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Finding Osama bin Laden with Biogeography

I saw the coolest thing ever on the Rachel Maddow Show tonight.  EverThomas Gillespie of the Geography Department at UCLA was on the show discussing his attempt to predict bin Laden’s location using satellite imagery and biogeographic theory!  It was so amazingly cool to hear him discussing distance-decay models and island biogeography theory to predict bin Laden’s location.  It’s all the cooler because Gillespie is, at least in part, a tropical forest ecologist, did his Ph.D. on tropical dry forests in Nicaragua, and has published on dry forest fragments in south Florida.

It also make me wonder.  This is fairly basic work as far as biogeography goes.  It seems like a much simpler, much more tractable problem than you tend to get in actual conservation biology.  Gillespie may not be right, and presumably if he was, bin Laden has moved by now.  You tend to think of the intelligence community having highly sophisticated tools for data analysis.  But then you hear things like the fact that they are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data, and that they just don’t have enough analysts to deal with all the information they ‘capture’.  It makes me wonder whether the intelligence community should be hiring more community ecologists.  Community ecologists (and, apparently, environmental geographers) are faced with a “middle numbers” problem – they are faced with far too many data points to actually enumerate, but far too few to truly generalise. While this has posed a huge problem to the development of ecological theory, it hasn’t paralysed the field. Part of learning to function as an ecologist is learning to to deal with the issue.

Last month, after Karl’s funeral, Ryan reminisced about a recent interaction between him, Floyd and Karl.  He and Floyd had been counting and measuring the fish the had captured in their sampling.  After watching them measure and record several hundred fish, Karl pointed out to them that they should simply have put the fish into size classes and tallied the number in each size class.  It’s always hard to discard information that you’ve already gone to the trouble of collecting, but it’s often something you need to do in order to make sense of the data you have collected.  It’s something you learn to do as an ecologist…you learn to focus on that portion of the data that you can actually use.  It get the impression that it’s the kind of experience that might translate well into the world of intelligence analysis.

Gillespie, Thomas W., John A. Agnew, Erika Mariano, Scott Mossler, Nolan Jones, Matt Braughton, and Jorge Gonzalez. 2009. Finding Osama bin Laden: An Application of Biogeographic Theories and Satellite Imagery. MIT International Review. Online edition.