A trip to the Pacific: mapping invisible environmental risks

The remote, low-lying coral atoll of Vaitupu in the Pacific Ocean could be helped by a satellite mapping project at MIT that seeks to expose environmental risks invisible to human eyes.

Vaitupu, with 1,600 inhabitants, is part of the tiny nation of Tuvalu, where the highest point is just 4 metres above sea level and so among the most vulnerable to sea level rise caused by climate change. The new environmental maps could help set a benchmark against which to monitor future changes in places like Tuvalu.

Normal maps show “streets and buildings – but they don’t really tell us much about the environment,” says Arlene Ducao of MIT, who is also co-principal with Ilias Koen of the DuKode Studio in Brooklyn, which runs the “Open-IR: Infrared for Everyone” project.

Blue pin = Vaitupu

Areas with buildings show up in pink

The maps use infrared, outside the visible spectrum, and filters that make hard-to-spot features – such as vegetation, soil, water or height above sea level – “pop” out from the background when translated into bright visible colours such as pink, blue or green.

water shows up as black or blue

Ducao and Koen obtained satellite maps of Tuvalu from U.S. Landsat satellite data for this News and Participatory Media item. Many experts say seas could rise a metre this century, as glaciers and ice caps melt and ocean waters expand – a creeping threat to Vaitupu’s population with projected erosion and salt contamination of cropland and fresh water supplies.

“The satellite data is available, it’s just difficult to use,” Ducao said in an interview in her office at MIT filled with a jumble of shelves with bits and pieces of metal, plastic, books and papers from other projects.

For Vaitupu, the images could help set a benchmark to track if the areas of vegetation or soil shrinks in coming years. Vaitupu is the largest of Tuvalu’s atolls and the site of the nation’s only secondary school.

Vegetation shows up as red

The main pilot project of OpenIR shows areas of Jakarta that are vulnerable to tsunamis – apart from the coastline it unexpectedly reveals some low-lying built-up areas inland to the east of the city that are also at high risk since there is little vegetation to slow any waves from the sea.

Another uses satellite data to peer into abandoned city-owned lots in New York to show which have vegetation and could be easily converted to parks.

Some places are hard to map than others. The main island of Tuvalu – Funafuti – is elusive on U.S. Landsat satellite data, apparently because it lies exactly on the far side of the planet from the north-south line set as the usual baseline for longitude in Greenwich, England.

“I think that island falls…just on the seam,” Koen said. Vaitupu and several other atolls north of Funafuti are visible.

Sitting in front of her computer, Ducao applies a new filter to the map of Jakarta. “The vegetation just pops,” she says of a sudden shift to bright-red tracts around the city Jakarta that highlight vegetation far better than a normal camera using visible light.

She switches on a different filter and all the impermeable surfaces – pavement, concrete buildings are shown in bright pink. “The downtown just pops,” she said. And an infrared filter well outside the visible spectrum reveals large areas around the city – apparently rice paddies.

Rice paddies are “not something you can see in true colour. And it doesn’t show up on street maps,” she said with a laugh. Google.org has some similar data but it is targeted at scientists and is hard to use.

Jakarta map shows tsunami risks -- the redder the more vulnerable

“Our initial audience is crisis responders,” she said.

The maps could also help, for instance, emergency relief teams deploy after a disaster such as Haiti’s earthquake – which could add data about faults where new tremors might occur or places where shelter was available.

In the longer term, it could help plan how to site buildings or agriculture out of harm’s way. Insurance companies might also be interested in the data for long-term premiums. Others from engineers to health workers could find uses.

“A lot of this stuff is done manually by crisis responders. Our value proposition is that a lot of this can be automated,” she said. Ducao and Koen were planning to create a web application where you could plot in latitude and longitude and get out a risk map.

The pilot pictures are based on free images by the Landsat satellite system, which ended in 2006. Ducao and Koen are now turning to data from modern satellites.

