GeoWorld February 2012

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Giving Away Money You Don't Have EDGENODES A vid newshounds, addicted to the tales of financial woe emanating from the European Union, might be surprised to learn that Europeans currently are deciding how to give away €2 billion in research money. Interest in "Big Data" is back, but not in the way we would like to see; it's not very spatial. Six Projects Competing for €2 Billion On May 5, 2011, six Flagship Pilot Initia- tives ( were showcased at the FET11 Conference by BY NIGEL WATERS Neelie Kroes, vice president of the Euro- pean Commission and commissioner for the European Digital Agenda. The six pilot projects, selected from a set of 21 proposals, were given several million euros to spend from May 2011 to May 2012 to develop a complete application. During the second half of 2012, two of the six will be selected for full funding with $1 billion euros of support for each: 100 million every year for 10 years. The Future ICT initiative (, more formally known as "The Future ICT Knowledge Accelerator and Crisis Relief System: Unleashing the Power of Information for a Sustainable Future," wasn't only the top ranked of the six projects, but is the proposal with the most allure for spatial scientists. The scrolling banner at the top of the Future ICT Nigel Waters, editor of Cartographica, is a professor of geography and director for the Center of Excellence for Geographic Information Science, George Mason University; e-mail: 12 Web site's splash screen states that the project's goal is to "create an open, global but decentralized, democratically controlled information platform that will use online data together with novel theoretical models to achieve a paradigm shift in our understanding of today's strongly interdependent and complex world and make both our society and global ICT systems more flexible, adaptive, resilient, sustainable and humane through a participatory approach." Response and Critique Future ICT is headed by Dirk Helbing, a physicist and chair of the "Department of Sociology, in particular Modeling and Simulation" at the Swiss Federal Insti- tute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. The proposal has received considerable media response—positive, negative and, occasionally, bemused. Much of this media response, presumably the more laudatory, can GEO W ORLD / FEB R UA R Y 2O12 be accessed from the Future ICT Web site. One review not available there is the Scientific American article by David Weinberger featured on its Decem- ber 2011 cover, "The Machine That Would Predict the Future." Weinberger states that Helbing wants to predict, for example, all the consequences of such complex issues as Greece leaving the Eurozone. How would this affect the Greek economy? How would it affect other European economies inside and outside the Eurozone? What about the rest of the world? Would it impact migration if the cost of living were to fall dramatically in Greece? What about the spread of epidemic disease? A large number of the world's top scientists are supportive of the Future ICT Proposal and are involved in the research to build a Living Earth Simulator (LES) that will model all important biological, physical and social processes to allow the aforementioned questions to be answered with unprecedented precision. The LES is one of a number of "Big Data" research projects currently funded or proposed. Weinberger notes that such new, easy access to massive datasets will be such a boon to researchers that it's being compared to the inven- tion of the telescope or microscope. Seasoned spatial researchers will remember that Ron Abler (see "Awards, Rewards and Excellence: Keeping Geography Alive and Well," Professional Geographer, Vol. 40, No. 2, 135-40) said the same about GIS when it first became widely available. But there's a danger in this: Give someone a ham- mer, and everything will look like a nail. Put simply, not all tasks require a hammer, and not all research benefits from "Big Data." 70 Databases That Rule the World MIT's Technology Review recently cataloged all 70 databases that the Future ICT initiative will exploit as feedstock for LES. The article ( blog/arxiv/26097) had no comment on Helbing's choices other than to suggest that they were "unnerving." Helbing's list included Internet "snapshots" such as Wikipedia and "Information retrieval engines," including Wolfram's Alpha Computational Knowledge Engine (WACKE). Both can provide answers to a vast range of queries, but both would need ingenious data-mining tools to permit their data to be organized for useful modeling. You need ingenious data- mining tools to make your project work. Of course, computer scientists, including my colleagues who presented at the Big Data

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