As more private companies offer us maps, we need an open-source, editable solution – a cartographical Wikipedia
Every time I tell someone about OpenStreetMap, they inevitably ask “Why not use Google Maps?” From a practical standpoint, it’s a reasonable question, but ultimately this is not just a matter of practicality, but of what kind of society we want to live in. I discussed this topic in a 2008 talk on OpenStreetMap I gave at the first MappingDC meeting. Here are many of same concepts, but expanded.
In the 1800s, people were struggling with time, not how much of it they had, but what time it was. Clocks existed, but every town had its own time, “local time”, which was synchronised by town clocks or, more often than not, church bells. Railway time, then eventually Greenwich mean time, supplanted all local time, and most people today don’t think about time as anything but universal. This was accomplished in the US by adoption first of the railroads, and then by universities and large businesses.
Geography is big business
The modern daytime dilemma is geography, and everyone is looking to be the definitive source. Google spends $1bn annually maintaining their maps, and that does not include the $1.5bn Google spent buying the navigation company Waze. Google is far from the only company trying to own everywhere, as Nokia purchased Navteq and TomTom and Tele Atlas try to merge. All of these companies want to become the definitive source of what’s on the ground.
That’s because what’s on the ground has become big business. With GPSes in every car, and a smartphone in every pocket, the market for telling you where you are and where to go has become fierce.
With all these companies, why do we need a project like OpenStreetMap? The answer is simply that as a society, no one company should have a monopoly on place, just as no one company had a monopoly on time in the 1800s. Place is a shared resource, and when you give all that power to a single entity, you are giving them the power not only to tell you about your location, but to shape it. In summary, there are three concerns: who decides what gets shown on the map, who decides where you are and where you should go, and personal privacy.
Who decides what gets displayed on a Google Map? The answer is, of course, that Google does. I heard this concern in a meeting with a local government in 2009: they were concerned about using Google Maps on their website because Google makes choices about which businesses to display. The people in the meeting were right to be concerned about this issue, as a government needs to remain impartial; by outsourcing their maps, they would hand the control over to a third party.
It seems inevitable that Google will monetise geographic searches, with either premium results, or priority ordering, if it hasn’t done so already (is it a coincidence than when I search for “breakfast” near my home, the first result is “SUBWAY® Restaurants”?).
Of course Google is not the only map provider; it’s just one example. The point is that when you use any map provider, you are handing them the controls – letting them determine what features get emphasised, or what features may not be displayed at all.
The second concern is about location. Who defines where a neighbourhood is, or whether or not you should go? This issue was brought up by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) when a map provider was providing routing (driving/biking/walking instructions) and used what it determined to be “safe” or “dangerous” neighbourhoods as part of its algorithm. This raises the question of who determines what makes a neighbourhood “safe” or not – or whether safe is merely a codeword for something more sinister.
Right now, Flickr collects neighbourhood information based on photographs which it exposes through an API. It uses this information to suggest tags for your photograph. But it would be possible to use neighbourhood boundaries in a more subtle way in order to affect anything from traffic patterns to real estate prices, because when a map provider becomes large enough, it becomes the source of “truth”.
Lastly, these map providers have an incentive to collect information about you in ways that you may not agree with. Both Google and Apple collect your location information when you use their services. They can use this information to improve their map accuracy, but Google has already announced that is going to use this information to track the correlation between searches and where you go. With more than 500 million Android phones in use, this is an enormous amount of information collected on the individual level about people’s habits, whether they’re taking a casual stroll, commuting to work, going to their doctor, or maybe attending a protest.
Certainly we can’t ignore the societal implication of so much data in the hands of a single entity, no matter how benevolent it claims to be. Companies like Foursquare use gamification to overlay what is essentially a large scale data collection process, and even Google has gotten into the game of gamification with Ingress, a game which overlays an artificial world onto this one and encourages users to collect routing data and photo mapping as part of effort to either fight off, or encourage, an alien invasion.
Finding the solution
Now that we have identified the problems, we can examine how OpenStreetMap solves each of them.
In terms of map content, OpenStreetMap is both neutral and transparent. OpenStreetMap is a wiki-like map that anyone in the world can edit. If a store is missing from the map, it can be added in by a store owner or even a customer. In terms of display (rendering), each person or company who creates a map is free to render it how they like, but the main map on OpenStreetMap.org uses FLOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software) rendering software and a liberally licensed stylesheet which anyone can build on.
In other words, anyone who cares can always create their own maps based on the same data.
Similarly, while the most popular routing programs for OpenStreetMap are FLOSS, even if a company chooses another software stack, a user is always free to use their own routing software; it would be easy to compare routing results based on the same data to find anomalies.