In New York, the project is helping an organization called 596 Acres, named after the area of city-owned land in Brooklyn that was going unused.

“The idea is to make abandoned public lots known to everyone so that people can make better use of these lots,” she said. Some lots are boarded off, while satellites can see if it comprises cement or buildings – harder to use immediately – or simply vegetation.

“If you can identify what is green it shows where you easily could develop a community garden, for instance,” said Koen. “This could be a very interesting civic use of the data.”

“NASA and government satellite agencies are not particularly interested in urban areas,” said Ducao. “Maybe if this project gains enough traction it could be taken over by agencies who have the computing power to take it over to make models, predictive modeling.”

“That would be cool.”


To access prototypes:

  Jakarta:  http://openir.media.mit.edu/jakarta
London:  http://openir.media.mit.edu/London
Tuvalu: http://openir.media.mit.edu/Tuvalu


Globalmetrics.com: making sense of eye-glazing numbers


(Final project by Paul and Alister)

Journalists covering global issues often fail to make the complex statistics in their stories comprehensible to readers—whether it’s debt levels, food consumption, cellphones, cancer rates, car or pet ownership or greenhouse gas emissions.

Many reporters are under deadline. Few will take the extra time to make their own calculations or try to research useful comparisons on Google. But, in a world with more than 7 billion people against just 1.5 billion a century ago, the human context is ever more vital.

Too often we just get a giant number – the U.S. debt is $15 trillion, Chinese greenhouse gases are the highest in the world at 7 billion tonnes a year, Americans spend $8 billion a year on cosmetics, etc. Is there some way of helping to put these statistics – huge to the point of meaningless — into an understandable, human framework?

And so, welcome to Globalmetrics.com: a fun, informative and easy-to-use online tool that provides instantaneous context for what global statistics mean per person and a site that offers provocative comparisons for any unfathomable number.

If it’s an economics story, what does your share of debts or GDP represent? A new car? A house? How many vacations? How many pizzas? How would it be, for instance, if everyone had the debts of the average Greek citizen? (awful, in most countries). How would global warming be if everyone emitted greenhouse gases at the rate of an Indian? (much better). The U.S. debt works out at about $50,000 a person – what can you buy with that?

The site probably would be an evolving one, like Wikipedia, and would be similarly curated by its users. Its reliability and credibility would improve over time.  Like simple online currency converters, it would offer windows for reporters to input their numbers, select from a logical variety of metrics (energy, monetary, climate, health, etc.) and then the site would mine user-harvested databases and perform simple mathematical conversions based on population and other metrics. All the databases would require cited links.


Money metrics:

Journalists would have access to credible conversions that help compare boggling numbers to something more tangible. Example: the latest U.S. defense budget of $660 billion. Type in “$660,000,000,000” hit the conversion to “National GDPs” =  7.1 Iraqi annual GDPs.

 Death Tolls:

The human cost of remote wars should be expressed in amounts nearer to home to underscore the suffering. Example: the death toll of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Type in “5,400,000” hit the conversion to “City Populations” = 2 Chicagos

Surface Area:

Journalists also need to express meaningful units of area in stories. The “Rhode Island Factor” honors the smallest U.S. state, already often used by journalists to connote units of surface area. Example: the area of the Earth’s surface that would need to be covered with solar panels in order to meet global energy needs is, by one estimate, 191,817 square miles.

Type in “191,817” hit the Rhode Island Factor button = 124 Rhode Islands (Conversions would also generate automatic comparisons to the surface area of the closest U.S. state or foreign state. In this example, it would be 1.2 Californias, which would be rather hard on the marijuana industry.)

Ice area:

A nod to climate change stories. Journalists almost always compare the size of giant icebergs calving off Antarctica or Greenland to the area of Manhattan in New York, or 23 square miles. This measurement will be the Manhattan Unit. Example: an 350 square mile iceberg was detected in the Arctic in February. Type in 350 square miles, hit the Manhattan Unit button = 15.2 Manhattans. (The iceberg that sank the Titanic, by contrast, was only estimated at 0.07 miles square = 0.003 Manhattan Units, or roughly the area of the Empire State Building’s footprint.)


