Natural disasters don't have to be human disasters

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  • 16 November 2013 | NewScientist | 3

    WHAT is a tweet worth? Not a lot, but it stacks up. Twitter, which has yet to turn a profit, was valued at an eye-watering $18.1 billion when it made its stock market debut last week far more than many tried and tested companies.

    What underpins this value? As Twitter users were quick to point out, it is their contributions. An online gizmo allowing tweeters to estimate how much they had personally generated went viral: NewScientist staff reported credits from a measly $1 to a handy $847.

    That was mostly a joke. But it highlights the gulf between the value people place on their own information and the value that others do. Most individual bits of data are worthless; its only in the aggregate that they become valuable. And we get valuable online services in exchange for handing over our data.

    But this transaction is starting to feel more myopic than pragmatic. Twitters investors may be betting on advertising revenue, but the companys trove of data can be used to analyse everything from the stock market (including, perhaps, its own share price) to food safety. That may, in the long run, prove more lucrative.

    So far, much of this data has been relatively accessible. But it may not stay that way. Internet companies have started giving users greater control over their personal data. But they may start to restrict access as it grows more valuable: after all, they have their sky-high valuations to defend.

    That would be a loss. Open data is becoming a powerful tool for citizens and activists around the world: it has already been used to hold governments to account, to improve transport, and to make health and police services more effective (see pages 22 and 29).

    Governments clearly hold a lot of useful information about our societies and infrastructure. But when it comes to our physical and psychological condition, they are arguably playing second fiddle to the internet companies.

    As ever more intimate data becomes available (see page 46), its applications will become more sensitive and valuable. The social contract governing its use must strike the right balance between corporate profit and public good. Fortunes are being made, and not only in the financial sense. We should demand our fair share. n

    The law of large numbers

    EDITORIAL

    Fortunes are made out of data. We should keep some for ourselves

    THERE will be many more natural disasters like the typhoon that hit the Philippines last week. But they dont have to be human disasters if we get people out of harms way.

    That wont be easy. There are often powerful incentives to stay put. Exposed places are cheap: so poor people dwell in seafront shacks or on landslide-prone slopes. And environmental

    defences have market values: forests are torn up for timber, reefs blown up to catch fish and mangroves cleared for charcoal.

    Such incentives cannot easily be removed. Nor are they just an issue for poor countries. US flood insurance is largely supported by a government programme, which is $25 billion in the red and has been accused of supporting unwise

    land development. But reforms enacted last year were criticised as abandoning homeowners.

    In 2005, 168 countries adopted the 10-year Hyogo framework to reduce the effects of natural disasters. But the UNs head of disaster risk reduction wrote just two weeks ago that not much has happened since. As preparations to redraft the framework get under way, its authors should take a tougher line. And its signatories should take it far more seriously. n

    Shelter from the storm

    FIRE. The wheel. String.The invention of string might

    not leap to mind when you think of humanitys greatest early feats (page 9). Tying our shoelaces is as close to it as many of us get.

    But consider how your distant ancestors would have joined an axe head to a haft or turned beads into a necklace without it. Then there are its mechanical uses from bowstrings to traps and pulley cables. And of course, the intertwining of fibres is the basis of weaving, and textiles, without which wed all be a lot colder.

    The likes of adhesives, nails and moulded plastic might be tying up many of strings everyday uses, but textiles are going from strength to strength. Luxury car components, for example, are now being woven from carbon fibre. So we are a long way off running out of uses for string. Just dont ask how long. n

    Humanitys ancient ties

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    Governments hold a lot of useful information. but they are playing second fiddle to internet firms

    131116_R_Editorial.indd 3 12/11/13 17:28:50

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