Big Data and the Damage of Droughts

Despite the awful droughts of the summer, many farmers have been able to avoid economic disaster with the help of big data; as discussed in Wired’s “Big Data Shows Hyperlocal Harshness of 2012 Drought”, crop insurance companies have been processing large amounts of weather data in many states and using it to accurately determine appropriate amounts of financial compensation for drought-damaged crops. In addition, by compiling the data, these companies are able to display a close-up, detailed view of the drought’s impact on America’s crop yields as a whole.

One insurance company that seems to be taking a great interest in this modern face of insurance is The Climate Corporation, a six-year-old crop insurance company based in San Francisco. By doing daily measurements of ambient temperature and soil moisture, the company can determine exactly how many days presented crop-damaging levels of stress and provide financial aid accordingly. In addition, the large amounts of data processed can be used to predict future temperatures, precipitation levels, and subsequent crop yields with unrivaled accuracy.

For example, The Climate Corporation tracked the number of days in which temperatures and soil moisture reached the “heat stress” and “wilting” points in one particular Oklahoma farm. For every day that the crops suffered these undesirable conditions, the farm’s owners were compensated by a certain amount of money per acre. In this case, the farm spent most of the summer in the heat stress zone and the entirety of July and August in the wilting zone; fortunately, these recordings ensured that the farm received the economic assistance it needed in order to avoid major losses.

While the crop insurance data helps to secure the business against major losses, The Climate Corporation claims that it is possible that climate conditions could become so poor that crop insurance wouldn’t make economic sense. In that situation, farmers would have to either accept lower profit margins or raise their prices; over time, such difficulties could make farming unsustainable in some areas. Fortunately, however, that point has not yet arrived; in spite of the severity of this summer’s drought, The Climate Corporation states that it was not unprepared for it; CEO David Friedberg remarked that, “It’s not like a 99.999-percent thing that we never accounted for… We can have a good sense of the range of uncertainty.”

As a resident of a state whose income is heavily crop-based, I have to admit to a good deal of relief; without protections like these, it’s probable that my own community would have been far more devastated by the hardships of this past summer than it was. Also, I really like the idea that, by analyzing all of this data, these crop insurance companies are going to be more capable of predicting problems like these in the future; that way, our farmers will have more of a chance to prepare for them, and we might be able to avoid the worst of what nature has to offer. Chalk one up for big data!

Free Versus Open in the World of Software

As discussed in Forbes’ “Free Versus Open: Does Open Source Software Matter in the Cloud Era?”, open source software has been a major player in the growth of internet-based companies and tech-savvy businesses. Despite this popularity, however, open sourcing may be losing its grip on the software market; the importance of the open source option is taking a back seat to the desire for quick and efficient access to the software and its capabilities—access commonly provided by free software. Although the terms “free” and “open source” are often used interchangeably, free software is marked by its ability to provide users expedient and easily attainable access to software utilities, while open source software is driven more by a desire to improve software from a practical standpoint.

As the consumers’ desire for the accessibility of free software grows, the market for open source software becomes less and less relevant; although the idea behind open source software has a certain grass-roots, collaborative appeal, consumers are more likely to purchase products that showcase convenience over versatility. Open source isn’t necessarily even profitable among the techie market; even open source software consumers tend to pay lots of money into certain proprietary companies, like Apple. Proponents of open source software claim that it functions well as a loss leader in the age of internet-based companies, enticing new user traffic for the relevant company, but opponents argue that the open source model works more as a marketing ploy than as a functional business model.

As a not-particularly-tech-savvy person, I have to say that I’m a little torn on this subject. Like many consumers, I have no idea how to alter any open source programs I use; I just want them to work properly when I need them. On the other hand, though, I like the idea of the software I use being functional on multiple devices. I have an Android tablet, and I spend a lot of time waiting for Apple-based apps to be converted; open source software is much more open to adaption than proprietary software, so I imagine that open sourcing improves my chances of getting some long-desired apps for Android in the near future. Overall, though, I’m your average consumer. I’m not going to check to see if software is open source before I buy it; I’m going to check and see if it works efficiently, and the software that passes that test is the one that gets my money.

The Geography of Twitter

As social networking continues to erode the barriers of geographical separation, researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute have created a data visualization that illustrates the “geography” of Twitter. These results, displayed in a treemap, were attained by collecting all georeferenced tweets posted between March 5th and March 13th of this year. That data was condensed into a randomly chosen 20% sample set, which was then spatially organized by country. In the treemap, countries are sorted by continent; the size of each country’s block indicates the number of tweets made from that country, and the variation in color reveals the proportion of georeferencing Twitter users in comparison to the total number of internet users in that country.

According to the data, the geography of tweets is nowhere near equally distributed; one or two countries are responsible for far more tweets than many of the others combined. It is interesting to note, however, that of the top six tweeting countries, only two are commonly considered centers of codified knowledge output; America and the United Kingdom took first and third, respectively, but Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, and Malaysia filled in the rest of the top six list.

This globalization of information output could have a very real impact on the scope of knowledge distribution. Social media sites like Twitter provide a free outlet of expression for anyone capable of accessing the internet, so those who previously would have been unable to globally communicate ideas can their voices heard around the world. Personally, I welcome this connection; thanks to social sites like Twitter and Facebook, I have been able to make friends all over the world. These people have provided me with cultural and social insights that I would never have gotten otherwise, and I don’t think I would be the person I am today without their input.

As the geography of information continues to change and grow with time, more research on this subject will definitely be necessary; still, I think that the results of this study are promising. More and more countries are getting in on the information trade, and their contributions are expanding our awareness of the transcultural significance of the internet upon the world we live in; now that’s something to tweet about.

The Emergence of Mobile Creativity

As discussed in the Co.CREATE article “The Age of Mobile Creativity: Are We There Yet?”, mobile apps and ads are starting to be considered as legitimate canvases for artistic expression; for the first time, the Cannes Festival has developed a Lion award category for mobile media. This shift to viewing mobile work as potential artwork is certainly culturally appropriate, but it may be an honor given too early to be appreciated by a financially constrained mobile market. Revenue for mobile ads in 2011 came out to 1.6 billion; while this sounds impressive, it’s a mere fraction of the profit garnered by search ads ($14.8 billion) or display ads ($11.1 billion). Because so much of the market depends upon the money provided by ads, creators have little financial capital left with which to develop new, innovative concepts for mobile apps.

Fortunately, a lack of money hasn’t stopped these developers from thinking about what they want to produce and what they think will make an app succeed. According to some of the creative minds of mobile production, award-winning apps are not the ones that are visually striking or otherwise traditionally artistic; rather, they’re the apps that use the capabilities of mobile technology to provide users with new paths for social connection. As one of the mobile-using masses, I have to agree, especially when it comes to mobile games. When I want to have some fun with my mobile device, my favorite apps to pull out are the ones that allow me to play and interact with other people, like “Words with Friends” or “Draw Something.” The social component that games like these provide really enhances the mobile gaming experience!

Although the financial aspect to mobile creativity constraint is a legitimate one, some would claim that the biggest roadblock currently standing in the path of innovative mobile app development is the difficulty of providing a consistently positive experience over different brands and types of mobile device; few companies can lay claim to the resources necessary for app functionality across all platforms. Still, this is only the beginning for this outlet of expression; with time, it could very well become an artistic medium that redefines the connections between art, technology, and social media.