“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” holds true in analytics. What is scrubbed out by one interest forms the focus of another.
When data is accumulated by radar for the National Weather Service (NWS), signals generated by the movements of birds and bats are something to be filtered out. But for scientists with an interest in birds and bats, that data has proved a valuable source of information. The scientists draw on analytics, not only to derive insight from the data, but also to point out the costs that would come from ignoring threats to these species.
In a 2005 report, the US Geological Survey (USGS) raised concerns about birds and bats that are facing altered migratory patterns and diminished populations. It found that it already had a valuable source of data -- 13 years of archived NWS data -- for “spatiotemporal distribution patterns, flight characteristics, and habitat use of migrating birds and bats over large regions” in “the nationwide network of Doppler weather radars.” The USGS said the weather data had “tremendous untapped potential as a biological tool for studies of ‘aerofauna’ and their ecological interactions with the environment.”
Now in 2012, with 20 years of records, the NWS has accumulated a vast storehouse of information that goes beyond weather. Clouds, wind, and rain send signals, but so does anything flying in the air -- debris or even insects, birds, or bats.
Ken Howard, a radar scientist with the National Severe Storms Laboratory, discussed the issue in a Popular Science article. “From a meteorological standpoint, it’s noise,” he said. “It contaminates all our algorithms.”
The weather maps shown on news programs are cleaned-up versions of what the radar has actually picked up. Signals generated by anything other than weather factors are “scrubbed,” Popular Science says. However, “the 1.2-petabyte raw radar archive” includes a record of birds and bats in flight around the country.
The data mined from such sources contributes to a discipline called aereocology, which was formally named in 2008 as a field of study that “embraces and integrates the domains of atmospheric science, animal behavior, ecology, evolution, earth science, geography, computer science, computational biology, and engineering,” as described here.
Thomas Kunz, a biology professor and director of the Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology at Boston University, is credited with founding aeroecology. His main interest is bats, which are endangered as a result of climate changes, diseases like white nose syndrome, and even wind turbines. While people rally around saving dolphins and seals, they do not have the same sympathy for these nocturnal mammals.
Consequently, Kunz has to provide a pragmatic reason for people to be concerned about bats and to invest in what it takes to keep them around: Bats feed on insects that feed on crops, so they save farmers from damage. And without bats, farmers would have to shell out a lot more money on pest control. Kunz’s findings prompted the title “Bats are worth at least $3 billion per year” for an April 2011 article on Wired.co.uk. The figure is “a rough extrapolation” derived from a test case in a region of Texas, in which Kunz’s team estimated “that Mexican free-tailed bats annually saved about $740,000 in pesticide costs."
Kunz gives a brief presentation in this video. In addition to explaining the importance of the bats’ survival, he picks up on the basis of analytics: “Numbers are important because they have implications for lots of things.”