How big is it really?

The BBC's new visualisation service is really just window dressing history with maps.

For a few weeks now the BBC has been test-driving a "prototype" approach to explaining historical events that it hopes might soon inform its History and News programming. The website, BBC Dimensions <http://howbigreally.com/> , is a Google Earth-based system which aims, so they say, "to bring home the human scale of events and places in history".

And bring things home it quite literally does. Simply tap in your postcode and famous events, landmarks, natural disasters - indeed more or less anything that can be mapped - can now be digitally repositioned outside your own front door. Or someone else's if you prefer.

Though still in its early stages, the technology has already been applied to topics ranging from 'Ancient Worlds' to 'Festivals.' So you can now whittle away a lunch break finding out how the Colossus of Rhodes would have matched up against the Statue of Liberty, or arranging for Rio's Samba Parade to run past the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

But apart from offering a few moments' informative distraction, is there anything of more lasting value to be gleaned from all of this?

Is it really worth knowing, for example, that Guantanamo Bay, if dropped upon SE1 in London would actually stretch all the way from Paddington to Cambridge Heath? Or that Guantanamo itself is about twice the size of the Tora Bora caves whence some of its detainees came? Or even - if we switch from the 'terrorism' theme, to the 'natural disasters' theme - that the East Pacific Garbage Patch is now bigger than Europe?

In some respects it is. It certainly helps give a sense of the scale of things. And drawing comparisons across time and space is a much-needed corrective to that curious paradox of modern life: that the more we know about the world the less time we have to appreciate the way it appears to others.

It can also be useful - humbling at least - to learn that the extent of flooding in Pakistan this year was such that it would have covered the entire United Kingdom, with water left to spare.

But where is the explanation behind these comparisons? Where is the context that will actually explain why some things - like floods, and famines - more often strike some people in some places rather than others? Without such context it is all too easy for us to assume that such events are merely 'natural' events, when often there are often all-too-human reasons behind them.

For all its stated intention of "making the news more geographically relevant," with BBC Dimensions the BBC appears to in fact be ignoring the lessons of geography almost entirely. Geography is not just about what you see. It is about what shapes the things you see. Absent these things and we are no more likely to appreciate the world as experienced by others than before. We are left, in fact, merely window dressing history with maps.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.