And lastly, with OpenStreetMap data a user is free to download some, or all of the map offline. This means that it’s possible to use OpenStreetMap data to navigate without giving your location away to anyone at all.
Despite what management gurus may say, it is not always necessary for a group to have a leader. Acting almost like a single body, a group may very well do without one.
Indeed, there are plenty of examples in nature. Shoals of sardines swim, tightly bunched, in the same direction and are quick to avoid predators. Flocks of starlings swirl, displaying astounding co-ordination and speed. At a much smaller scale, bacteria form colonies characterised by collective behaviour. Even the skeleton of a single cell is the result of fascinating self-organisation. Yet we still understand very little of such behaviour, ranging from simply moving forward in a group to whirling bodies and spontaneous congregation. For the first time a research team has proposed a particularly spectacular, controlled experiment to improve our grasp of such collective movement.
“Any phenomenon that persists at various scales is bound to excite a physicist’s curiosity,” says Denis Bartolo, a faculty member at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Lyon, France, and lead author of an article published by Nature magazine last November, in partnership with fellow researchers at ESPCI Paris Tech and the National Centre for Scientific Research. Indeed, it was the Hungarian physicist Tamás Vicsek who kindled the community’s interest for this natural mystery in 1995.
The French scientists adopted a very basic approach to modelling their “starlings”. In their system millions of tiny plastic beads five micrometres in diameter swim through a conducting liquid suspension to which an electric field is applied. Opposite electrical charges accumulate on either side of a bead. This creates a dipole that, just like the needle of a compass, tries to line itself up with the “north” – in the present case, the constant electric field. The bead starts turning, never stopping because the charges keep circulating, upsetting the dipoles. Georg Quincke discovered this rotation effect in 1896 but this is the first time anyone has thought of using it to study collective motion.
To begin with, the beads are like a gas, each one travelling in a random direction. When the scientists increase the density of the beads, a semblance of order begins to appear. They describe two different, self-organised collective states. Initially most of the beads travel in the same direction, but the swarm advances by forming gangs, as if several homogenous groups were coalescing. When more beads are added, the whole swarm starts moving like a single body. “It is the first time that what is known as a ‘polar-liquid’ state has been observed under experimental conditions,” Bartolo explains.
“Some biologists have wondered why animals seem to position themselves near the transition between an ordered and a disordered state. It appears to yield a collective advantage for a swift response to disturbances,” says Hugues Chaté, at France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, joint author of many papers on collective motion in fish shoals or individual cells.
The appeal of the approach adopted by Bartolo and his team is its simplicity, individual bodies only interacting due to a single force, which is hydrodynamic in origin.The slipstream generated by any one bead impacts on its neighbours – not only those following. “It’s one of the best examples I know for studying these processes in a controlled way,” Chaté adds.
“With this system, it is probably not possible perfectly to simulate flocks of birds or other groups in which more than one force needs to be taken into account, but it does retain a minimum number of ingredients yielding qualitative information,” Bartolo explains. He is fascinated by the appearance of “gangs” in the group, a trend that at first sight contradicts certain physical principles. “It also gives us ideas about what we should be measuring under natural conditions,” he adds. For the time being he is still in his laboratory, observing swarms of beads, which he finds fascinating: “The most difficult thing is actually not to be distracted by the beauty of the patterns.”
Blood test will do away with the need for people to eat gluten for weeks before a diagnosis can be made, says lead researcher
Australian scientists have made progress towards a blood test that could dramatically simplify the diagnosis of coeliac disease.
The test will do away with the need for people to eat gluten for weeks before a diagnosis can be made, says lead researcher Dr Jason Tye-Din, head of coeliac research at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne.
Results will take 24 hours and people will not need to have tissue samples taken from their intestines.
A pilot study on 48 people shows the test is accurate after only three days of gluten consumption, says Tye-Din.
Many people follow gluten-free diets without a formal diagnosis and the current testing method requires them to eat gluten again, which is often unpleasant and difficult, says Tye-Din, a gastroenterologist at Royal Melbourne hospital.
It will, however, be several years before the new test is available for general use, he says.
Coeliac disease is caused by an abnormal immune reaction to gluten in the diet, leading to damage to the small intestine.
It can cause digestive symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, bloating, and diarrhoea, as well as lethargy, anaemia, headaches and weight loss.
Long-term complications include malnutrition, osteoporosis, pregnancy issues and liver failure.
Up to one in 60 women and one in 80 men in Australia have the condition, but most are undiagnosed.
Tye-Din, whose study is published in the journal Clinical & Experimental Immunology, believes a simple test will greatly improve diagnosis and treatment.
The study is supported by by Coeliac Australia, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council and the Victorian government.
