

Perhaps the worst drought, the scientists found, was the Victorian-era “Great Drought” of 1876-1878. The effects were felt across the tropics; by some estimates, resulting famines killed up to 30 million people. According to the tree-ring evidence, the effects were especially acute in India, but extended as far away as China and present-day Indonesia. Colonial-era policies left regional societies ill-equipped to deal with the drought’s consequences, as historian Mike Davis details in his book Late Victorian Holocausts. Famine and cholera outbreaks at this time in colonial Vietnam fueled a peasant revolt against the French.

The political opposition to the now crippled U.S. Climate Bill should be quaking in their boots. Given the staggering amount of scientific evidence linking human-generated greenhouse gas emissions to global warming and climate change, they will bear the blame for blocking action when it could have made a difference. (According to a new survey published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97% of scientists say climate change “very likely” has a man-made component.)

A BOUNTY OF BLIGHTS: CAUSE & EFFECT OR COINCIDENCE?

The cruelty of blight is uniquely insidious. Hopes, dreams and futures are destroyed along with crops. A blight is promise snatched away. In a matter of weeks, sometimes days, sometime hours, months of labor is laid to waste and investment is turned to debt.

It doesn’t take much: just a few invisible spores carried by the wind to a host plant. Once a botanical beach-head is established, blights – which thrive in the monocultures of modern agriculture – quickly become “community diseases,” spreading from plant to plant, field to field, region to region, painting once verdant fields black with the brush of death.

The first major victory in the The Green Revolution was genetic lab-tweak that made wheat impervious to a blight called stem rust, while also increasing yields – a rare and remarkable “two-fer” benefit. So significant was this breakthrough, plant biologist Norman Borlaug was award the Nobel Prize for it. The dream of eradicating hunger seemed within reach. Yet a little over a half-century later, the solution – crop protection provided by a single gene – has become part of the problem.

In 1999, a strain of rust was discovered in a wheat field in Uganda that had evolved past the genetic barrier. Dubbed “Ug99,” it has since splintered off into several strains or “races,” some of which are impervious to more recently developed multi-gene defenses. In a little over a decade, stem rust has traveled 5,000 miles and now threatens grain production in Africa and Asia, and indirectly threatens production everywhere else. From the pathogen’s perspective, all wheat has become more or less alike as diversity has been systematically bred away.

Wheat is the primary source of calories for millions of people worldwide, and accounts for around 30 percent of global grain production and 44 percent of cereals used as food. Globally, wheat provides nearly 55 percent of the carbohydrates and 20 percent of the food calories we consume every day.

Dr. Mahmoud Solh, Director General of the Syria-based International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).

With so much at stake, an international collaborative effort, spearheaded by the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, is playing a frantic game of defense, developing resistant strains to deploy strategically as barriers to slow the blight’s spread. But the work requires the cooperation of countries otherwise at odds, such as India and Pakistan. And it takes money: steady, dependable funding and lots of it.

Stem rust isn’t the only globetrotting super-pathogen:

  • An especially aggressive strain of brown streak virus is attacking Cassava, a staple for 800 million people in Africa, Asia and South America. In the 6 years since it was first spotted in East Africa, it has spread at pandemic speed. Cassava, a drought-tolerant plant that requires very little tending, is particularly important for regions beset with malaria and HIV/AIDS. Its loss means billions of dollars more needed for basic food aid. Cassava is also under siege from mealybugs in Thailand, which produces 60% of the world exports. Last year, many farmers suffered lost their entire crop.
  • Late blight, a.k.a. the blight that caused Ireland’s Great Potato Famine, turns out to also have a taste for American tomatoes. Last year, its spores not only rode the wind, but took to the highways, hitching on seedling plants trucked to home improvement stores across the country. In only two years, it appears to have become entrenched.
  • Stripe rust, another wheat  plague, was recently discovered to have an alternate host, the common ornamental barberry plant, on which the fungus sexually reproduces. The resulting genetic diversity of the fungus, set against the genetic uniformity of wheat, supplies the resilience that has made it so difficult to stamp out.

A warming world favors pathogens’ survival over winter, while shifting weather patterns can blow them into new territories. Human-mediated transport (trade and travel) clearly play a large role as well.

Whatever the drivers, these colliding trends of record-breaking weather / climate change and emerging plant diseases spell big trouble for global food security. In just the past month, wheat prices spiked 30%, due mostly to the Russian drought. Russia will still have enough for domestic needs, but higher prices are expected to drive up inflation, and there will be that much less for export. Stem rust primarily affects small farmers gowing for local consumption in the developing countries. Higher global commodity prices also translates into higher food aid costs.