Variation from the Friedman Means

Famous New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman – in “The World is Flat: A brief history of the 21st century” – proposes that globalization increasingly means a level playing field of opportunities for all nations.

The Friedman factor measures whether he is right or if trade barriers; lack of access to public services such as education and healthcare; messy democracy vs. authoritarianism, etc., mean that the real world is still very much a corrugated place. The variables are under consideration, but could be the some additive function of variables such as the UN’s Human Development Index and some metric of trade tariffs. (The US anything but “flat” when it comes to tariffs of African textiles and other products, for example.) The greater the number, the higher the chasm wall from Freidman’s totally hypothetically flat value of zero.

Safari Units

“Unidades economicas del safari de su majestad el rey (UESMRs)

A measure used in debates between monarchists and republicans about whether royal families are in touch with their people. Spanish King Juan Carlos apologized in April 2012 after a safari to Botswana. This was seen as out of touch in Spain, where the unemployment rate is 24 percent.

So the unit is the cost of a monarch’s vacation compared to state support to people out of work. Rann Safaris lists the cost of its 2-week elephant hunting safaris at $59,500…equivalent to the unemployment benefits for more than 80 people in Spain. The yardstick can be applied to the rulers elsewhere. “Japanese Emperor Akihito had a modest vacation in the south of Japan that cost just 30 Safari Units, his lowest in a decade”. “Prince Charles’ holiday in the Seychelles was a record 120 Safari units.”

AYNS – a measure of corporate friendliness (named after Ayn Rand)

 Is your government going too far in being friendly to businesses with tax breaks, etc.? The Ayn Unit helps you find out. The unit divides the pay of the chief executives of Fortune 500 companies – most of them global in reach – by the annual income per ordinary worker in the country you are researching. This figure is then multiplied by the mean corporate tax rate of the country involved.

In America, for instance, the average pay for a Fortune 500 CEO was $12 million in 2011, or 380 times that of the average worker (up from 42 times in 1980). So take 380 and multiply by the U.S. corporate tax rate, of 14 percent. That gives 5,320 Ayns.

The Obama Gap – foreigners’ views of your leader.

Foreigners’ opinions of your leader can help understand how they are doing on the wider stage: this is measured by the Obama Gap. President Barack Obama’s popularity abroad is higher than at home, Kim Jong-un is lionized by the official media in North Korea but denounced as a tyrant abroad. In the Internet age, such a measure can help you connect to the wider world.

Obama after a dinner in Washington, May 2012

For instance, 75 percent of people in European Union nations approved of Obama’s handling of international policies in a Transatlantic Trends survey late last year.  Obama’s domestic approval ratings were about 47 percent at the time – so the Obama Gap is +28 percentage points. Few other leaders get polled abroad – proxies could be the number of negative or positive references in the media. “Hollande triumphs” about the French presidential race would be a positive point, “Dictator Kim” a negative.


Inhofe Units/Bodman units (name/metrics under planning)

Sceptics often dismiss the science behind climate change. How costly is this in terms of eventual ice melt, sea level rise? Former U.S. President George W. Bush’s Energy Secretary Sam Bodman once said: “We are a small contributor when you look at the rest of the world…It’s really got to be a global discussion.” But that line – frequently repeated by government officials around the world about their country’s share of responsibility – is a recipe for inaction. The United States is responsible for one-quarter of the world’s emissions of carbon dioxide, recently overtaken by China. Senator James Inhofe is also well known for dismissing global warming as a “hoax”.

The Coke Index

Measuring the cost of something cheap, worldwide: the distortions of taxes, wage costs, transport, storage space, etc. Coca Cola ran an advertisement in 1971 saying: “I’d like to buy the world a Coke”.