1 Know thine enemy
It is droll to observe nutritional advice at the public health level; governments and their agencies always approach obesity as though it were a problem of information or – in the popular phrasing – “awareness”. If people only knew how much sugar there was in a Twix, they would simply eat something else.
This knowledge deficit doesn’t exist: you won’t meet anybody on Earth more intricately apprised of calorie content than someone who is obese. The only people who genuinely don’t know shit from sherbet are the authorities themselves, who make a mistake we can recognise from other spheres, viz, they conflate the problem behaviour – in this case, excess sugar – with the people they perceive as causing them a problem. People, for instance, who drink fizzy drinks (except prosecco). So they’ll preach two behaviours that are near identical, nutritionally speaking, as the opposing pillars of good and evil. “Drink a fruit juice; do not drink a Lilt. Drink a smoothie; do not drink a McDonald’s milkshake.” Finally, some exasperated nutritionist will pop up and say, to be honest: “This is all sugar that doesn’t fill you up and doesn’t even slake your thirst particularly well.” And everybody pounces on them and calls them a quack, even though they are right.
Photograph: AlamyIt is all sugar; it all does the same thing to your bloodstream, and it all begets an appetite for more of itself, as do fags and booze. Leaving aside the thumping idiocies of the Department of Health’s Change4Life campaign, the only real fault line is: do you think of it as an addiction or not? If you merely think of it as a matter of self-control, something you like a bit too much and have to master, there is no more a need to excise it from your diet than there is to stop using Twitter just because it drains your time and means you’ll never amount to anything. There is only one step necessary for you, the step of “less”.
If you do see it as an addiction, then cutting down won’t be enough, and I refer you to steps two through 11.
2 Cold turkey
“But what if,” I said to Frankie from Pure Package, a company that sends perfectly balanced meals, daily, to people with money, “you just really, really fancy a Mars bar?” I have been calling diet people (for work!) since Atkins was fashionable. There will be those among you who don’t even remember the outbreak of war against wheat, who weren’t even alive in a time before bread was the enemy. Think on that.
Anyway, what always charms me is their presentation of preposterous alternatives. So you might say: “What I really love is a buttered crumpet,” and they’ll go: “That’s easy! You can grind some cashew nuts into a sort of makeshift butter and spread it on some kale.” That was my motivation in putting the Mars bar question to Frankie, but she wasn’t biting. “The only way to stop sugar cravings is to treat it like an addiction and go cold turkey. There’s nothing to soften that blow. If you really need to get sugar out of your life, you’re going to have to go cold turkey.”
3 Beware of fruit
Frankie again: “Fruit has been given a halo so we end up eating too much of it.” In fact, there’s nothing inherently great about fructose; I mean, you can get too far into these weeds and start sounding like a hippy. Sure, fructose is better than glucose because it comes accompanied by fibre and vitamins. But in and of itself, it is not better, and “should” (still Frankie), “be accompanied by seeds or nuts. The effect of that would be to slow down the insulin spike that the fruit brought to the bloodstream. Overall, it should be, not limited, but not seen as something you can eat all the time in any quantity.” Generally, the higher the water content, the less the sugar hit, so oranges are better than bananas. Oranges are also better than mangoes. Oranges, it turns out, actually are the only fruit.
4 Also beware of (some) naturopaths
Some definitions: “dietitian” is the only term that is subject to professional requirements. Anyone can be a nutritionist. “Naturopath” is what nutritionists call themselves when they want to sound a bit more new-age than they already do. The middle term attracts the most scepticism, based on the presumption that just because your field isn’t professionally accredited, you do not know anything and you can’t process information. People make it about journalists quite a lot as well; this presumption is mistaken.
That said, I interviewed lifestyle guru Carole Caplin once, and she asked me to do something the next day, and I said: “Unfortunately, tonight I’m going to get completely drunk, so I most probably won’t want to do Pilates/circuit training/zumba tomorrow.” She fixed me with a beady eye and said: “I try not to eat too much chocolate, but sometimes I go mad. The other day, I ate something like eight squares of Green & Black’s. And afterwards I felt terrible, I had a headache, the shivers, I couldn’t get out of bed. Whereas if I’d only had two squares, I’m sure my body would have coped with it.”
Here’s the thing: I’m not convinced that really happened. I think she was using chocolate as a metaphor for booze, in an attempt to find some joint language that we would both understand.
5 Give up alcohol
Many drinkers think they don’t have a sweet tooth; indeed, they are faintly derisive of people who do. In fact, they get all their sugar from alcohol and if they ever gave it a rest for even two days, they would realise they have an incredibly sweet tooth.
