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Using data to refine the knowledge of Ireland’s peatlands

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A Trinity research project is combining historical maps with modern geospatial datasets to better understand the crucial role of peatlands for mitigating the climate crisis.

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Data plays a critical role in mapping out the environment around us, which can give researchers a better understanding of how to sustainably manage those environments. One initiative that seeks to do that is the RePeat project at Trinity College Dublin.

Using a combination of historical maps from the Bog Commission and modern geospatial datasets, the RePeat project will create an updated derived Irish peat map and combine it with a change detection study.

This aims to improve the estimates of greenhouse gas stocks and help to manage peatlands more sustainably by identifying areas that may be suitable for rewetting and reducing CO2 emissions.

Dr Louis Gilet is a postdoctoral researcher on the RePeat project. With a background in physical and environmental geography, he told SiliconRepublic.com that producing knowledge that helps societies to address ecological and environmental challenges is important to him.

‘Peatlands are essential for water regulation and provide valuable habitats for biodiversity’
– DR LOUIS GILET

“The RePeat project, which combines peatlands, land use changes, historical maps, geospatial tools and carbon dynamics, brings together many of my research interests!”

Over the last two decades, a growing number of scientific papers and reports from environmental associations have emphasised the crucial role of peatlands for mitigating the climate crisis.

According to Gilet, peatlands contain about 20pc to 25pc of the total soil organic carbon stock, although they occupy only 3pc of the global land surface.

“While healthy water-logged peatlands are a major carbon sink, peatlands that have been drained and converted for peat extraction, forestry or agriculture become significant carbon sources, gradually releasing the million tonnes of carbon they have accumulated over thousands of years,” he said.

“In addition to climate change mitigation, peatlands are essential for water regulation and provide valuable habitats for biodiversity. They also have important cultural, educational and recreational values.”

With ongoing efforts to meet Ireland’s national climate targets, converting drained peatlands back into carbon sinks by rewetting sites is another action that could be taken to reach this goal.

However, Gilet said the quantification of greenhouse gas dynamics from converted peatlands as well as the identification of sites for rewetting is particularly difficult at present, as many are covered or hidden by forests and grasslands.

“The landcover maps and satellite images show what is above the ground surface, which is appropriate for intact peatlands or extracted peatlands which have a distinct spectral signature. But logically, they will not detect as such converted peatlands whose soils are covered by conifers, deciduous trees, pastures, or crops.”

Combining the old with the new

To combat this problem, the RePeat project is taking 200-year-old maps of peatlands and using them to revise the knowledge of peatland extent in Ireland. It is doing so with funding from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“These old maps were produced by the Bog Commissioners and published between 1809 and 1814. The principal investigators on this project, Dr John Connolly of TCD and Dr Terry Morley of NUI Galway, noted in preliminary investigations in 2018 that these old maps were quite accurate. This accuracy forms the basis of the project,” Gilet said.

“These maps were produced between 1809 and 1914 by several teams of surveyors and engineers distributed across Ireland. This mapping project was initiated by the British Government to find new lands for agriculture.”

While the historical maps are believed to be accurate, peatlands in Ireland have undergone extensive land use change since 1809. However, by digitising the maps and integrating the boundaries into a geographic information system (GIS), they can be georectified.

“The georectification process aligns these old maps with modern day coordinate reference systems. The boundary data from these maps will be extracted using various automatic or semi-automatic classification tools, pixel-based or object-based, and relying on machine learning algorithms,” Gilet explained.

“Various workflows are currently being examined to determine which ones produce the best classification results and accuracy measurements. Deep learning models will be tested as well. This will enable a direct comparison of the peatland area from the 1800s with the current extent.”

Gilet added that an integral part of the project is to assess the present-day extent of relatively intact peatlands using the new National Landcover Map from the Environmental Protection Agency and Ordnance Survey Ireland, ESA Sentinel 2 satellite images and possibly VHR satellite or aerial imagery.

“This will facilitate a 200-year change detection study that will aid identification and assessment of the the converted peatland areas, when compared to the Bog Commission boundaries,” Gilet said.

“This analysis will be conducted using the processing and analysis functionalities of cloud-based geospatial platforms such as Google Earth Engine and ESA’s SNAP toolbox.”

