Declan Butler, reporter This is the personal blog of Declan Butler, a senior reporter at Nature. All views expressed here are mine, and not those of Nature. Contact me at

April 22, 2011

A population density map to help provide context to my nuclear power plant proximity analysis

Filed under: Energy,Google Earth,Nuclear,Uncategorized — admin @ 9:50 pm

Following on from the population analysis I published yesterday estimating quantitatively how many people live within certain distances of each of the world’s nuclear power plants, some people have asked me for more information on population distribution itself, and whether it might provide more spatial context for the results of the analysis — for example is the plant close to urban sprawl from a major city. Or why is it that nuclear power plants in France, for example – which with 58 nuclear reactors, is second only to the United States (which has 104) in terms of numbers of nuclear reactors — tend to have fewer people living near to most of them, compared with, for example, much smaller nuclear power nations such as Germany?

So to try provide some more visual geographical context, today I’ve mashed together the results of the analysis I published yesterday in Nature — see here my 3D map of the results of that analysis — with a new very high-resolution global population density Google Earth map for 2010 created by the NASA Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center operated by Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN). The underlying data is the same as we used in our previous analysis.

Mashing the two maps together certainly does provide this sort of greater context, but the result of combining them is also a bit visually overwhelming, and may be confusing at first. — so beware.

Here’s a screenshot — you can find the full 3-D interactive mashup of the two maps below the fold.


April 21, 2011

A GIS analysis of the number of people living near each of the world’s nuclear power plants

Filed under: Energy,GIS,Google Earth,Nuclear,Nuclear accidents,Uncategorized — admin @ 10:19 pm

I’ve published in Nature tonight a GIS analysis I did with the NASA Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center operated by Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), looking at how many people live within certain distances of each of the world’s nuclear power plants.

It shows, for example, that two-thirds of the world’s power plants have more people living within a 30-kilometre radius than the 172,000 people living within 30 kilometres of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Some 21 plants have populations larger than 1 million within that radius, and six have populations larger than 3 million. One hundred and fifty-two nuclear power plants have more than 1 million people living within 75 kilometres.

I’ve published the full results in the form of a map which is best viewed using the desktop version of Google Earth — you can download my map file here. The map plots every one of the world’s nuclear plants with circle size indicating the number of people living within 75 km of each plant. Moving the mouse over any circle brings up a label, and the figure for the size of the population. Clicking on any of the plant symbols opens up an information panel showing data for population estimates at 30, 75, 150 and 300 km from the plant, as well as the total power output, and a photograph of the plant.

I did this map fairly quickly, and will add a scale etc soon. Feedback welcome. I can also be contacted at

I’ll try to publish soon the full raw dataset that we created.

Here’s a screenshot of just one of the plants on the map: Indian Point, near New York.


How population sizes were estimated

To estimate the size of populations living near nuclear power plants, Nature first created a map, based on the Power Reactor Information System database, an up-to-date database of nuclear reactors that are operational or under construction, supplied by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA does not provide latitudes and longitudes for the reactors, so we obtained many of these by doing a database merge with the older UNEP-GRID reactor database, which contains data, including geographical coordinates, on reactors up to the year 2000. We manually geocoded remaining entries that lacked coordinate data.

To derive the population estimates, Nature teamed up with CIESIN, whose Global Rural-Urban Mapping Project (GRUMP) population database is one of the best available data sets of global population density. The team, and in particular CIESIN scientists Kytt MacManus and Liana Razafindrazay, overlaid the reactor map with GRUMP population maps for the years 2000 and 2010 in a geographic information system and computed population estimates for both years using concentric zones drawn at 30, 75, 150, 300, 600 and 1,200 kilometres from each nuclear power plant.

September 17, 2008

Some cartograms of US science & technology

Filed under: GIS,Open data,Uncategorized,Venture capital — admin @ 7:38 pm

As anyone who has visited WorldMapper knows, cartograms are an interesting way of visualizing date on geographical areas. I’ve an article in Nature tonight where I’ve generated cartograms for some indicators on US science and technology.
Some excerpts at end below, and also a Picasa slideshow of some of the cartograms — it’s the first time I’ve used the Picasa embed, and its too subliminally speedy. You can press the stop button, and then click back and forward on the below, and there is allso a static version where you can just click through the slides at a normal human pace ;-> — click this link to the Picasa album.