6 Gary Barlow
You know that joke, “how do you know when someone has an iPad? Because they tell you”? This adapts very well to the Take That tax avoider. How do you know how Gary Barlow lost five stone? Because he tells you. In precis, he realised, after years of trial and error, “that he doesn’t have the kind of body that allows him to eat whatever he likes” and thereafter, cut out sugar, alcohol, any solids at all after 2pm, and refined carbohydrates. I know! As if he couldn’t get any more charismatic.
The point is that Barlow is now at the dead centre of the sugar-free, wheat-free eating crowd, and if you ever want to know how to make a cake out of hemp, Google “Gary Barlow” + “cake out of hemp”.
7 Grain differentiation
If you are unsure whether a carbohydrate is refined or unrefined, ask yourself – have I ever thought: “I could murder an X”? Sausage roll, yes. Pearl barley risotto, no. Buttered crumpet, yes. Kale spread with cashew butter, no. The intensity of your desire is an index of the glucose it will deliver. This means a) all refined carbohydrates should be treated as sugars, in your sugar detox, and b) to avoid sugars, you simply avoid all the things you really want.
8 A life without sugar
What sugar brings is not, as you might think, sweetness, but texture. So if you have a cake that is wheat-free and sugar-free (there’s no real point in being one without the other), it is possible to find alternatives, replacing the wheat with nuts and the sugar with fruit, coconut oil, agave, combinations thereof. The nuts bring clagginess and the fruit is too wet, so the result is soggy and mushy with a mouth-coating trace of clay, a sort of repulsive pabulum whose problem is not its flavour but its mouthfeel. It is better not to replicate your old life, in other words, but to find new hobbies, such as reading.
9 Paleo eating
The best catch-all diet to remove sugar without contravening the copyright of the Atkins diet, this involves eating like our ancestors – very little fruit, almost no grains, a lot of meat and a lot of exercise as you pound away at your treadmill, imagining yourself the predator of the steak you will later eat. Adherents point to the fact that our stone-age ancestors were much healthier than us, having no problems with obesity, cancer or any other diseases that beset our modern age. Pedants point out that the posthumous diagnosis of cancer was pretty patchy until the discovery of the disease in circa 1600BC (some time after the Paleolithic era); and, furthermore, that many ancestors were cut off in their prime by other factors (dinosaurs!), and it is impossible to tell how fat they would have become had they lived to our great age.
I mistook this for Palio eating, and thought it meant eating like a jockey, which would be a mixture of chips, power bars and Viagra.
10 Sugar-free alternatives
Basically, the trajectory of a sugar alternative goes like this: is discovered; is lauded by all; becomes available in Holland & Barrett; there are suggestions that it is not as wonderful as it was cracked up to be; is abandoned in favour of something else, which has conveniently come along in the meantime. Take stevia – nutritionist Amanda Ashy-Boyd describes this once-wonder ingredient: “It’s supposed to be a natural substitute for sugar, but it’s not so natural in the sense that it probably goes through multiple chemical processes to be able to add it to the food.”
11 Just stop eating it. What are you, a baby?
Cold turkey, see? It’s all about the cold turkey.
Australian survey finds people can reliably detect a change in surroundings, even if they cannot accurately describe it
If you can eerily detect the presence of unseen people or have prescient knowledge of danger, it may be disappointing to learn that scientists have ruled out the existence of a “sixth sense”.
A year-long University of Melbourne study, published in the journal Plos One, found that people could reliably detect a change in their surroundings, even if they could not accurately describe what that change was.
However, the research concluded that this was not due to any kind of supernatural ability, but rather from cues picked up from more conventional senses such as sight.
Researchers presented pairs of photos of a woman to 48 different people. In some cases, the appearance of the woman in one of the pictures would be different – such as a different hairstyle or the presence of glasses.
The pictures were shown to the subjects for 1.5 seconds with a one-second break between them. The people were then asked whether a change had occurred and, if so, to pick the change from a list of nine possibilities.
The results showed that while the subjects could “sense” a change had occurred, they could not verbalise what it was. While this confirmed to some subjects that they possessed a sixth sense, or extrasensory perception, researchers said it showed there was no such ability.
“What people were doing was processing information that they couldn’t verbalise but were picking up on, often subconsciously,” Dr Piers Howe from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences told Guardian Australia. “It’s a bit like an abstract painting – it doesn’t depict anything you can label, such as a sea or mountain, but you can still get a lot of information on what’s going on.
“The information was enough to tell them that a change had occurred, because they could tell the picture was more crowded, but not enough to say what that change was. Many believed they had a quasi-magical ability even though we had set them up.”
Howe said he started the research after one his students told him that she possessed a sixth sense.
“She said she had the ability to tell if something bad had happened to someone just by looking at them,” he said.
