Pulling Back the Curtain Archives

September 15, 2004

Data Points

I ran across a couple of interesting information resources recently, and thought them worth sharing. is an EPA website providing automobile mileage information. The hybrid vehicle information isn't quite up to what you'll find at Green Car Congress or, and you're better off seeking alternative fuel info at Alternative Energy Blog, but what does have going for it is the complete EPA database of vehicle mileage ratings, EPA air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions ratings, and NHTSA crash test data. This allows it to produces tables showing the most and least fuel-efficient cars (Honda Insight manual, most -- 60 city/66 hwy; Lambourghini L-147 Murcielago, least -- 9/13) and trucks/SUVs (Toyota Rav4 manual, most -- 24/30; Ford F150 and Land Rover Discovery & Range Rovers, tied for least -- 12/16). Sadly, the NaviStar CXT (see image above) is not yet listed, as it would show the worst mileage of all (6/10).

The other resource is even more extensive.

The Energy Information Administration at the the US Department of Energy has an astounding amount of data on a variety of energy-related subjects. You want residential consumption data for natural gas? They have it (PDF). You want the total renewable net Kilowatthours generation, by state and technology? They have it. You want world petroleum consumption since 1960 for major OECD and non-OECD countries? They have it. And so forth. The main downside is that much of the information is a few years old (the natural gas listings are from 2001, the renewable data are from 2000, and the world consumption listing goes through 2002), although it's possible to dig up more recent datasets, such as this listing of Top World Oil Consumers and Importers, by million barrels/day, from 2003.

October 30, 2004

Atlas of the Biosphere

This is a beautiful site.

The Atlas of the Biosphere, a service of the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a wonderful resource for global and regional maps of environmental data. The maps cover four broad categories: human impacts, land use, ecosystems, and water resources. Global and continental maps are available for each subject, all approximately 1600x1200 in size (making them perfect for desktop backgrounds). The map description pages include Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data for ESRI ArcView, the widely-used GIS software, allowing the creation of new mapsets.

The maps give country-based information for most human activity subjects (such as infant mortality, proportion of population under the age of 15, and per capita oil use) and more precise gridcell-based information for most environmental subjects (such as net primary productivity, built-up land, and lakes and wetlands).

Beyond the maps, the Atlas of the Biosphere also has a set of system schematics, in Flash format, showing processes such as the carbon cycle and the Earth's "radiation budget." The SAGE group takes advantage of the SWF format for animation, which is nice, but not for interactivity. Perhaps in the next iteration.

SAGE describes the Atlas as an "ongoing project," and they encourage suggestions for additions.

November 25, 2004

Sustainable Business News

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development is an interesting group. While they are clearly focused on the need for businesses to make a profit, they strongly advocate policies, strategies, technologies and ideas for doing so in an environmentally and socially sustainable way. They're involved in projects WorldChangers can definitely get behind, from scenarios of sustainable mobility to conferences on energy and the developing world. I'm still poking around at their website, but I've already found more fascinating documents and presentations than I know what to do with.

One great resource for WorldChangers are their "e-newsletters," which reprint news reports relevant to sustainable business practices from all over the world. The newsletters (which are divided by subject -- Business and Sustainable Development, Energy & Climate, Sustainable Livelihoods, and Sustainable Mobility) come once weekly, and cover topics familiar to WorldChanging readers. Read on for some highlights from last week's selection:

Continue reading "Sustainable Business News" »

January 6, 2005


exxonsecrets.jpgConfidential to those out there who want to make big money and don't care who or what gets hurt along the way: become a climate change "skeptic." There are quite a few well-funded institutions and corporations out there willing to spend quite a bit of cash in the desperate attempt to convince people that climate change isn't happening, if it is it isn't human caused, either way it will be beneficial, there's nothing we can do about it anyway, and anyone who tells you otherwise hates America, capitalism, and probably apple pie, too. These "skeptics" often have lofty or serious-sounding institutions behind them, although these institutions seem to be different every time. And the "skeptics" generally seem to get a lengthy hearing by people in economic and political power. Surely all of that is coincidence, of course.