Using the knowledge

The data constituting the updated derived Irish peat map, the thematic map of intact and converted peatlands, and the resulting greenhouse gas inventory will all be compiled in a geodatabase.

“We can also imagine that data from further studies could complement this geodatabase: data on drainage conditions and perhaps on the biodiversity or ownership status of the mapped areas,” said Gilet.

“In this way, we aim to build a methodology that can be used to aid identification of the location of the most relevant sites for rewetting projects.”

As well as helping to refine current knowledge of the extent of Irish peatlands and of the land use changes they have undergone over the past 200 years, the RePeat project also offers the rare opportunity to combine high-quality geospatial datasets produced more than two centuries apart and thus conduct a very long-change detection study.

“Enhanced mapping and characterisation of peatlands can greatly assist stakeholders in the sustainable management of these critical and valuable systems for climate change mitigation and multiple contributions to people,” said Gilet.

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Meditation app Calm sacks one-fifth of staff | Meditation

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The US-based meditation app Calm has laid off 20% of its workforce, becoming the latest US tech startup to announce job cuts.

The firm’s boss, David Ko, said the company, which has now axed about 90 people from its 400-person staff, was “not immune” to the economic climate. “In building out our strategic and financial plan, we revisited the investment thesis behind every project and it became clear that we need to make changes,” he said in a memo to staff.

“I can assure you that this was not an easy decision, but it is especially difficult for a company like ours whose mission is focused on workplace mental health and wellness.”

The Calm app, founded in 2012, offers guided meditation and bedtime stories for people of all ages. It received a surge of downloads triggered by the 2020 Covid lockdowns. By the end of that year, the software company said the app had been downloaded more than 100 million times globally and had amassed over 4 million paying subscribers.

Investors valued the firm, which said it had been profitable since 2016, at $2bn.

In the memo, Ko went on: “We did not come to this decision lightly, but are confident that these changes will help us prioritize the future, focus on growth and become a more efficient organization.”

More than 500 startups have laid off staff this year, according to layoffs.fyi, a website that tracks such announcements.

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Let there be ambient light sensing, without data theft • The Register

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Six years after web security and privacy concerns surfaced about ambient light sensors in mobile phones and notebooks, browser boffins have finally implemented defenses.

The W3C, everyone’s favorite web standards body, began formulating an Ambient Light Events API specification back in 2012 to define how web browsers should handle data and events from ambient light sensors (ALS). Section 4 of the draft spec, “Security and privacy considerations,” was blank. It was a more carefree time.

Come 2015, the spec evolved to include acknowledgement of the possibility that ALS might allow data correlation and device fingerprinting, to the detriment of people’s privacy. And it suggested that browser makers might consider event rate limiting as a potential mitigation.

By 2016, it became clear that allowing web code to interact with device light sensors entailed privacy and security risks beyond fingerprinting. Dr Lukasz Olejnik, an independent privacy researcher and consultant, explored the possibilities in a 2016 blog post.

Olejnik cited a number of ways in which ambient light sensor readings might be abused, including data leakage, profiling, behavioral analysis, and various forms of cross-device communication.

He described a few proof-of-concept attacks, devised with the help of security researcher Artur Janc, in a 2017 post and delved into more detail in a 2020 paper [PDF].

“The attack we devised was a side-channel leak, conceptually very simple, taking advantage of the optical properties of human skin and its reflective properties,” Olejnik explained in his paper.

“Skin reflectance only accounts for the 4-7 percent emitted light but modern display screens emit light with significant luminance. We exploited these facts of nature to craft an attack that reasoned about the website content via information encoded in the light level and conveyed via the user skin, back to the browsing context tracking the light sensor readings.”

It was this technique that enabled the proof-of-concept attacks like stealing web history through inferences made from CSS changes and stealing cross origin resources, such as images or the contents of iframes.

Snail-like speed

Browser vendors responded in various ways. In May 2018, with the release of Firefox 60, Mozilla moved access to the W3C proximity and ambient light APIs behind flags, and applied further limitations in subsequent Firefox releases.

Apple simply declined to implement the API in WebKit, along with a number of other capabilities. Both Apple and Mozilla currently oppose a proposal for a generic sensor API.