“She said she knew an acquaintance had been in a car accident even though he had no visual markings or injuries. I told her that she may not have been able to verbally label the markings, but she picked up on them and wasn’t consciously aware of them.
“We receive a lot of information we don’t or can’t verbalise. For example, this often happens when something disappears. If my children are being very noisy in the next room and then they are suddenly quiet, I don’t realise that what has startled me is the lack of noise. I’m alerted to that subconsciously and go into the room and find that they are being quiet because they are doing something naughty. That’s not a sixth sense.”
ESP, a broad term that encompasses everything from telepathy to clairvoyance, has been studied intermittently since the 1930s, but Howe said his research was the first to show that people can sense information they cannot verbalise.
People who believe they possess a sixth sense may take a little more convincing they are wrong, however.
“It’s hard to stop believing in something that’s clearly self-evident to you,” Howe said.
“I think scientists will believe me because they believe in rational analysis but I’m not sure the general public will. I don’t even think my mum will.”
Fasting is very much in vogue as a weight loss tool. It has also been a religious staple for thousands of years – so what tips do priests have for contemporary fasters?
Fasting is not a fad – it’s been going on for millennia in nearly all the major faiths. Today it’s increasingly directed not at spiritual enlightenment but shedding the pounds.
A growing body of evidence suggests that diets such as the 5:2, which restricts calories on two days of the week, can be a healthy way to lose weight.
It’s no cake-walk, however – temptation is everywhere.
So what advice do monks and priests who regularly go without food have for the secular faster?
Father Alexander da Costa Fernandes, a Catholic monk at Worth Abbey, West Sussex, has been fasting for 20 years, usually on Wednesdays and Fridays, drinking just water and the odd cup of coffee.
It was tough at the start and he’d get headaches. It took him nine months to fast seriously.
The trick, he says, is to gradually get used to the idea of fasting. The body “craves what it expects”.
He advises starting by giving up breakfast or your mid-morning biscuits to ease yourself in. When you’ve mastered that, then give up something else. A bread-and-water-only diet is a sensible approach, he says.
If on a fast day you’re thinking about chocolate cake, or having scampi tonight, then it’s totally unhelpful”
Father Alexander da Costa Fernandes
Drinking a lot of liquids is crucial, Father Alexander adds. It helps create the illusion that you have a full stomach.
Fasting means different things to different people.
An absolute fast, practised by Jews for about 24 hours at Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, forbids both eating and drinking.
During Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Muslims abstain from food or water during daylight hours. Fasting is important to Hindus and some Buddhist monks and nuns forsake evening meals.
I lost weight, and I felt hungry. I also felt more alert a lot of the time, though I tired easily. But there were other effects too that were possibly more important.
In the secular world, the 5:2 diet defines fasting as a daily calorie intake of 500 for a woman and 600 for a man, on two non-consecutive days a week.
Such a diet isn’t for everyone, and the approach has its critics. The NHS says more research needs to be done on intermittent fasting diets and advises people to consult their GP before embarking on one.
Fasting is not just physically demanding. It’s also psychologically tough, says the Anglican Bishop of Manchester, the Right Reverend David Walker, who has drunk only tea and water one day a week during lent for the last decade.
“The night before you start, you think: ‘How am I going to get through the day?'” says Bishop Walker. But it’s never as bad as you expect, he adds.
The key thing is to make sure you’re busy at normal mealtimes, he says. The body is conditioned to want food according to a routine.
To take your mind off hunger, Bishop Walker suggests doing something you’re engrossed by – a favourite programme on television, a Sudoku puzzle – when you’d normally be sitting down to breakfast, lunch or dinner.
As for coping without food, any fit and healthy person should be able to manage a short fast, according to Father Alexander. His longest stretch is five days. “There’s a lot of hype around food,” he says.
People are bombarded by messages about the need for energy and vitamins, he says. “What my five-day fast taught me is we carry so much energy in our own bodies as fat and you only start to use it up after a few days.”
Hunger pangs are inevitable even for old hands. Especially when there’s freshly baked bread or a bacon sandwich in the vicinity.
So what should you do?
Learn to discipline the mind, says Father Alexander. “If on a fast day you’re thinking about chocolate cake, or having scampi tonight, then it’s totally unhelpful.”
Push the thought gently away and instead concentrate on something you should be doing, he says.
When I have a pang of hunger it reminds me that I’m fasting for a religious purpose. It turns my mind to God becoming a moment of prayer”
Doing something as “part of a community” makes fasting less onerous, says Bishop Walker. So do it with friends or colleagues – you won’t feel so isolated when the going gets tough.
All these techniques are helpful. But for religious people, feeling hungry is part of the point.
“Sometimes feelings of hunger are helpful from a spiritual point of view,” Bishop Walker says.