So what would it cost if you could really go to your local supermarket and buy 7 billion bottles? Prices vary a lot from country to country and the index would hint at these distortions. We could also divide Coke units by per capita GDP in each country to give a hint of inequities in wealth worldwide judged by access to a single commodity, or maybe link the index to obesity rates. (…This would be a bit like The Economist’s Big Mac index that tracks a basket of commodities, but with a simpler product, covering more countries)


(With apologies to Ethan.) A unit of development aid as measured in the differential caused by celebrity involvement. The base line would be Congo ($11 per capita with no Angelina involvement vs. Darfur $300 per capita with Angelina involvement. This is a real statistic. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2007-12-17/news/0712170080_1_darfur-congo-human-rights


The amount of funding provided with World Wildlife Fund to protect the rare mountain gorilla in Africa as a factor of food aid to a specific humanitarian disaster. (“The measly famine relief effort in Niger equaled two Kilo-gorillas.”)

Valdez Unit

A metric of oil production. “The total amount of oil burned by the allies in World War I was one Valdez Unit, or 500,000 barrels.” (This is a nominally accurate stat.)

The Warhol Shrug

The artist Andy Warhol said in 1968 that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”  Even with social media amplifying your chances, the problem is that there are too many people and not enough time, so the “Warhol Shrug” is for those who simply don’t care about missing out on celebrity.

If everyone were famous for a separate 15 minutes, there would be about 35,000 each year. And with an average life expectancy of about 68 years, there are only 2.4 million slots of fame available in the average lifetime — on a planet with 7 billion people. For Warhol to be right, almost 3,000 people we’ve never heard of will have to become world famous every 15 minutes — that’s obviously impossible. A “Warhol Shrug” is a synonym for “I’m happy to be among the anonymous 3,000.”


The possibilities are almost endless. A broad database would draw on sources such as the U.N. Population Fund, the World Bank, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, U.N. Development Program, International Energy, World Health Organization and pretty much every organization that tracks global numbers. It would also be linked to national statistics, etc.

In many cases, context is just dividing a total number by population. We often hear that China has overtaken the United States as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, and that India is catching up fast.  But the per capita numbers are often overlooked – Americans are still emitting about 3-4 times more each than the average Chinese citizen. And emissions per Indian are tiny.

So maybe you could type in “China” and “greenhouse gases” and the site would generate total and per capita emissions for other countries, and trends over recent years. It would allow you to see what the average emissions per capita in China mean – the equivalent of driving a typical Chinese car x miles, or the same as flying from Beijing to San Francisco and back x times, etc. It might come up with suggestions about buying carbon credits to cut back on your emissions.

Or it might produce leaders of each country by their countries’ per capita greenhouse gases, something like:


Or data from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization shows that production of cows, pigs and chickens has surged since the 1960s.

That’s interesting but if you take the data that include population growth, it turns out that beef consumption has fallen from a peak in the 1970s. That’s because the human population has grown faster than the cow population. And that’s probably a more interesting angle to the story.

1960s cow consumption per capita:

MId-1970s cow consumption per capita:

Current beef consumption per capita:

Meanwhile, chicken consumption per capita looks like this since the 1960s:

Source: FAO

As an illustration of the difficulties of visualizing money, the following web page is the Norwegian central bank’s overview of a gigantic state pension fund set up to save money from North Sea oil revenues, which are invested in foreign stocks and bonds:

It just gives a constantly updated running total, i.e. 3.44 trillion crowns (almost $600 billion), in the top right. But it’s more interesting — especially if you are Norwegian — to know that it works out at about $120,000 for each of the country’s 4.9 million citizens.

And what is that in terms you can understand? The website, or even a separate app (maybe sponsored by companies wanting to promote their products) could throw  constantly updated per capita comparisons like: a $120,000 cabin in the mountains? 40 summer vacations to the Mediterranean? 20,000 expensive Norwegian beers? And what’s $600 billion in other terms? Almost a U.S. defence budget, Switzerland’s GDP?

