Year: 2013

Typhoon Haiyan – The Perfect Storm


Image of Typhoon Haiyan from the Washington Post

For those of you who have seen me give a talk or a lecture, there is a good chance you’ve heard me use the analogy of ‘the perfect storm’ as a way of describing the unexpected consequences of nonlinearity. Nonlinearity can be viewed as a process of multiplication – multiple any series of numbers by zero, and the result is still zero. Change that zero to any non-zero value, and suddenly you can have an unanticipated, very large effect. The Goldsboro incident (thankfully one that did not happen). The emergence of an infectious disease. The collapse of an ecosystem. Or what some have called the largest recorded storm in history. This particular ‘perfect storm’ will undoubtedly cause others. Loss of infrastructure, increased stress on the resources that do remain, depletion of food supplies and clean water, stress on human health, loss of livestock are all issues, with an unpredictable impact on any number of diseases including dengue, cholera, dysentery and malaria. Their contribution to the already massive toll of human suffering is as yet unknown.

Around the world relief organisations have mobilised to provide help. As reported on BBC Newsnight, one unusual way that you can help is via a crowdsourcing initiative called Tomnod. Crowdsourcing is a way of using the massed power of human presence on the internet to accomplish specific goals. Tomnod is a company that has undertaken what is simultaneously a fascinating and extremely worthwhile project. One things that human beings are exceptionally good at, is identifying patterns. We do this much better than computers, and Tomnod is using this crowdsourcing ability to identify the areas of significant devastation across the Phillipines – follow the link, and you’ll be taken to a satellite image of a small area of the Phillipines where you can click on particular points of damage. Aggregating data over multiple contributors allows Tomnod to help in the targeting of relief efforts. While we all know that there are no simple solutions to the worlds problems, perhaps there is hope that the harnessing of these kinds of nonlinearities will create their own perfect storms.