“When I have a pang of hunger it reminds me that I’m fasting for a religious purpose. It turns my mind to God becoming a moment of prayer.”
All the major religions bar Sikhism have used fasting to focus the mind in a similar way.
In the Bible Jesus says “Man shall not live on bread alone.” His 40 days in the wilderness was the inspiration for Lent, when Christians have traditionally given things up.
Christians use fasting to think about the poor – people who are hungry not through choice but circumstance. It is also seen as aiding concentration and bringing one closer to God. A coincidental benefit for some is weight loss – the Bishop of Manchester loses half a stone (3kg) every Lent.
But there are differences of tone and doctrine over fasting between Catholics and Anglicans.
“A life of unstrained self-indulgence leads to disaster,” says Father Alexander.
He talks about the “mortification” of the flesh – fasting as a form of penance – but Anglicans avoid the word. “It’s a spiritual discipline but a joyful one,” says Bishop Walker.
But can a secular dieter ever feel spiritual? Bishop Walker thinks so. “If you’re open to the fact that this process of fasting will open you up to a spiritual encounter it may very well do so,” he says.
Not eating every day goes beyond religion to something basic in nature, Bishop Walker argues. He remembers going to the zoo and seeing a sign on one of the enclosures: “The lions are not fed on Fridays.” Carnivores do not need to eat every day, he argues, and nor do we.
Breaking the fast isn’t the end of the world, says Father Alexander. His favourite meal is fish and chips, a Friday evening staple at the monastery.
“Some days I say: ‘OK guys I give up, I can’t take it anymore. I need fish and chips.’ I think there’s a bit of wisdom in this. It’s my own private decision. I don’t think fasting is just a matter of self-will, it’s about growth and Grace.”
So the benefit of fasting may sometimes be outweighed by the companionship of sharing good food, he says. Especially if it’s fish and chips for tea.
There has been a “catastrophic collapse” in the number of lions in West Africa, with only around 400 left in the region, a new survey suggests.
With fewer than 250 mature lions of breeding age, there are concerns the entire population could disappear.
The research by Panthera, a non-profit organisation, was carried out in 17 countries, from Senegal to Nigeria, and took more than six years.
West African lions are genetically distinct from others in Africa.
In 2005, West African lions were believed to live in 21 different protected areas. But the survey, published in the scientific journal PLOS One, suggests lions now exist in just four of those sites.
The report says lions now roam in just 1.1% of their historic range in West Africa. The majority of their habitat has been converted for agricultural use, says Philipp Henschel, co-author of the report.
Panthera is calling for the lion to be listed as critically endangered in West Africa.
“Our results came as a complete shock; all but a few of the areas we surveyed were basically paper parks, having neither management budgets nor patrol staff, and had lost all their lions and other iconic large mammals,” Mr Henschel told the BBC’s Sivaramakrishnan Parameswaran.
The conservation of lions in West Africa have been largely neglected, whereas in eastern and southern Africa where millions of dollars a year are spent, he said.
Bush meat problem
The researchers discovered that West African lions now survive in only five countries; Senegal, Nigeria and a single trans-frontier population on the shared borders of Benin, Niger and Burkina-Faso.
These lions have unique genetic sequence not found in other lions including in zoos or captivity. If they are lost then a unique locally adapted population will become extinct, researchers say.
Large-scale plantations for cotton and food crops have contributed significantly to the decline of the lions in the last decade, the survey found.
Today, lions are largely restricted to protected areas, and the poaching of animals – usually preyed upon by lions – to supply local bushmeat markets is probably the main threat, said Mr Henschel.
“In some areas, we also witnessed the retaliatory killing of lions by herdsmen that entered protected areas illegally with their herds of cattle and goats,” he said.
A lack of funding for conservation coupled with an increasing human population and impoverished economies, means lions are increasingly vulnerable, researchers say.
“We are talking about some of the poorest counties in the world – many governments have bigger problems than protecting lions,” Mr Henschel said.
West African Lions have special significance in the culture of the region. They are a symbol of pride for the governments and people, and are represented on the coats of arms of several countries.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says concerted international help is urgently needed.
Benin and Senegal are working with the research team to establish a National Lion Action Plan to identify ways and measures to save the lions in their countries.
“Lions have undergone a catastrophic collapse in West Africa. The countries that have managed to retain them are struggling with pervasive poverty and very little funding for conservation,” says Panthera’s President Luke Hunter.
To save the lion will require a massive commitment of resources from the international community.”
Two heads are better than one, they say. Well, how about 600,000?
That’s how many designers and programmers you have on tap when you use a crowdsourcing service such as Appirio.
Welcome to the crowd in the cloud. It’s like tapping into the collective consciousness of Star Trek’s Borg cybernetic aliens.