Some of the other data we looked at were:










Iran-US relations explainer

Helen and Alister cooperated on this project: “From Baskerville to the Prom”.

Everyone knows that the relationship between the United States and Iran are complicated and fraught. We created this 4-minute explainer to give a deeper background.

We wrote a short screenplay and used an animation software, called Xtranormal. We have two high school kids arguing about their prom, nuclear weapons, the invasion of Iraq, the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq and Howard Baskerville, an American who was killed fighting for reforms in Iraq.

For video, click here 

Sources and futher reading:
Iran-US ties up to 2008
MIT Iran timeline
BBC Iran history timeline to 2012
Iran-Iraq war casualties
1953 CIA coup
Howard Baskerville:

Polar bears and climate change vs coal and GDP?

Do people care about polar bears when the economy contracts? Is it easy to worry about climate change if you rely heavily on coal? There’s some circumstantial evidence that the answer to both is “No”.

Worries about climate change have declined worldwide since the 2009 Copenhagen summit failed to come up with a binding deal to fight global warming. But how can policymakers revive public interest, and who needs to be targeted?

In countries where the economy is heavily dependent on coal – emitting most greenhouse gases of the major fossil fuels — people seem to worry less about climate change than those living in nations that are relying more on sources such as gas, nuclear, hydro, solar, or wind power.

Of course the coal-dependent countries shouldn’t be unconcerned, because they have more work to transform their economies. Or is it like the American writer Upton Sinclair (quoted by former U.S. vice President Al Gore) used to joke: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Here is a graph showing the rate of people (blue) in various nations who consider climate change a “very serious” problem, topped by Brazil with 85 percent in 2010 and with Poland at the other end on 37 percent — the rates of electricity generated from coal (red) generally rise in an inverse relationship with these worries. Brazil gets 2 percent of its electricity from coal, Poland about 95 percent.

(Source: coal statistics 2005: International Energy Agency report on Energy Efficiency Indicators for Public Electricity Production from Fossil Fuels; “Is Climate Change a serious problem?”, 2010 survey by the  PewResearchCenter

The United States is among the nations most sceptical about climate change, and gets about 50 percent of its electricity from coal — high for a developed nation.

So more education about coal may be a policy goal.

Dozens of environmental activists (some of them in the photo at the top) wore polar bear suits to urge action at U.N. climate talks in Bali, Indonesia, in 2007  — incongruously sweating on the equator as they paraded thousands of miles from the bears’ icy habitat. Since that meeting, environmental groups agree that the number of polar bear suits worn at U.N. negotiations has tumbled: why?

Are people bored of the bears and the theme of climate change in general, after the U.N. summit in Copenhagen in 2009 failed to come up with a treaty? Is it that Arctic summer sea ice reached its lowest extent on record in 2007 and so was most newsworthy that year?

Or is it harder to be concerned about an iconic species – one that very few people will ever see – when the economy is in recession and people have more immediate worries about jobs? Mobilising efforts to “save nature” as an abstract idea may be easier to sell when the economy is strong.

It’s hard to know the answer, but here’s a graph tracking the number of mentions of polar bears (red) in leading U.S.  newspapers year by year against changes in annual U.S. Gross Domestic Product (blue):

(Sources: U.S. official government statistics for GDP; Factiva searches of general news mentions of polar bears in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle)

It looks like the polar bear series roughly follows trends in the blue, GDP series, with a couple of years’ delay. The number of mentions of polar bears rises steadily from 2001 to a peak in 2007-08 and then declines sharply. The U.S. economy grew robustly until about 2006 when growth slowed, it entered a recession in 2008, which deepened in 2009 before a rebound in 2010.

So if there is a link – obviously it’s impossible to say just from a correlation –the message for policy makers is: if you want to push major environmental reforms, do it when the economy is picking up, or has good chances of staying strong for several years. (…of course, that may require a well-functioning crystal ball)




Has global warming stopped? Sceptics’ many distortions; at least one U.N. exaggeration

 “No Need to Panic About Global Warming“, was the headline over an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal by 16 scientists who dismiss fears of widespread damage from climate change.