Continue reading "ExxonSecrets" »

February 14, 2005

Know Your Products

Our beloved Régine Debatty, in her Near Near Future weblog, recently linked to a couple of services allowing you -- the consumer -- to know better just what you're buying when you pull that can or box off the supermarket shelf. Both blend performance art, ethics and technology -- and both have great unrealized potential.

The first is the Corporate Fallout Detector, created by James Patten, a Ph.D. candidate in the Tangible Media Group at MIT's Media Lab:

The Corporate fallout Detector scans barcodes off of consumer products, and makes a clicking noise based on the environmental or ethical record (selectable via the "sensitivity" switch) of the manufacturer. [...] Due to increasingly complex global supply chains, a single product we buy may contain parts made by various companies all over the world. We may agree with the business practices of some of these companies, while not with others. The complexity of the relationships between manufacturers can be so great that it becomes unclear how to translate our personal convictions into good buying decisions, and all purchasing decisions involve an unavoidable element of risk. [...] For some people, the clicking sound it makes brings back ominous memories of Geiger counters sold to the public in the cold war era. The hope is that hearing this sound, combined with the sight of someone scrutinizing products in a store will cause people to think about their buying decisions in a different way.

Videos of the Corporate Fallout Detector in use are available (QT small, QT big, WM small, WM big). The data for the CFD came from a variety of sources, including Ethical Consumer and the European pollution database. Unfortunately, the CFD is something of a one-off, and is not actually available to the public.

Next up is the Visible Food Project, created by Chicago-based artist and writer Claire Pentecost:

The VisibleFood project is a website and database created to expose the hidden costs of the globalized system that produces, processes and distributes our food. [...] Think of it as a "Whole Truth in Labeling Act" initiated and performed by citizens in the absence of government and corporate responsibility. No such database currently exists. We have designed ours as a managed open content system so that new information can be submitted by users who are either already doing this kind of research or are inspired to start.

The beta database is online and available for use. You can search for companies, brands, specific products, ingredients and toxins. It's still mostly empty, but Visible Food has instructions for information gathering. As a collaborative project, it needs the active participation of shoppers everywhere; unfortunately, Visible Food uses an opaque sign-up and data management system. What we need is more of a Wikipedia approach. Anyone up to the challenge?

February 21, 2005

Population Trends

The UN has released its latest "World Demographic Trends" report, including information from 2004. The press release summing up the findings is here, and you can download the document itself (in all of the UN official languages) here. It's only 22 pages (at least in English), and is worth checking out.

Read on for a few of the tidbits, including how soon we'll hit 7 billion, what the population should be in 2050, and the explosion of mega-cities around the world...

Continue reading "Population Trends" »

February 25, 2005

Material Explorer

matex.jpgReader Maurits Ruis tells us of Material Explorer, a site launched last week in coordination with the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and by a consulting group called Materia. It's a database of new materials for use by architects and industrial designers, with a standardized ratings of material characteristics (density, weight, resistance to heat and chemicals, etc.). It manages to be both fascinating and frustrating.

The fascinating: The search engine lets you select a wide array of characteristics of your desired material, or search on a material's name; trying to find which combinations lead to which materials can easily occupy an afternoon. The descriptions of the materials are quite detailed, reasonably well illustrated, and complete with information about the manufacturer. For a designer looking to experiment with new stuff, this site could be very useful.

The frustrating: While there's a demo page allowing for sample searches, full use of the site requires a sign-up process. (It's particularly frustrating that the terms of service claim that one can opt-out from Material Explorer email spam, but there seems to be no way of actually doing so when signing up.) More importantly, none of the characteristics and keywords used by the database have strong connections to sustainability. There's no way to search on "amount of chemicals used in production" or "biodegradable" or "recyclable."

As a way of digging into what kinds of new materials may be available for a project, it can be useful, but it is lacking some key features. But for our purposes, Material Explorer is a proof-of-concept, a demonstration that such a compendium can be built and can be fun to use. What we need now is the Sustainable Design Database of Materials -- does one already exist? If not, who's up for the challenge?

