Tag Archives: the China Daily

Mobilizing the Bird Watchers

It sounds more like the storyline for a movie, but this piece in the International Herald Tribune by Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Coming Plague”, highlights an area where technology might be able help stem the tide of bird flu:

One of the best untapped resources in this epic battle against influenza is bird-watchers, who are among the most fanatic hobbyists in the world. The major bird-watching organizations and safari clubs ought to work with the World Health Organization and OIE, the World Organization for Animal Health, to set up Web-based notification sites, where birders could report sightings of groups of dead birds, and the movements of key migrating species.

This information would then lead to issuing alerts, and, when “carrier species are sighted in a region, swift action should be taken to minimize contact between the wild birds and their domestic kin. In such a way, it might be possible to limit avian deaths to susceptible wild birds, such as the dying swans of Europe.” The picture Garrett paints is a scary one (her book title perhaps reveals her optimism, or lack of it, about what could happen.) So could the bird watcher brigade save the human race?

In some places it’s already happening. Organisations in the UK, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, have asked their members to report dead birds, but unless I’m not looking in the right place their websites don’t make much of it. The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust had one link to avian influenza but buried the contact number for the public at the bottom of the page (and no email link).

China, too, is mobilizing bird lovers, according to the China Daily but candidly admits its numbers aren’t enough:  “There are more than 100 frequent birdwatchers in Beijing, but the number proves to be far from enough when the people are scattered at wild bird habitats around the city,” [Li Haitao, a birdwatcher in the capital,] said.

It would seem to me that the Internet is perfectly suited to this kind of coordinated “citizen reporting” of migratory patterns and bird deaths. Why hasn’t it happened yet? Plus, it would make a great movie. Leonardo di Caprio as an anorak-wearing bird watcher saving the planet?

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China’s Facial Recognition System

China is about to launch a new facial recognition system “which will be used in public places, such as airports, post offices, customs entrances and even residential communities”, according to today’s China Daily (no URL available yet.)

The invention, developed by Su Guangda, an Electronic Engineering Department professor with Beijing-based Tsinghua University, has been approved by a panel of experts from the Ministry of Public Security, the paper says. The system “excels at capturing moving facial images and features a multi-camera technology to lower the error for mismatching.”

Of course this is a sensitive area, particularly in China. The paper says the technology is already in place, but “limited to police use. The technology has helped the police in Beijing solve a few criminal cases involving child abduction and supermarket blackmail in the past few years.” But its creator is quoted as pushing for broader use, saying residential communities, airports and banks could use it. Since China has no fingerprint database for the general public, instead the photo on the national ID card “might help establish a facial database easily.”

Su said one feature of the system is the use of multiple cameras to limit errors, although it’s not clear from the report whether we’re talking multple cameras at an entry point to capture different profiles of the face, or millions of cameras all over the place to capture everyone everywhere.

The professor does acknowledge privacy concerns. His solution: “As long as you don’t save the picture in the computer and just scan individual faces quickly, the privacy violation is not an issue,” Su said. “And we could realize that by avoiding adding a picture saving function to the technology,” he said.

I’m no expert, but I don’t really see how that is a solution. Surely that could easily be circumvented by an over-eager security team, and in any case, it doesn’t really address the underlying concerns about use of facial recognition, although maybe that horse has already bolted. An earlier piece in the China Daily said the database already has 2.56 million faces and can make a face match within a second and has been in use for a year to catch suspects on the run.