Many mainstream experts, looking at data like the graph above showing a long-term warming trend, have rejected the Jan. 26 article as a mish-mash of wishful thinking and exaggerations by scientists who are not in touch with the numbers. Others, like Republican Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, have a more extreme view of “truth” and dismiss global warming as a “hoax”.

So where do well-informed scientists who doubt global warming is happening get their data from? This is an attempt to find out.

Wall Street Journal: “Perhaps the most inconvenient fact is the lack of global warming for well over 10 years now.”

According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the 13 warmest years since records began in the mid-19th century have all occurred in the 15 years since 1997 – making it hard to conclude that warming has stopped. The warmest years were 2010, 2005 and 1998.

The assertion in the WSJ seems to be based on the observation that 1998 was the warmest year and so global warming has stopped. But the logic does not really hold up: temperatures of 1998 were driven up by natural variations — an exceptionally strong El Nino event in the Pacific that can nudge up temperatures worldwide and is a far bigger effect than the year-to-year buildup of greenhouse gases. And mainstream climate scientists say it is unreasonable to assume that temperatures will rise steadily year by year.

Here is one WMO graph of temperatures — sceptics look at the spike in 1998 and say it’s stopped since then. Mainstream scientists look at the longer term upwards trend over decades.


But there are exaggerations in the mainstream too.

“Our science is solid and it proves unequivocally that the world is warming and that this warming is due to human activities,” Michel Jarraud, Secretary-General of the WMO, said in a written statement about temperatures in 2011.

But his assertion that science proves that warming is due to human activities goes well beyond the findings by the main U.N. authority, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its last report in 2007.

That says that: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal” (i.e. the world is getting warmer but it might be due to natural variations). It separately says it is at least 90 percent likely that human activities are “the main cause of warming in the past 50 years.” So there’s a small chance that natural variations – solar activity, etc – might be causing most recent warming, i.e. there is no proof.

Wall Street Journal: “Although the number of publicly dissenting scientists is growing, many young scientists furtively say that while they also have serious doubts about the global-warming message, they are afraid to speak up for fear of not being promoted—or worse.”


The article gives no numbers for “dissent” and many mainstream scientists say it is absurd to suggest that there is a conspiracy to cover over a lack of evidence for global warming. Richard Alley, an IPCC author at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that Einstein became famous for exposing shortcomings in Newton’s theory of gravity: i.e. it is every scientist’s dream to show where well-established theories are wrong.

Wall Street Journal article: “Even if one accepts the inflated climate forecasts of the IPCC, aggressive greenhouse-gas control policies are not justified economically. A recent study of a wide variety of policy options by Yale economist William Nordhaus showed that nearly the highest benefit-to-cost ratio is achieved for a policy that allows 50 more years of economic growth unimpeded by greenhouse gas controls.

Nordhaus told Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog in the New York Times:

“The piece completely misrepresented my work. My work has long taken the view that policies to slow global warming would have net economic benefits, in the trillion of dollars of present value. And the IPCC said that the cost of limiting global warming in the most aggressive scenario it considered, would brake world GDP by less than 3 percent by 2030.


What’s politics or science? There is a clear Republican-Democrat divide about what is true or false.

“We have seen the politicization of science like we have never seen it before…We saw it with global warming…I for one never bought the hoax,” – Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum, February 2012

 “Climate change poses a grave and growing danger to our people…This is not fiction, it is science.  Unchecked, climate change will pose unacceptable risks to our security, our economies, and our planet,” President Barack Obama, Copenhagen summit, 2009.


Award-winning Nigerian journalist baffled by nation’s splits

Nigerian journalist Godwin Nnanna has won more awards for his reporting than most entire newsrooms, but there’s one story that he always struggles to understand – why Africa’s most populous nation is still so poor and riven by religious strife.