The cartograms reveal the United States distorted in proportion to a variable other than area — such as state spending on R&D. The maps here were made using data from the State Indicators chapter of the 2008 edition of the US National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Science and Technology Indicators. For simplicity, the cartograms use a base map of the 48 contiguous mainland states and the District of Columbia.
I haven’t included a detailed description of the indicators – -see the NSF chapter for that.

The Gastner & Newman 2004 PNAS paper introduced an improved algorithm for generating cartograms, which was the one used here. The software implementation is the open-source ScapeToad, released in May by the Chôros Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, which researches the concept of space in society, from urban planning to territorial development.

Note that per-capita and other cartograms that use normalized data can be confusing, cautions Michael Goodchild, a geographer at the University of California, Santa Barbara – in theory a state with just a few researchers and a tiny research budget, for example, might nonetheless appear huge on such a map. Where possible it might be better to use raw non-normalized data, such as total population to scale state sizes in cartograms, and then layer on data on other related information on top. There are examples of both types of data in the slideshow above.

PS Nature also has a short editorial on visualization this week, and just last week a fab special on “Big Data.”

April 30, 2008

Science data needs to be more spatially-enabled, says Nature

Filed under: GIS — admin @ 9:55 pm

Here’s an Editorial from tomorrow’s Nature — link here — on the need for scientists to routinely record spatial data with samples, viral sequences, field observations, and other entities. It proposes a major change in the policies of journals and databases to mandate recording of such data as a prerequisite for having a scientific paper accepted. Feel free to use this blog’s comment facility to express your opinion on this, or email me at

During the research for this Editorial, Nature picked up considerable frustration from spatial scientists in many fields about the fact lack of spatial data in otherwise valuable datasets made them all but useless for more quantitative spatial analysis. For the sake of brevity and readability in this short article, we reduced the concept of spatial data to latitude and longitude, but clearly any working system would require more detailed spatial standards, depending on fields.

December 5, 2007

Earth monitoring special in Nature

Filed under: GIS,Google Earth,Open data,Semantic web,Web services — admin @ 9:25 pm

Nature has a special issue on Earth monitoring out tonight.


Nearly fifty years ago —things were up and running by March 1958 — Charles Keeling and colleagues began a series of measurements of atmospheric CO2 on Mauna Loa in Hawaii. The results, made graphic in the jagged ‘Keeling curve’ running across this week’s cover, made the world take notice — eventually. The Mauna Loa measurements constitute the longest continuous record of atmospheric CO2 in the world. The steady rise in CO2 that they record now forms the accepted backdrop to today’s climate science and economic and political decision making. As well as being an important resource in itself, the Mauna Loa record highlights the vital importance of Earth monitoring programmes. The fiftieth anniversary of the start of this work is marked in this issue by News Features and other pieces on the Earth monitoring being done today, historical pieces on the Mauna Loa data and more.

I’ve a long futuristic article in the special looking at how close we might be to a totally monitored Earth by 2025: Earth Monitoring: The planetary panopticon

Nature itself has an great editorial — Patching together a world view — which provides a great big picture view, that I’d have struggled to write, so kudos to my colleagues who did such a good job of capturing succintly such a vast topic.

Alex Witze then contrasts my upbeat forecast with the lack of leadership of, and the disarray in, the US’s current Earth monitoring programmes — Earth Observation: Not enough eyes on the prize.

And the journalistic content doesn’t stop there: there are also features on:
Earth Monitoring: Observing the ocean from within

Earth Monitoring: The crucial measurement

And to finish it all off there are two Commentaries by scientists
Earth monitoring: Cinderella science
Earth monitoring: Vigilance is not enough

And an online version of all is here, including a timeline of Earth monitoring.

April 25, 2007

Virtual Globes and environmental science

Filed under: GIS,Google Earth,Open data,Semantic web,Standards,Uncategorized — admin @ 10:51 am

The UK National Institute for Environmental eScience (NIEeS) recently organized a scientific workshop at Cambridge University on environmental research applications of Google Earth and other virtual globes; some of the presentations are now available online here.

