March 19, 2009 / 12:20 AM / 9 years ago

Internet could become environmental watchdog

<p>People use computers to surf the Internet at KT Corp in Seoul in this picture taken July 31, 2008. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak</p>

OSLO (Reuters) - The Internet could provide an early warning system for environmental damage, imitating an online watchdog that gives alerts about outbreaks of disease, scientists said on Thursday.

An automated trawl of blogs, videos, online news and other sources could yield bits of information to fill in a bigger picture of problems such as global warming, pollution, deforestation or over-fishing, they said.

“We’re facing huge environmental challenges ... But we don’t have good monitoring systems,” said Victor Galaz of Stockholm University who was lead author of the study with colleagues in Britain, the United States and Sweden.

“With the Internet there are pretty good ways to get that information. Nobody has exploited that really,” he told Reuters. Better environmental information could help governments to act.

Online statistics about a surge in fish prices in an Asian port, for instance, might hint at wider problems of over-fishing. Or a blog about an insect pest outbreak in a Nordic forest might fit a pattern tied to global warming.

The study pointed to successes by the Canadian-developed Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN), which trawls news wires and web sites for information about diseases.

“GPHIN currently picks up the first hints of about 40 percent of the 200-250 outbreaks subsequently investigated and verified by the WHO (World Health Organization) each year,” they wrote in the journal Frontiers in the Ecology and the Environment.

Some online environmental monitoring networks already exist, such as birdwatchers recording sightings. Many species are shifting their ranges in what may be a sign of climate change.

The aim of trawling the Internet would be to “enlist the services of observers who don’t know they are observers,” said Tim Daw of the University of East Anglia in England, who was among the authors.

Coral reefs, which may die if sea temperatures rise, could be an example where scattered observations in Australia, Hawaii or the Caribbean might help put together a bigger puzzle, he told Reuters.

“Scuba divers, either recreational or professional, often put reports in blogs or other communications,” he said.

One problem would be to filter out unreliable sources to avoid an information junkyard. Compiling information might perhaps be done by a U.N. agency.

Editing by Charles Dick

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