More About Population

wpop.jpgReader Joe Deely, in a comment in Alex's post yesterday, Winning The Great Wager, provided a link to a new UN demographic document, World Population Prospects (PDF). As we noted a few days ago, the UN has updated its population and demographic trend data; this document goes into greater detail about fertility, mortality, and life expectancy than the previous piece, but skips discussions of urbanization and migration. Those of you interested in why the peak world population projection has now dropped to 8.9 billion should definitely check it out.

Those of you who like to play with the data, however, should instead turn to the World Population Projections website, which gives access not just to the raw data, but to the various models (the Prospects piece only uses the "medium variant" -- where's the fun in that?).

And those of you who really want to play with population trends should check out World Population to 2300 (PDF). Yes, you read that right. It's a study of how the planet's population might change not just over the next 45 years, but over the next 245 years. It's utterly fascinating -- it's the ultimate "now if things don't change, what could the world look like?" scenario. The graph showing the three population scenarios is excerpted in the extended entry (and shown in miniature above). Of more value are the discussions and essays about thinking in the very long term about slow-changing human trends. Recommended reading for scenarists, demographers, and those who like to think about change.

Continue reading "More About Population" »

February 26, 2005


earthmeasure.jpgHow should one measure a nation's energy footprint across time? After all, if we're trying to increase efficiency of energy use, we need a baseline to tell how well we're doing. The question takes on a new twist when one wishes to compare two or more places. Simply counting BTUs or CO2 output won't do it; a large country, no matter how efficient, will inevitably consume more power and produce more greenhouse gases than a small one. As it turns out, there are two broadly accepted approaches to solving this dilemma, measuring per capita and measuring per productivity -- the latter generally called "intensity." They each have their advocates: per capita shows consumption per person, a crude version of the footprint; per GDP shows consumption for economic activity, a rough measure of efficiency.

The US Department of Energy Energy Information Administration makes available a huge variety of global energy and carbon measurements. The data are generally available as Excel spreadsheets, and typically cover 1980 to 2002, with entries for most countries. In the extended entry, you'll find links to some key datasets on energy consumption and carbon emissions, as well as an exploration of what these numbers might tell us.

Continue reading "Intensity" »

March 8, 2005


glext&masys_300.jpg• 3% of the Earth's surface is urbanized.

• Coastal environments have 65% of the world's urban population.

• 7% of urban dwellers live in the world's largest mega-cities.

• Tokyo is the world's largest urbanized area, at 30,000 square kilometers.

These are just a handful of the findings of GRUMP -- the Global Urban Rural Mapping Project -- run out of Columbia University's Earth Institute. A four year project, GRUMP is one of the first efforts to combine satellite mapping data with population census information. This combination has led to new insights into the distribution of human population across ecosystems, as well as into changes in the pattern of rural/urban development.

GRUMP has an enormous amount of data for those of us interested in the growth of urban communities:

GRUMP Human Settlements is a global database of cities and towns of 1,000 persons or more, each represented as a point, and includes information on population sizes, longitude and latitude coordinates, and data sources. Populations were estimated for 1990, 1995 and 2000. The GRUMP Urban ExtentMask is the first systematic global-scale attempt to portray the boundaries of urban areas with defined populations of 5,000 and larger. The GRUMP Population Grid represents the distribution of human population across the globe, accounting for urban population concentration more precisely than previous efforts.

Best of all, the GRUMP data are available for free use. A web interface allows access to much of the information for casual browsing (which can easily eat up an afternoon), and more serious users can also download the data for each country in standard GIS formats. This is a tremendous contribution to the study of urbanization, and Columbia should be commended for making the data freely available.

March 9, 2005

The Red List

© Troy InmanWhile following some of the links for the Biodiversity Intactness Index, I happened upon the Red List: the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resource's database of information on threatened, endangered, and recently-extinct species.