Godwin, who says he might have become a Christian preacher if he hadn’t gone into the newspaper business, has been watching with anguish a campaign of bombings in Nigeria by the Islamist militant sect Boko Haram that has killed more than 900 people since 2009.

“Our Christmas was not too happy one for us because the Church was bombed back home, and then people my wife knew, people she is related with, people she has worshipped with, were killed,” he said. Thirty-seven died in that Dec. 25 attack.

“This country ordinarily should be a giant,” he said in an interview at the Knight Science Journalism office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is living with his wife and two children and studying as an affiliate at Harvard and MIT. Nigeria has 160 million people, almost double that of any other African nation.

“This is a time in history when numbers matter,” he said, pointing to the rise of nations led by China and India partly linked to their populations of more than a billion people each.

“We are such a huge market. We have a huge population and we have such enormous resources…there is no reason why we should not compete.”

One big drawback, dating from British colonial rule, was the 1914 creation of a country split between a mostly Muslim north and a mainly Christian south that have been uneasily living together ever since.

“I have really never seen a country with our uniqueness, almost on a 50-50 basis Muslims and Christians. Most countries have one religion dominant,” he said. Boko Haram, loosely based on the Taliban in Afghanistan, wants to impose sharia law across Nigeria.

With better leadership, Nigeria could have grown to be prosperous like Malaysia or South Korea since independence in 1960, he says, rapping the table to drive home his point. Nigeria has plenty of resources – it is a big oil producer and an exporter of farm products such as rubber and cocoa.

But still things don’t work.

“It’s an impossibility to be in Nigeria for a whole day and the light doesn’t go off,” he said. One recent study showed that 93 percent of Nigerians felt they were poor — the official figure is lower, but still an alarming 60 percent.

“Nigerians’ loyalty is not to the center, ironically. Unlike Americans who say ‘God bless America’ and are ready to die for their country, not too many people show that kind of passion for Nigeria.”

“Everyone is keen about where they come from. ‘I am a Yoruba man’, Or ‘I am a Hausa man’ or ‘I am an Ibo man’. Or each one says ‘I am a Christian or ‘I am a Muslim,” he said. And in politics, each religion, region and group expects “its turn” to rule.”

That just might lead to divorce, or an agreed shift to devolve more power to the regions. “If you read newspapers in Nigeria today, a lot of people are clamouring for a sovereign national conference…to agree as a people if they want to be together,” he said.

Godwin, who will be 38 in May and whose surname Nnanna means “grandfather”, said he was propelled towards journalism by a love of writing. He gave his teachers cans of coca cola to read and mark the extra essays he wrote beyond the normal school work. (see box below)

He is head of investigations at BusinessDay and a co-founder of the Economic and Financial Times and said he was also driven by a desire to expose injustice.

His writing skills have paid off since he started journalism in 1997 with a string of more than a dozen national and international awards, including two from the United Nations. His work has ranged from exposing the dangers of flaring of gas in the Niger Delta to writing about a political crisis in Ivory Coast. (see box below)

Godwin said he will always be a writer even if he moves on to do more editing of stories rather than working on the front lines.

He said that his disappointment about Nigeria’s failure to live up to its promise are summed up by Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian writer who won the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature.

“Wole Soyinka…said he hated the word potential because that seems to be the only identity of Nigeria today,” Godwin says. “Everybody talks about Nigeria in terms of potential. Potential, potential, potential, for almost 60 years and still it’s the potential.”



