forum discussion #34

Predicting Bin Laden’s Whereabouts

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Listen to our interview with Thomas Gillespie here.

Gillespie is a geographer at UCLA. Two years ago, he and his students attempted to predict where Osama Bin Laden may be hiding.

Gillespie is no terrorism expert. He spends his time studying how species survive in different environments. But he and his colleagues thought some of the theories used to predict the survival of endangered species may apply to predicting Bin Laden’s whereabouts.

Using those theories and satellite images, Gillespie’s team estimated that there was an 88.9% chance that Bin Laden was hiding less than 300 kilometers from his last known location in Tora Bora. The region included Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Bin Laden was shot dead this past Sunday. (However, Gillespie’s findings didn’t highlight Abbottabad, and he readily admits that he hadn’t even heard of the city until Osama Bin Laden’s death.)

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Gillespie also predicted that Bin Laden would not be hiding in a cave but would likely be found in a compound with high walls, electricity, and at least one tree.

We interviewed Gillespie about his work two years ago. Listen to that interview here.

What does tracking terrorists have in common with the study of species diversity? And how do researchers like Gillespie normally use these methods?

Learn more about Gillespie’s work. Join our online conversation. He’s taking your questions until May 11.

Additional Resources:
More about Gillespie’s work on finding Osama Bin Laden in Science magazine.
More on Gillespie’s work on biodiversity and remote sensing.

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  1. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Tom Gillespie

    Hi, Welcome to this online discussion. I’m happy to talk about how we predicted Bin Laden’s hiding place, as well as my other research projects on geography and endangered species. I look forward to hearing from you.

  2. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee

    Hi Tom,

    The World’s science reporter here. Thank you for taking the time to take our questions!

    Do you think your methods are likely to be adopted by intelligence agencies around the world?

    Also, the Bin Laden project was unusual for what you otherwise do. Tell us a little bit about your other projects. And what parts of the world does your work take you to? Or are you mostly analyzing satellite data sitting in your lab/office in UCLA?
    Thanks,
    Rhitu

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Tom Gillespie

      Hi Rhitu,
      As far as the intelligence community and the model we developed for endangered species or individuals, I guess you could test it on drug lords in Mexico and see if it worked.

      I work on endangered ecosystems in the Pacific at the moment and my graduate student do things like model plant species richness in Hawaii, model bird distributions in Brazil to assess the accuracy of the current nature reserve system, quantify forest structure in a way that can be used to quantify biomass and species richness, and model the distribution of endangered plants in Hawaii so they can be restored.

      However, our undergraduates in Geography study any topic of interest to them so there are no shortage of research questions that can use satellite imagery.

  3. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Baron

    I’m fascinated by how you used methods from the world of ecology and applied them to a different discipline. What other innovative uses are there for these biogeographical techniques? Could a corporation use these tools to predict, for instance, a good spot to open a new Starbucks or McDonald’s? I would think that the way you examined global, regional, and local ecosystems could be applied to business decisions.

    Thanks!

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Tom Gillespie

      Hi David,
      Yes business and geographers have long used location theory to identify a good spot for a new Starbucks, money teller machines, and toy stores for example. This has historically been done by using Geographic Information Systems that use area (i.e. neighborhoods, income levels), line (roads, patterns of traffic) and point (locations of building for lease) data. I believe that all the top MBA programs in the US do teach this theory and geospatial technology to graduate students.

      However, for satellite imagery (pixels in grids), there is much less research on the topic. It should be possible to monitor, lets say commodities like coffee from space in near real time. For instance, you could monitor coffee production in Brazil from imagery available daily.

  4. I usually think of island biogeography as applying to species rather than individuals. Is it useful to use it on an individual scale? (In this case, I understand you were using it with an individual, but in general, can it work like that?)

    Are there other examples of island biogeography being used in ways like this? (To track people, or more broadly to understand or predict things other than populations on islands or in isolated places?)

    Thanks for taking questions!

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Tom Gillespie

      Hi Molly,
      Yes Island biogeography usually focuses on species, but sometimes endangered species are reduced to a very low number of individuals. I am really not familiar with the applications of island biogeography on people or individuals.

  5. Yamkwok NG

    Hi Professor Gillespie;

    I am absolutely fascinated by your research. Wondering if you have any experience on applying your existing methodologies in geography and almost-eradicated/eradicable infectious diseases?

    In particular, I am interest to know for a disease that is in approaching eradication (assuming it is Polio); what’s your experience/thinking about using your research to identify potential remaining hot-spots (places/populations) so a coordinated global public health efforts can be deployed to these places/populations.

    Thanks ahead,

    Yamkwok

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Tom Gillespie

      Hi Yamkwok,
      That is a very interesting global public health question. I do not know very much about Polio, however, I am working with a graduate student that is modeling mosquitoes and malaria in Africa. The hardest data to collect is the field data (lat., long.) for outbreaks, but once you have this, it is possible to model the distribution of the disease and predict where and when it should occur next. In particular, it is possible to combine data on outbreaks and satellite imagery associated with malaria (i.e. still water, topography, temperature) and GIS data (population density, prevention methods, health centers, isolation) to identify the extent of an outbreak. Then you can use daily satellite imagery to warn you when the conditions are ideal for another out break.

  6. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Thomas Gillespie

    Thank you for your questions. Sincerely Thomas W. Gillespie

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