The goals of the Red List are clear and stark:

  • Identify and document those species most in need of conservation attention if global extinction rates are to be reduced; and
  • Provide a global index of the state of degeneration of biodiversity.
  • Summary statistics and data are available, broken down by kingdom, class/order/family, and degree of threat, but where the Red List shows its power is the searchable database. The basic search allows you to select by Red List category (from "Extinct" and "Extinct in the Wild" to "Least Concern"), country or region, habitat type, and source of threat. The expert search includes taxonomic information. The search results include the conservation actions necessary to prevent further degradation of species conditions, as well as links to other databases (from AmphibiaWeb to Google) for more information. The breadth of the database -- the number of species under threat -- is staggering. The results of search after search are both fascinating and sad.

    The Red List also includes galleries of images of threatened species, such as the lemur pictured above.

    July 3, 2005

    Real-Time Weather, Traffic Forecasts

    weathermap.jpgTwo new services came to my attention this weekend, and while they aren't technically related, they cover subjects often found together: weather and traffic. Current traffic reports and weather forecasts are staples of commute-hour news reports in pretty much every country I've ever visited, and (at least in the US) some radio stations compete on the basis of just how often per hour they can squeeze in updates. What makes these two new services interesting is that they flip the format: as this post's title subtly suggests, it's the weather that's current and the traffic that's the forecast.

    The Google Weather Map is a YAGMH (Yet Another Google Map Hack), a category which seems to grow daily -- and will undoubtedly be soon joined by the YAYMH for the Yahoo! maps. The GWM combines the map with weather data pulled from two sites: Weather Underground, which pulls current data from the Automated Surface Observation System (ASOS), largely located at airports around the US and territories, and (less frequently) from weather stations around the world; and Weather Bug, which has about 8,000 tracking stations in schools, TV stations and residences around the US. If you like images to match to data, the GWM also has links to weather webcams.

    Continue reading "Real-Time Weather, Traffic Forecasts" »

    July 19, 2005

    Where the Wild Things Are

    canis_lupus.jpgMany of us have only a general knowledge of where various forms of wildlife live. It's not something that we usually need concern ourselves with in our day-to-day lives, but it's certainly relevant when thinking about the planet's biodiversity and environment. There's more to ecosystem variation than "jungle," "forest," "desert," and "plains;" each of the over 800 "ecoregions" recognized by biologists has its own set of niches for wildlife. Unless you're a specialist in conservation biology, you're unlikely to be in a position to learn them all.

    Fortunately, the World Wildlife Fund has opened up an online database of wildlife locations called the WildFinder, covering over 30,000 species across four major groups (amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals). Enter an animal name -- common or scientific, whole or fragment -- and the WildFinder will come up with a list of locations in which it can be found, along with data about the specific characteristics of each spot. Or you can pick a spot on the map and find out what lives there. Be careful with that one, though -- some regions have an incredible variety of organisms, and pages with 1000+ entries can take awhile to load.

    Continue reading "Where the Wild Things Are" »

    August 5, 2005

    A Question of Urbanization

    Demographic information from the United Nations Organization has triggered widespread discussion of the degree of urbanization on the planet. According to UN figures, we are very close to 50/50 urbanization -- half the population living in cities, half in rural areas, and by 2030, well over 60% of the planet will be urban. But are these figures correct?

    Research from France's Institut de Recherche Pour le Développement (IRD) says no. The UN models are too weighted towards Western-style urban development, they say, and overestimate the number of people in permanent residence in cities in the developing world. By drawing on historical records of developing world urban patterns, the IRD claims that the real urbanization patterns are far less dramatic than the UN has suggested. How much of an error are we talking about? Maybe a billion people:

    Continue reading "A Question of Urbanization" »

    August 10, 2005

    Climate Scorecard

    wwfgauge.jpgThe World Wildlife Fund has assembled a useful and interesting set of numbers (PDF) on the climate performance of the G8 countries, along with selected rapidly-developing nations. Using an easy-to-grasp (and only slightly ironic) "power meter" or "gas gauge" metaphor, each country is rated on conditions such as changes to overall carbon output, emissions per capita, emissions per GDP, and energy efficiency. Each indicator has its own gauge, and the countries are given overall scores, as well. It's probably little surprise that no country does better than a middling score, as each of the highest-rated G8 nations (France, Germany and the UK) has some key indicator that lags its otherwise good performance; it's probably even less of a surprise that the US does worst of all. The non-G8 nations (Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa) are given scorecards with numbers but no ratings, reflecting their developing status.