April 18, 2007

Bush commends Darfur Google Earth layers; I recount the history of the project

Filed under: Blogging,GIS,Google Earth,Open data,Uncategorized — admin @ 9:11 pm

For what it’s worth, Georges Bush tonight commended the Darfur layers in Google Earth built by a group of volunteers (including yours truly), and endorsed by Google and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. On tonight, I tell the story of how this project evolved.

To read more of that history, see below:

April 10, 2007

Genocide information in Google Earth

Filed under: GIS,Google Earth,Justice,Open data,Uncategorized — admin @ 3:12 pm

I’m pleased to let you know about Crisis in Darfur, a Google Earth layer that assembles data, photographs, and eyewitness testimony and which will be officially announced today by Google and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. It will appear in Google Earth under the Global Awareness layer in the left hand panel of Google Earth .

December 10, 2006

Google Earth avian flu maps updated

Filed under: avian influenza,GIS,Google Earth,Open data — admin @ 11:08 pm

I’ve updated the flu maps to this weekend — link here.. Since August, the spread of avian flu, as reported, has shown a lull, with only a few animal outbreaks, reported, in Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Egypt, China and South Korea. Over the same period there have been 10 human cases in Indonesia, and 1 in Egypt.

November 30, 2006

Blog anniversary, and latest news

This blog is 1 year old today. I’d like to say thanks to all of you for visiting, and often getting in touch.

It’s been an eventful year, with content mostly a mix of posts — too-infrequent 🙂 — on GIS, avian flu and public health, computing, and, of late, the venue for disseminating information on the Libya HIV case, and the campaign to free the six medical workers facing the death penalty — see here and here.

I’ve an article in today’s Nature — Amazon puts network power online — on an interesting form of computing-on-demand from Amazon, that might appeal to many scientists — it is in beta. It costs $0.10 per computing hour, and to store data for $0.15 per gigabyte per month. To get started, see the FAQ, and a guide here.


October 28, 2006

Map of press freedom

Filed under: GIS,Google Earth,Justice — admin @ 5:57 pm

Reporters Without Borders released its annual worldwide press freedom index on 23 October. Ive made a quick Google Earth map of the data — click here to view and see screenshot below.

October 6, 2006

More on CIESIN data

Filed under: GIS,Google Earth — admin @ 6:47 pm

Greg kindly posted a comment to my earlier post on the CIESIN poverty maps, to let me know that CIESIN is making GE versions of its data via WMS. I’m promoting it to a post. I’ve made a network link to view some of his files here; the resolution of the images increases as one zooms in.

October 1, 2006

Stunning, and important, new GIS maps of Poverty

Filed under: GIS — admin @ 9:41 pm

Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) released 28 September an important set of new GIS data related to poverty; the project homepage is here. Most of the data are also available as shapefiles — after getting to this page, click “global” or “national” to get them (with comprehensive metadata) — and so allows one to analyse the data against other relevant datasets.

The CIESIN datasets provide global views of indicators such as infant mortality and hunger, with some surprizing results:

September 17, 2006

The spread of avian flu with time; new maps exploiting Google Earth’s time series function

Filed under: avian influenza,GIS,Google Earth — admin @ 8:44 pm

Google Earth last week introduced new functionality that allows one to map events against time. Clearly this is the ideal way to view the spread of avian flu worldwide, so I have adapted my existing flu maps to it. Only the new maps will be updated. The new link for the time-enabled maps is this one (the KML file).

You WILL NOT be able to view these maps correctly using the standard Google Earth client. You MUST FIRST install the latest GE 4.0 beta — download link here.


September 1, 2006

NASA World Wind Moon

Filed under: GIS — admin @ 7:08 pm

Nature online has a special out tonight on the Moon.

The occasion:

“On 2 or 3 September 2006, Europe’s latest mission to the Moon, a robotic craft called SMART-1, is scheduled to perform a spectacular crash landing, visible to Earth-bound professionals and amateurs alike.
Here takes a close look at the Moon, from its geology to its effects on mankind, from its birth to the future missions planned to build a base on its surface.”