In theory, the work you get back can be better quality, lower-cost, and delivered much faster than if you went through the traditional service provider tendering process.
When US space agency Nasa needed to develop a mobile application to help astronauts track their food intake while on International Space Station (ISS) missions, it threw the challenge out to Appirio’s army of developers, in the belief that a problem shared is a problem halved.
“There is a risk of the developers getting nothing, but others can look at your work and you may get other offers on the back of it”
Narinder Singh Appirio co-founder
The result was the Nasa ISS Food Intake Tracker (Fit), “the world’s furthest-out field service app”, as Appirio co-founder Narinder Singh describes it.
Nasa wanted an app that could help astronauts combat the bone density and muscle loss associated with working for long periods in microgravity, by making it easier for them to record what they eat.
The app needed to accommodate voice and single-click data entry for ease of use, as the existing weekly Food Frequency Questionnaire was proving too unreliable and insufficiently detailed, Nasa said.
Competition and collaboration
Nasa and Appirio’s subsidiary, TopCoder, broke up the project into different time-limited stages – conceptualisation, idea generation, screen design, architecture, assembly and finally “bug hunt” – and invited developers to compete for the top prize at each stage.
About 7,000 developers contributed to the app in some shape or form, says Mr Singh, with the winners of each stage earning up to $1,800 (£1,300), plus a reliability bonus of a few hundred dollars on top.
The final prototype is now being tested on the ISS.
Appirio’s business model is based on the apparently paradoxical combination of competition and collaboration. Clients subscribe to the service and put projects out for tender via this hi-tech marketplace.
Developers compete for the work, but their efforts are peer-reviewed. The best work wins the gig – and the money.
There is still this sense of empire in the IT community, with IT chiefs wanting to retain control of all aspects of their business processes”
Dave Coplin Microsoft UK
“There is a risk of the developers getting nothing,” Mr Singh admits, “but others can look at your work and you may get other offers on the back of it.”
Appirio, which raised $60m in venture capital funding from General Atlantic and Sequoia, has clients ranging from large media companies, such as Comcast, to old-school manufacturers such as Otis Elevator and Cessna, the light aircraft maker.
‘Giving away the crown jewels’
The phenomenon of large, distributed groups coming up with better answers than individuals working on the same problem was explored in James Surowiecki’s 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few.
The advent of high-speed broadband and cloud-based computing has made this process much easier to manage, and a number of crowdsourcing agencies have sprung up to exploit the trend.
But there is a natural scepticism about the concept, says Dave Coplin, chief envisioning officer for Microsoft UK.
“One main question for businesses will be: How can we be sure we’re not giving away our crown jewels when we put this kind of work out to tender? Then there are concerns over service-level agreements and quality control.
“And thirdly, there is still this sense of empire in the IT community, with IT chiefs wanting to retain control of all aspects of their business processes.”
But he believes all these objections can be overcome if companies are sufficiently open and progressive in their culture.
‘Living, breathing database’
While the web has long facilitated online marketplaces – Elance, for example – where professionals can tout for publicly advertised work, these are morphing into more sophisticated service providers in their own right, thanks to the growing trend towards crowdsourcing.
The Achilles heel at the moment is that you don’t know the quality of work you’re getting”
Rob Bryant Deloitte
Spiceworks, for instance, is a social network of 4.5 million IT professionals around the world that offers free tools to help them do their jobs and a place to share experiences and expertise.
But it also offers “Spicepanels” and “Made in Spiceworks” services, through which companies can crowdsource an entire product development process from concept to implementation.
Jay Hallberg, the company’s co-founder and chief operating officer, says: “This is the largest living, breathing database on the planet.
“Our IT pros community now helps companies design and test their products – we’ve become their first destination when they want to go to market.”
CrowdFlower, whose clients include large companies such as eBay, Autodesk and Unilever, specialises in microtasking – dividing up large, complex data projects into manageable units of work, that can then be farmed out to its five million-strong global army of workers.
It offers the platform to allow companies to do this directly, as well as a managed service.
“I think there is a definite trend towards microtasking,” says Microsoft’s Dave Coplin. “If most of the coding or inputting is fairly basic, the job can be split up into lots of smaller packages and put out to tender on a crowdsourcing website.
“There is a growing market in managing this process and ensuring quality.”
Rob Bryant, lead partner in Deloitte’s technology consulting practice, agrees, but adds a note of caution: “Lots of organisations are trying this type of crowdsourcing approach. But the Achilles heel at the moment is that you don’t know the quality of work you’re getting.
“A number of the platforms have recognised this and have introduced quality control as part of the service.”