    All but one of the G8 countries (ahem) manages to score well in at least one indicator. Interestingly, the two indicators that show good results in the highest number of countries (5 out of 8, in both cases) are emissions per GDP (also known as energy intensity) and "transport" emissions per capita (i.e., planes, trains and automobiles). I think this is a very good sign. I consider these two to be particularly important indicators, as they reflect different aspects of overall economic energy efficiency. Improvements in emissions per GDP reflects both a shift towards renewable power and greater efficiency in both production and consumption of goods and services; improvements in transport emissions per capita reflects in part a growing "dematerialization" of the economy, a shift away from physically hauling people and goods around as a way of doing business. Or, to think of them as slogans, the first is doing it better and using less, while the second is doing it smarter and using less.

    The summary table from the document is excerpted in the extended entry, but I strong encourage interested readers to check out the full document.

    Continue reading "Climate Scorecard" »

    August 20, 2005

    Nano Risk and Benefit Database

    buckyball-c60-nature.jpgWith fortuitous timing, a pair of nanotechnology research organizations -- the International Council on Nanotechnology (ICON) and Rice University's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) -- have assembled the world's first database of nanoscience research related to benefits and risks.

    Although nanoscale particles have long existed in the natural world, and studies of the effects of "ultrafine" particles from traditional material production techniques are well-established, the active manufacturing of materials (and, eventually, machinery) at the nanoscale has raised significant questions about their overall environmental and health effects. Some preliminary research has pointed to risks from materials such as carbon nanotubes under certain conditions; as these materials become easier to produce, and as their benefits become more widely known, we need to be able to show definitively the level of environmental and health risk they present. As we better know the level of risk, we can adjust our production, containment and mitigation techniques accordingly.

    Many nanoparticles exhibit unique chemical, electrical, optical and physical properties by virtue of their size, shape or surface characteristics. The great diversity of nanoparticle types that have already been created has made it difficult for scientists to make general statements about the potential safety hazards that nanoparticles might pose to living organisms. [...]

    "An informed decision about how to ensure the safety of nanomaterials requires a comprehensive review of where we are and where we've been with prior research," said Dr. Jack Solomon, chairman of the Chemical Industry Vision2020 Technology Partnership. "By gathering findings that are scattered throughout the literatures of biomedical application developers, toxicologists, environmental engineers and nanomaterials scientists, we are helping researchers and government funding agencies to see the big picture."

    The database is still in its early stages. It can be accessed through the ICON research summaries page, but work remains to be done to organize the data better.

    December 10, 2005


    interactivemapgraph.jpgOne of the delights of data visualizations on the web is that they can be both interactive and dynamic. Static maps and graphs have their uses, to be sure, but controllable animated presentations are better able to highlight changes and differences. Here are two provocative examples.

    Personal World Map shows how far one can travel from a given location in terms of both time and financial resources. Select a starting city (from a limited and not very well distributed set, unfortunately), tell it your flight time and money limits, and the map will display what's accessible, moving target cities closer or further away depending upon how they fall within your guidelines. It's interesting, but it's real value is what it suggests for future applications.

    Continue reading "Visualizations" »

    December 14, 2005

    Ethical Maps

    maplecroftmap.jpgMaplecroft is a UK organization specializing in the coverage of the non-financial performance of global corporations and governments. Issues of convern include human rights, corporate governance and responsibility, the environment, and resource sustainability. Maplecroft crafts standard report documents, but presents its findings in an unusual way: it makes maps.