Google took what Olejnik described his paper as a “more nuanced” approach, limiting the precision of sensor data.

But those working on the W3C specification and on the browsers implementing the spec recognized that such privacy protections should be formalized, to increase the likelihood the API will be widely adopted and used.

So they voted to make the imprecision of ALS data normative (standard for browsers) and to require the camera access permission as part of the ALS spec.

Those changes finally landed in the ALS spec this week. As a result, Google and perhaps other browser makers may choose to make the ALS API available by default rather than hiding it behind a flag or ignoring it entirely. ®



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4 supports that can help employees outside of work

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Everyone has different situations to deal with outside of the workplace. But that doesn’t mean the workplace can’t be a source of support.

Employers and governments alike are often striving to make workplaces better for everyone, whether it’s workplace wellbeing programmes or gender pay gap reporting.

However, life is about more than just the hours that are spent in work, and how an employer supports those other life challenges can be a major help.

Family-friendly benefits

Several companies have been launching new benefits and policies that help families and those trying to have children.

Job site Indeed announced a new ‘family forming’ benefit package earlier this year, which is designed to provide employees with family planning and fertility-related assistance.

The programme includes access to virtual care and a network of providers who can guide employees through their family-forming journey.

Vodafone Ireland introduced a new fertility and pregnancy policy in February 2022 that includes extended leave for pregnancy loss, fertility treatment and surrogacy.

And as of the beginning of 2022, Pinterest employees around the world started receiving a host of new parental benefits, including a minimum of 20 weeks’ parental leave, monetary assistance of up to $10,000 or local equivalent for adoptive parents, and four weeks of paid leave to employees who experience a loss through miscarriage at any point in a pregnancy.

Helping those experiencing domestic abuse

There are also ways to support employees going through a difficult time. Bank of Ireland introduced a domestic abuse leave policy earlier this year, which provides a range of supports to colleagues who may be experiencing domestic abuse.

Under the policy, the bank will provide both financial and non-financial support to colleagues, such as paid leave and flexibility with the work environment or schedule.

In emergency situations where an employee needs to immediately leave an abusive partner, the bank will help through paid emergency hotel accommodation or a salary advance.

In partnership with Women’s Aid, the company is also rolling out training to colleagues to help recognise the symptoms of abuse and provide guidance on how to take appropriate action.

Commenting on the policy, Women’s Aid CEO Sarah Benson said employers who implement policies and procedures for employees subjected to domestic abuse can help reduce the risk of survivors giving up work and increase “feelings of solidarity and support at a time when they may feel completely isolated and alone”.

A menopause policy

In 2021, Vodafone created a policy to support workers after a survey it commissioned revealed that nearly two-thirds of women who experienced menopause symptoms said it impacted them at work. A third of those who had symptoms also said they hid this at work. Half of those surveyed felt there is a stigma around talking about menopause, which is something Vodafone is seeking to combat through education for all staff.

Speaking to SiliconRepublic.com last year, Vodafone Ireland CEO Anne O’Leary said the company would roll out a training and awareness programme to all employees globally, including a toolkit to improve their understanding of menopause and provide guidance on how to support employees, colleagues and family members.

In Ireland, Vodafone employees are able to avail of leave for sickness and medical treatment, flexible working hours and additional care through the company’s employee assistance programme when going through the menopause.

Support hub for migrants

There are also initiatives to help people get their foot on the employment ladder.

Earlier this year, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, TD launched a new service with education and employment supports for refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants.

The Pathways to Progress platform is part of the Open Doors Initiative supporting marginalised groups to access further education, employment and entrepreneurship in Ireland.

As part of the initiative, member company Siro offered a paid 12-week internship programme for six people who are refugees. The internships include job preparation, interview skills and access to the company’s online learning portals.

Open Doors Initiative CEO Jeanne McDonagh said the chance to land a meaningful job or establish a new business is key to people’s integration into Ireland, no matter what route they took to get here.

“Some are refugees, some are living in direct provision, some will have their status newly regularised, and others will come directly for work,” she said. “Our new service aims to support all migrants in finding a decent job as they prepare to enter the Irish workforce, and to support employers as they seek to build an inclusive culture in their workplaces.”

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