While we may still be a long way from seeing entirely distributed, cloud-based, crowdsourced businesses, having geeks on tap is proving an increasingly attractive option for a growing number of businesses.
The cloning methods may not be novel – but the application of mass production is
You hear the squeals of the pigs long before reaching a set of long buildings set in rolling hills in southern China.
Feeding time produces a frenzy as the animals strain against the railings around their pens. But this is no ordinary farm.
Run by a fast-growing company called BGI, this facility has become the world’s largest centre for the cloning of pigs.
The technology involved is not particularly novel – but what is new is the application of mass production.
The first shed contains 90 animals in two long rows. They look perfectly normal, as one would expect, but each of them is carrying cloned embryos. Many are clones themselves.
This place produces an astonishing 500 cloned pigs a year: China is exploiting science on an industrial scale.
If it tastes good you should sequence it… you should know what’s in the genes of that species”
Wang Jun Chief executive, BGI
To my surprise, we’re taken to see how the work is done. A room next to the pens serves as a surgery and a sow is under anaesthetic, lying on her back on an operating table. An oxygen mask is fitted over her snout and she’s breathing steadily. Blue plastic bags cover her trotters.
Two technicians have inserted a fibre-optic probe to locate the sow’s uterus. A third retrieves a small test-tube from a fridge: these are the blastocysts, early stage embryos prepared in a lab. In a moment, they will be implanted.
The room is not air-conditioned; nor is it particularly clean. Flies buzz around the pig’s head.
My first thought is that the operation is being conducted with an air of total routine. Even the presence of a foreign television crew seems to make little difference. The animal is comfortable but there’s no sensitivity about how we might react, let alone what animal rights campaigners might make of it all.
I check the figures: the team can do two implantations a day. The success rate is about 70-80%.
Dusk is falling as we’re shown into another shed where new-born piglets are lying close to their mothers to suckle. Heat lamps keep the room warm. Some of the animals are clones of clones. Most have been genetically modified.
The point of the work is to use pigs to test out new medicines. Because they are so similar genetically to humans, pigs can serve as useful “models”. So modifying their genes to give them traits can aid that process.
One batch of particularly small pigs has had a growth gene removed – they stopped growing at the age of one. Others have had their DNA tinkered with to try to make them more susceptible to Alzheimer’s.
Back at the company headquarters, a line of technicians is hunched over microscopes. This is a BGI innovation: replacing expensive machines with people. It’s called “handmade cloning” and is designed to make everything quicker and easier.
The scientist in charge, Dr Yutao Du, explains the technique in a way that leaves me reeling.
“We can do cloning on a very large scale,” she tells me, “30-50 people together doing cloning so that we can make a cloning factory here.”
A cloning factory – an incredible notion borrowed straight from science fiction. But here in Shenzhen, in what was an old shoe factory, this rising power is creating a new industry.
The scale of ambition is staggering. BGI is not only the world’s largest centre for cloning pigs – it’s also the world’s largest centre for gene sequencing.
In neighbouring buildings, there are rows of gene sequencers – machines the size of fridges operating 24 hours a day crunching through the codes for life.
To illustrate the scale of this operation, Europe’s largest gene sequencing centre is the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute near Cambridge. It has 30 machines. BGI has 156 and has even bought an American company that makes them.
BGI’s chief executive, Wang Jun, tells me how they need the technology to develop ever faster and cheaper ways of reading genes.
Again, a comparison for scale: a recently-launched UK project seeks to sequence 10,000 human genomes. BGI has ambitions to sequence the genomes of a million people, a million animals and a million plants.
Wang Jun is keen to stress that all this work must be relevant to ordinary people through better healthcare or tastier food. The BGI canteen is used as a testbed for some of the products from the labs: everything from grouper twice the normal size, to pigs, to yoghurt.
I ask Wang Jun how he chooses what to sequence. After the shock of hearing the phrase “cloning factory”, out comes another bombshell:
“If it tastes good you should sequence it,” he tells me. “You should know what’s in the genes of that species.”
Species that taste good is one criterion. Another he cites is that of industrial use – raising yields, for example, or benefits for healthcare.
“A third category is if it looks cute – anything that looks cute: panda, polar bear, penguin, you should really sequence it – it’s like digitalising all the wonderful species,” he explains.
I wonder how he feels about acquiring such power to take control of nature but he immediately contradicts me.
“No, we’re following Nature – there are lots of people dying from hunger and protein supply so we have to think about ways of dealing with that, for example exploring the potential of rice as a species,” the BGI chief counters.
China is on a trajectory that will see it emerging as a giant of science: it has a robotic rover on the Moon, it holds the honour of having the world’s fastest supercomputer and BGI offers a glimpse of what industrial scale could bring to the future of biology.