    Maplecroft maps encompass the results of their work on responsibility and sustainability, along with material from more specialized groups like Amnesty International, the UN Development Program, and International Telecommunications Union. The maps appear to be updated relatively frequently, so few will contain substantively out-of-date information. They do require Flash, and I found the links to data explanations to be unresponsive on two different browsers. Nonetheless, most of the material is either self-explanatory or explained in the sidebar, and clicking on a given country will pull up an additional menu of information.

    Some maps worth checking out include hunger, natural disasters, and human rights -- just updated for International Human Rights Day.

    Continue reading "Ethical Maps" »

    December 21, 2005

    China's Intensity, Revisited

    When China announced yesterday that, oops, it turns out that its 2004 and 2005 economy are 17% larger than it thought, I immediately wondered what effect these revised GDP figures would have on the carbon efficiency and energy efficiency figures I played with a few weeks ago. In "Efficiency, Intensity, and Getting From Here to There," I used US Department of Energy data on global energy use and carbon production to look at trends over the past 25-or-so years. China is the big outlier -- I had to build charts with and without the country in order to show trend lines -- but it's also demonstrating some big improvements.

    Since the carbon intensity and use efficiency values compare tons of carbon or BTUs of energy to dollars of GDP, a change as significant as 17% in China's GDP was certain to make a visible difference. The problem is that the DOE figures only go to 2003, and China's retroactive fix was only applied officially to 2004 and 2005. It's unlikely, however, that the reporting errors only cropped up over the last two years; applying the 17% boost to the earlier years, while undoubtedly not accurate, is still probably more accurate than what we had before.

    Hit the extended entry for new data and new graphs.

    Continue reading "China's Intensity, Revisited" »

    January 6, 2006

    Mapping a Pandemic

    googleearthavflu.jpgThe ability to mix data sources and digital maps opens up remarkable new ways of looking at -- and thinking about -- information. We've seen a number of good examples pop up over the last year, from crime statistics to transit information, largely using the Google Maps interface. Reporter Declan Butler has created a quite powerful map mashup for Nature showing the progression of H5N1 Avian Flu in Asia into Europe. This one doesn't use the online maps, however; it uses the Google Earth program, and ends up being a great demonstration of the power of that system. According to Nature, this map mashup is the only place this combination of data can be found.

    Butler's Avian Flu map mashup (KML) charts the location of every reported animal and human infection since the outbreak began. Each point lists location, date, and (in the case of animal infections) the number of animals destroyed to slow the flu's progress. The pace and reach of the pandemic take on stark clarity with the map system, and the interface allows for both an in-depth examination of each incident and a big-picture overview of the disease. Butler describes the effort involved assembling this information on his blog.

    The Google Earth program pulls the satellite image information from the Google server and combines it with a much more complex and responsive interface than one could get with a web browser app. Google acquired the software when it bought the satellite mapping company Keyhole last year. A Windows version has been out for awhile now, and a Mac version should be out any day now (I used a pre-release version of the Mac beta, and it worked beautifully on my Powerbook).

    (Thanks for the tip, David Zaks!)

    March 13, 2006

    Google Mars

    google_mars.jpgCombine two WorldChanging obsessions -- online map systems and the planet Mars -- and you have the potential for something that could keep us happily clicking and playing for hours. Google has now unleashed Google Mars, a Google Maps site using satellite imagery of the Red Planet. It's not as powerful as Google Earth, but it's by far the most easily-accessible way to get to know the fourth planet from the sun. (Google suggests that a plug-in to bring Mars data to the Google Earth engine may soon be on its way.)

    The site includes three different presentations of the Martian surface:

    • Elevation - A shaded relief map, generated with data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft. This map is color-coded by altitude, so you can use the color key at the lower left to estimate elevations.
    • Visible - A mosaic of images taken by the Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft. MOC is like the digital camera you have at home. Basically, this is what your eyes would see if you were in orbit around Mars.
    • Infrared - A mosaic of infrared images taken by the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) on NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft. Warmer areas appear brighter, and colder areas are darker. Clouds and dust in the atmosphere are transparent in the infrared, making this the sharpest global map of Mars that's ever been made.

    Continue reading "Google Mars" »

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