The reason, I mention it here is that alongside I’ve a lighthearted Q&A with Patrick Hogan, project manager of NASA World Wind, on World Wind Moon. It’s a fun general public piece, and not one of my ever-so-serious analytical Nature articles, so I let Patrick get away with a few superlatives as to what he claims is upcoming in the next release of World Wind (1.3.6), due out this month. Let’s see if it is as good as he says:

July 6, 2006

Top 50 science blogs

Filed under: Blogging,GIS — admin @ 9:27 pm

Quick pointer to an analysis I’ve done of where science blogs rank in the overall blogosphere; its on free access at
1. Top Five Science Blogs
2. Top Five Science Writer Blogs
3. Top 50 Science Blogs
4. Note on how I did the rankings
5. Five odd facts about the ranking

A note for my fellow flu bloggers; Effect Measure comes in at number 9 of all science blogs with a Technorati rank of 6186, and H5N1, not listed, came in at number 9 in the writers’ category with a Technorati rank of 10159.

May 16, 2006

Map update

Filed under: avian influenza,Google Earth — admin @ 11:24 pm

H5n1 maps have been updated — link here. You will notice that there has been a large decrease in the number of outbreaks reported over the last month.
We had a couple of pieces in last week’s Nature on the threat of H5N1 to the Americas — all free access- see :
Avian Flu and the New World
How might it get there?
State’s flu response raises concern.

April 16, 2006

Easter avian flu map update

Map update

This weekend’s update adds a minor change to make it easier to see the latest human cases and animal outbreaks. The initial screen will by default only show — in yellow — those events that have occured since the last map update (see screenshots below). Download the new maps directly to Google Earth by clicking here. For a more detailed explanation of the new maps, click here.

April 6, 2006

Avian flu map weekly update

Filed under: avian influenza,GIS,Google Earth — admin @ 6:37 pm

Last weekend’s scheduled weekly update to the flu maps finally went up tonight, after I found the bug that was causing export errors in the update. Download map directly here.

This week’s update, including the first bird case in Scotland, will go up this weekend.

Featured image from this week: Egypt
(Circles = animal outbreaks; triangles = human cases)

March 26, 2006

A guide to using Arc2 Earth to get data into Google Earth

Filed under: GIS,Google Earth — admin @ 11:18 am

I’d been thinking of documenting the process of using Arc2Earth to quickly export existing GIS data to Google Earth format, as used in the avian flu maps. But Brian Flood, who built Arc2Earth, has now posted a walk-through guide that does the job. See Getting Data into Google Earth using Arc2Earth

March 24, 2006

Mapping avian flu in almost real-time using Google Earth

Filed under: avian influenza,GIS,Google Earth,Neglected diseases,Open data — admin @ 11:53 pm

UPDATE — SEPT 2006; the links below are to the old maps; to see the new time-enabled versions, click HERE — UPDATE

New Google Earth maps of avian flu spread

This is the new beta of an operational service designed to provide Google Earth maps of avian flu spread on a weekly basis for the first time. As well as mapping human cases and poultry outbreaks, the maps also provide additional data on each event, and additional datasets, such as poultry densities worldwide, to let you explore avian flu.

The fact that the maps can now be regularly updated has been made possible largely through technical improvements in the initial beta map computing infrastructure , and new volunteer support in data management.

March 22, 2006

The future of computing; science in 2020

Barely a month after Google Earth made the front cover of Nature, computing is back on the cover again. Tomorrow’s issue contains a big special on the future of scientific computing. All the articles are free, thanks to sponsorship from Microsoft; the special was produced in conjunction with the 2020 report published today by an international group of experts convened by Microsoft. The special is, however, of course completely editorially-independent of Microsoft

The special, by journalists and top computing experts, looks at some of the key emerging technologies and concepts that look set to have a major impact on scientific computing by 2020. I’ve a three pager on “sensor webs” – “2020 computing: Everything, everywhere” — in it; there is also a short pop-up box — “Batteries not included” — on the problems of powering these small remote devices.

March 9, 2006

Cat flu — ‘aaargh plop’ , and next-generation GIS

Filed under: avian influenza,GIS,Google Earth — admin @ 12:31 am

I’ve a short article in Nature tonight summarising the situation on H5N1 and cats. I first raised this issue in an article a month back, before the first cases of cat infections in Germany and Austria.

Thought you might enjoy this excerpt.

March 1, 2006

Arc2Earth now available

Filed under: GIS,Google Earth — admin @ 9:20 pm

In an earlier post, I discussed one of the big obstacles to wider use of Google Earth in science: much professional spatial data are in shapefile format and need to be converted to KML, the format GE uses, to be viewed in Google Earth. Several converters have emerged including KMLer, KML Home Companion, and Export to KML, and the Pro version of Google Earth allows import of shapefiles.