Head of Investigations at BusinessDay
Co-founder, Managing Editor of Economic and Financial Times
Awards (14 in total; highlights):
2010 – Winner, Citi Journalistic Excellence Awards (Nigeria)
2008 – Finalist, CNN African Journalist of the Year
2007 – Silver medal, Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Prize for written media (UNCA Awards)
2007 – Winner, Nigeria Media Merit Awards (NMMA), Environment Journalist of the year
2006 – Gold medal, UN Foundation’s prize for reporting Humanitarian and Development issues.
2006 – Fellow, Dag Hammarksjold Scholarship Fund for Journalists (UN Journalism fellowship)

“I have always loved writing. In secondary school, I took it upon myself, before I did my high school exams, to put together all the exams from the past 15 years and then I did all the essay questions — I would write it and submit it to my teacher. I would take my pocket money and get a can of coke for the teacher and he would mark it for me…I did other self-inflicted exercises, I did like to sit and watch television discussion on national issues I would listen to it and make an essay out of it.

“If I wasn’t a journalist perhaps I would be a preacher.”
I feel strongly about injustice, I feel strongly when things don’t work very well
When I was growing up I was very religious. I still am. I was involved, at one point I was doing a great deal of aid, leading a team to the prisons in Lagos, the maximum, the medium prisons. It was a case of giving them hope, letting them know that there is a life beyond the prison. I did that for a couple of years before journalism came to take the better part of me.

In animals’ presidential election: lion takes on a gorilla

BOSTON – After a campaign with no debates, tweets, or televised attack ads, Americans voted this week in a presidential election with candidates including a condor, a gorilla and a panda.

Christopher the Lion had an early lead over Gigi the gorilla in the poll of visitors to the Franklin Park Zoo in south Boston, known as a PreZOOdential election, a zoo official said, leaking preliminary standings on condition of anonymity.

“I voted for Christopher, the lion” said Cookie, 9. She said that the lion impressed her and her friend. When they came up to the lion’s enclosure: “He roared. It was really exiting,” she said.

Some of the other animals in the six-animal poll – comprising a gorilla, a red panda, an ocelot, an anteater, an Andean condor as well as Christopher the lion — were doing less to get attention on Tuesday.

“I can’t see him,” one child said of Isidoro the ocelot – the cat was apparently asleep at the back of his cage. His campaign slogan, apparently anticipating his habit of sleeping during the day, says: “see if you can spot a winner.”

The voting began on President’s Day on Monday and runs until Saturday.

Maddie, aged 4, voted for Gigi, the western lowland gorilla, but she and her sister Lily were more impressed by animals not on the ballot.

“I liked the zebra,”she said. “I like black and white.” Lily smiled and said “crocodile” when asked which animal she favoured.

The incumbent president, Kiki, a female western lowland gorilla, has served two consecutive terms since 2006 and so is ineligible to run again and also has a baby to look after. Kiki sat by the glass wall of her enclosure, allowing children to come close to her baby.

“Of course they don’t know about the election,” said Gail O’Malley, overseeing the gorilla’s enclosure where this year’s candidate, Gigi, was sitting behind a tree trunk.
But she said that the election and posters help enliven the enclosures and made people go and learn more about animals they would not normally see, like condors or anteaters.

The solitary Andean condor, Tito, sat hunched on a branch on a tree in his outdoor enclosure, Jockamo the giant anteater, paced up and down his cage.
O’Malley also said that the election also drew more visitors to the zoo by adding an offbeat activity.

Several of the animals have been assigned campaign themes – Gigi the gorilla wants more “enrichment”, a term used for more objects to keep the animals from boredom. In the gorilla’s enclosure that means things such as balls, a puzzle for getting peanuts out of a plastic container with only small holes, new sounds and smells.

The red panda, called Stella Luna, is campaigning for early childhood education – she has two young. And the ocelot, whose natural habitat is a south American jungle but cage has just a couple of green plants, wants more conservation.

The winner, after votes are counted on Saturday, will get the honorary title of “president” and an inauguration party. That means perhaps a favourite treat will be handed over – lions like a chunk of meat, gorillas popcorn and peanuts, and anteaters a special insect dish.

O’Malley said that many children took the voting more seriously than adults did a real election. Young visitors often insisted, for instance, that they could not cast their vote until they’d been round to see all the candidates.

“In my family people simply go and vote for the guy with the Irish name,” she said.