According to the scientists at NOAA, the extreme weather of 2010 may very well be the “new normal.” Hotter, colder, wetter, drier. And way beyond inconvenient.

FURTHER READING

TrackerNews and the Human Algorithm, PopTech, PopTracker and a Challenge

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At TrackerNews, our approach is a little different from most aggregators. While they focus either on the latest or most popular stories, we focus on context. Stories cycle through the site in groups to deliver  a more faceted experience: breaking news is paired with archived stories, research papers, blog posts, websites, book reviews, e-books – print, audio, video. Every link is researched, reviewed, summarized, curated. Stephen Baker, former BusinessWeek journalist and author of the The Numerati, summed up it best: “TrackerNews puts the human algorithm back in the equation.”

We are not opposed to automated news feeds. Indeed, we scour them all the time. But they tend to skew to the new and the popular. Likewise, search engines often have hidden skews, affecting the order in which links appear (sponsored links, deals with news organizations, SEO tricks, etc.). Thousands of links make come up in a Google search, but who ever goes beyond the second page? As Mies van der Rohe pithily noted, “Less is more.”

"TrackerNews" Screen Grab Slide Show

Over the last year, TrackerNews has covered everything from malaria, mapping and microfinance, to chemical spills, earthquakes, political protests, human trafficking, energy, lighting, mobile tech, logistics, floods, famines, urban farming, the bushmeat trade, rapid diagnostics, mental illness and global warming. Our searchable database, which also includes an extensive collections of resources, has swelled to 3,000+ links and is just beginning to get interesting. (see slide show)

THE POPTECH TRACKER: A BETA DEMO Continue reading

Rating Pandemics: Tweaking the WHO Scale for Next Time…

"Current WHO phase of pandemic alert"

"Current WHO phase of pandemic alert"

Last week, the World Health Organization ratcheted up its pandemic rating for swine flu (aka H1N1) all the way to an unprecedented “pandemic imminent” level 5, with a top-of-the-chart 6 considered inevitable. Was it time to wear masks? Stock up on Tamiflu and canned goods? Update wills? Pull out old high school lit-class copies of The Decameron?

Well, no. At least not yet. Plenty of people got sick, but is was mostly run-of-the-mill seasonal flu-style misery. Fevers, aches, pains, head-aches, gastrointestinal woes. In the jargon of the public health set: “mild.”  Yet swine flu remains an imminent pandemic and will likely be once all the cases are tallied up.

What’s wrong with this scale? Continue reading

Thanksgiving in December…

trackerwebssite1The search for good links for TrackerNews has been an adventure. Why should “bots” have all the fun crawling the web for tasty content? Those over-achiever algorythmic bits of code will catch on to what I’ve been doing soon enough. For now, there is room for all in the cyber-universe.

TrackerNews could be described as a sort of artisanal aggregator. Content isn’t driven by datelines, but  contextual relevance (a nod to Alta Haggarty for that wonderful phrase). It is about creating an interesting mix and match, grouping stories (breaking news, research, blog posts, websites, book reviews, e-books, in print, audio, video) to deepen understanding and/or make it easier to see connections.

TrackerNews is also not limited by RSS feeds. No matter how many feeds one gathers, there is always much more to be mined from the web. Also, most feeds skew toward breaking news, or what’s popular. Tracker mixes it up a bit more, often featuring lesser-known stories (research abstracts, for example, or a flashback to an older article). This isn’t to say that I don’t scan RSS feeds early and often – they’re darn useful. But Tracker is trying to do something a little different.

With such an omnivorous charge and broad beat – one health, humanitarian work and technology that supports both –  I am always on the look-out for for sources, particularly blogs, that offer the kind of insider’s depth and insight that can add a real richness to the mix on TrackerNews.

Many are linked on the TrackerNews’ Resources section –  a work in in progress (The Resources section is not intended to be a definitive list, but a good place to begin research. We gratefully link to other aggregators that do a better job covering particular fields).

humanitarian blogsStill, there is no way to acknowledge leads for story links sourced from blogs. After mulling what to do about this unintentionally rude state of affairs, I thought it might be an idea to try occasional shout-outs of thanks from the Editor’s blog.

For those who aren’t already familiar with the following, have I got some good links for you!

Today’s list focuses on humanitarian blogs:

  • Paul Currion’s blog, humanitarian.info, arcs from tech reviews, short essays and news-from-the-field, to discussions of overarching issues such as innovation. The comment threads are often as sparky as the posts.