February 22, 2006

Collection of several hundred bookmarks on virtual globes, science, and GIS

Filed under: avian influenza,GIS,Google Earth,Open data,Social bookmarking — admin @ 2:04 pm

Journalists researching articles come across many interesting web resources, but whereas a few key ones might be linked to in the final published articles, most remain on the journalists’ hard drives, never used or exploited again by themselves, let alone others. During my research into scientific applications of virtual globes, such as Google Earth — articles linked to here — I checked out many web resources. Given that these resources might be useful to others, I’ve now made them all public on Connotea, the free social bookmarking service for science professionals.

In a sense, I’m sharing with everyone some of my effort put into researching the topic, with the thinking that my link collection might provide starting points that are an alternative, and more select, starting point than a Google search for virtual globes and science.

February 15, 2006

Google Earth on the cover of Nature

Filed under: GIS,Google Earth — admin @ 7:34 pm

What on Earth is Google Earth doing on the front cover of Nature, the international weekly journal of science?

This week’s issue contains several pieces on virtual globes, and all are on free access. I’ve written a three-page feature — Virtual globes: The web-wide world — on the various ways scientists are beginning to use virtual globes, such as Google Earth and Nasa’s World Wind. And Al Gore, former US vice-president, who envisioned the Digital Earth in 1998, also gives his thoughts on the new developments, and his initial vision. “Its highest purpose was to use the Earth itself as an organizing metaphor for digital information,” he says in the article.

I discuss the feature in an accompanying podcast.

January 24, 2006

GIS software

Filed under: GIS — admin @ 9:26 pm

I’ve come across what’s seems to be a large and useful listing of open-source GIS software. Over at Very Spatial, bloggers are also trying to build the definitive list of desktop GIS software. Such initiatives are useful for others to discover what is out there.
My own, less-organized, bookmarks to many GIS resources can be found on my GIS ‘thin blog’ here; the section on GIS & science will be vastly expanded in mid-February.

January 13, 2006

Turkey updates to avian flu maps

Filed under: avian influenza,GIS,Google Earth — admin @ 11:00 pm

Given the current interest in the outbreak of H5N1 in Turkey, I’ve exceptionally manually updated the Google Earth global avian flu outbreak maps to show the location of the latest human cases in Turkey (red dots), and links to relevant WHO updates.

January 11, 2006

BBC Radio 5 has a piece on the Google Earth flu maps

Filed under: avian influenza,GIS,Google Earth,Uncategorized — admin @ 12:07 am

Here’s the link

January 4, 2006

Google Earth featured in Nature’s podcast

Filed under: avian influenza,GIS,Google Earth — admin @ 11:21 pm

This week’s Nature podcast features a short interview with me on Google Earth.

Avian flu maps in Google Earth

Filed under: avian influenza,GIS,Google Earth — admin @ 8:16 pm


Nature has a Google Earth map of avian flu outbreaks online tonight.

Download the network link directly from here.

It accompanies an article I’ve published in Nature: “Mashups mix data into global service.” The article also has a box on methods; a shorter version of this post: “Nature gets mashed up.”

The visualization of avian flu outbreaks is the first online map, to my knowledge, of each of the more than 1800 individual outbreaks of avian flu in birds that have been reported over the past two years. It also provides a geographical overview of confirmed human cases of infection with the H5N1 influenza virus.

December 13, 2005

Getting GIS data into Google Earth

Filed under: GIS,Google Earth — admin @ 11:45 pm

Google Earth has set new standards for visualizing geographical information systems (GIS) data. Great for viewing the world’s sightseeing spots, your house, or the nearest hotels and restaurants at your business, or, holiday destination. But that’s a bit limited. The full extent of rich scientific, and other, GIS datasets often cannot yet be easily converted for viewing in Google Earth, because of differences in formats. Speak to anyone at various geographical or scientific databases these days and you often hear the same question: “How can we get our data into Google Earth?” New computing tools are now emerging, however, that are changing this situation.

December 9, 2005

Google Earth for Mac

Filed under: GIS,Google Earth — admin @ 1:19 pm

A Mac version of Google Earth is finally on the way. It’s reviewed here.
Via Ogle Earth

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