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Knowing Nature Through Technology
Alex Steffen, 28 Oct 03

Four years ago, I dashed off a Viridian note about something I called the Ecosystem Game (copied below in the extended entry). It was a piece of what I call "anticipatory journalism," a somewhat goofy way of exploring through a fictional news story how advances in technology might make it possible for us to know nature in new ways.

Now reality has overtaken imagination.

As Mike Liebhold reports, people are actually using pretty much every technology I imagined in the story. Kamungus reports on the weather and features live camera shots from a small corner of the Northern California coast. UC Berkeley researchers are embedding networks of wireless sensors in redwood trees to study forest change while another outfit is using RFID chips ("smart dust") to track wildlife. Meanwhile, these folks are attempting to unwire whole ecosystems. The National Biological Information Infrastructure project will be offering "continually updated digital map and data coverages of American wildlands." Conservation International is mapping biodiversity hotspots at the ecosystem level. Then, of course, there's NASA's Earth Observatory, handy for pulling down pictures of the planet taken from space.

All of this puts me in mind with what environmental GIS expert Chris Davis once explained to me about his work, which was that it was undoubtedly getting easier to get more and more data about the workings of the natural systems around us, but that the trick was to make sure you understood what that data was telling you. It's all too easy, apparently, to make that data conform to the expectations we have for it. For it to be truly useful, Chris said, we need to be ready for that data to surprise us. We need to be ready to learn the unexpected from it.

If we can keep that sense of mystery and humility, we will soon have tremendously, almost unimaginably powerful tools for helping nature heal and charting a sustainable course, but we need to remember that the map - no matter how well-digitized, how interconnected with wireless sensors and RFID tags, no matter how minutely measured - is still not the territory.

The EcoSystem Game
by Alex Steffen

Okanogan County, WA

The hottest computer game of the year isn't about blowing
apart zombies with a shotgun, or trying to land a virtual
lunar shuttle on the deck of an aircraft carrier in
pitching seas. No, the latest sensation in the gaming
world comes down to a 26 year-old biology PhD candidate
standing up to her hips in a mountain stream, skimming
bugs of the surface with a mesh net.

"I'm doing an aquatic insect count," the biologist,
Sarah Greene, explains. "This will give us a rough
estimation of how healthy this habitat is, whether
or not it's providing sufficient food for wild salmon."

By itself, counting bugs is not very exciting. It's
what happens to the count that has made this odd game a
hit.

You see, in this game, "EcoSystem" the "board" is a
real place -- a three-hundred-fifty-thousand acre system
of valleys here in rural Washington, in a county larger
than the state of Connecticut. The actions of the
"players" -- tens of thousands of paying customers from
around the planet -- control all the management decisions
for this vast tract of land.

It's a real-world, real-time, high-tech videogame,
where things are actually born and eaten, flourish or
dwindle, based on the players' mouse-clicks -- and often
in front of their very eyes.

After identifying and counting the insect population,
Greene feeds the information into a computer, which
tabulates the data and puts it up on the game's website.
There, it is added to and cross-referenced with literally
millions of other pieces of information to present a
picture of how the EcoSystem is doing.

Some of the information is arcane, like Youst's bug
count. Some is more personal, like another grad student's
daily observations and video about the habits and behavior
of the valley's only spotted owl brood. Members post
thousands of queries about this data, make notes on GIS
maps, make and debate motions about how to manage the
land, even plot coups and counter-coups in the management
regime.

Debates often become quite heated, such as a recent
quarrel over whether to introduce a pack of wolves into
the valley (the wolf-fans won).

In exchange, the EcoSystem team is able to meet three
of its goals: the preservation of a vast tract of land
(ranging from logged-over scabland to a few isolated
patches of ancient forest) at a time when public money for
wilderness preservation has all but dried up; the
restoration of portions of the ecosystem using
experimental techniques; and the chance to study the
workings of an entire ecosystem in a level of detail never
before attempted.

This last is due largely to the availability of large
numbers of grants through the company for graduate work in
the area, but EcoSystem president Jack Muir says none of
the project would be possible without recent advances in
computer and telecommunications technology.

"Not only do we have hundreds of employees and
thousands of customers, all connected via networks," Muir
says, "but we also have thousands of remote sensing
devices of all different kinds, all going 24-7, measuring
a wealth of data which has never been practical to
consider before."

But technology has made the game possible in a more
direct sense as well. Part of the $30,000 entry fee to
play includes the interface screen and equipment, a large
flat-display screen which receives a direct feed from the
valley, allowing players to show off pictures from any
number of robot cameras (the camera on the owls is
particularly popular), as well as track any number of
information streams. The EcoSystem, many players say, is a
part of their daily lives.

To some this might sound boring, but most of the
players this writer spoke with claimed it was quite the
opposite: some say they experience a deep connection to
the EcoSystem which they feel for no other land. Others
recount powerful on-line experiences, such as the time
cameras captured the wolf pack bringing down an elk and
thousands across the world stopped their lives for hours
to watch as the wolves fed. Still others recount personal
visits to the valleys, great parties with fellow players,
growing knowledge of environmental science, etc.

There have even been some insurgencies to make it
interesting, like the small group of players lead by a
disgruntled former timber executive who received the game
from his daughter. He decided to advocate clearcutting
the EcoSystem. The rebels called their plan "Fresh Start."
The effort was eventually contained within a small patch
of experimental sustainable forestry on the area's
fringes.

Another effort, to allow limited hunting, was
successful.

But it is the exclusivity of the EcoSystem (only
researchers and players may visit, and then only under
strict controls) which has helped make memberships in
theGame a hot status item. Though a few players have
"scholarships" based in large part on some past service to
the EcoSystem, the vast majority are well-heeled,
environmentally-aware professionals for whom membership is
a badge of distinction.

As word has spread and membership grown, the
EcoSystem has been able to increase the intensity of study
and add more parcels of land, growing 250,000 acres in
four years.

Now the game is planning to branch out into
surrounding more settled areas. New projects will work
with the EcoSystem, such as the purchase of a ranch and
several farms, which (it is hoped) will be experiments in
rural sustainability. Players will engage in a
participatory design process to create a series of
completely sustainable visitor centers to accommodate the
growing membership. A nearby hydropower dam will be
purchased and removed from the surrounding land. There is
even development of a "green" retirement community for
EcoSystem players, planned for a nearby town.

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