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Posts Tagged ‘open access journals’

Potential Harm to Rare Species from Location-Tagged Data

November 20, 2017 2 comments

In a new study from Yale University entitled “Unnatural Surveillance: How Online Data Is Putting Species at Risk,”  author Adam Welz sounds an alarm about harm that can come from the fact that location information is increasingly tied to data.  In the case of rare and endangered plants and animals, Welz points out that “poachers can use computers and smartphones to pinpoint the locations of rare and endangered species and then go nab them.”   The case highlighted in the article is one of a couple who had been illegally gathering rare African succulent plants after doing research on the location of the plants, and then illegally selling the plants through their own website.  In the past it may have taken perhaps an entire botanical career to gather information on this level of specificity, but “in 2015, a pair of poachers could acquire it in a short time from a desk on another continent.”  Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case, and Welz should know:  He has long focused on writing about and has extensive experience in international and African wildlife issues.

The author thoughtfully raises other ways, trends, and technologies that expose the location of protected species to those with other motives, such as the increased publishing of scientific research in open access journals, VHF radio signals from animal collars, the rise of citizen science, and even geotagged social media posts from tourists who photograph wildlife.  Welz recognizes the positive impact that the growth of data has had on research and on conservation in particular, but raises awareness of the real danger that location-tagged data can pose to the very things that many seek to study and protect.  As a member of the academic community, I have been working with open access journals for years, and I had not considered the potential misuse of this new publication avenue.

As a long-time member of another community–that of caving, I have for decades been sensitive to the related issue of publishing of cave locations, and the resulting harm that can and has  come from those entering caves without a permit and/or those who would seek to vandalize a cave.  I would love to see a researcher conduct further research on the geospatial implications of the points that Welz raises.   Lacking that, Welz’ article still provides an affirmation of one of our themes of this blog and our book:  What is important is what people do with the data.  Data can be used for good and for ill.  It is my hope that articles such as this raise awareness so that data and tool providers build safeguards that make it difficult for people who seek to use data for ill to access that data, while still moving toward the goals of open data access for enabling smart decisions.

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A review of an article wherein Adam Welz sounds an alarm about harm that can come from the fact that location information is increasingly tied to data.

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