More Than 300 Sharks In Australia Are Now On Twitter – Is it Bad Public Policy?

Over at NPR there is a story:

More Than 300 Sharks In Australia Are Now On Twitter

(seen via Estelle Mayer)

A shark warning is displayed near Gracetown, Western Australia, in November. An Australian man was killed by a shark near the area that month, sparking a catch-and-kill order.

It commences:

“Sharks in Western Australia are now tweeting out where they are — in a way.

Government researchers have tagged 338 sharks with acoustic transmitters that monitor where the animals are. When a tagged shark is about half a mile away from a beach, it triggers a computer alert, which tweets out a message on the Surf Life Saving Western Australia Twitter feed. The tweet notes the shark’s size, breed and approximate location.

Since 2011, Australia has had more fatal shark attacks than any other country; there have been six over the past two years — the most recent in November.

The tagging system alerts beach goers far quicker than traditional warnings, says Chris Peck, operations manager of Surf Life Saving Western Australia. “Now it’s instant information,” he tells Sky News, “and really people don’t have an excuse to say we’re not getting the information. It’s about whether you are searching for it and finding it.”

This is sort of an interesting use of technology but is it good public policy and use of resources? The article quotes that 6 people have died here in Australia from shark attacks since 2011 and certainly when they occur they are tragedies for the families involved and get a lot of public coverage.

However to put this in context almost 4,000 people died on our roads from 2011 to 2013 (statistics from BITRE and the ABC). With the beach crazy culture we have I would therefore think that the risk of driving to the beach is higher than being attacked by sharks by multiple factors.

There is something primal about the the thought of being attacked by a shark and I have certainly had those feelings while surfing or ocean swimming for triathlon training. There is also something about the thought that when we get behind the wheel that we are in control as compared to sitting in a plane or being attacked in the water.

The reality is that when we enter the domain of the shark we hand ourselves over to the elements and we live in a modern controlled world where that is unusual for billions of people in cities. However we shouldn’t allow those factors to skew our view of where money should be spent to reduce loss or suffering. If we want to limit public spending by reducing tax takes and minimising our own payments as much as possible we need resources spent in the best possible way, not driven by our emotional biases.

The story of our road toll here in Australia is a great one of steady reductions with a 29% reduction from 2003 to 2012 when looked at from a fatalities/100,000 population basis. I am not an expert on these issues but I find it hard to believe that funds spent on furthering this progress would be less well spent than tagging sharks and getting them to tweet. It may be that the notification part is a small amount of a project for other reasons and therefore the spend is justified but the debate should be had.

Far too much of our public policy is driven by emotion rather than careful analysis. A case in point is climate change policy. I am a strong believer in climate change and man’s contribution to it. That also means we have to marshal our resources and spend them wisely. However there have been some crazy policies here in Australia that have been middle class welfare rather than effective climate change policies (the Productivity Commission has detailed some of these).

The effective use of foresight requires the careful analysis of policies and their possible effects in the real world and then making the hard choices. That does not mean that it is all about logic and analysis because human beings and communities do not live by logic. It does mean that logic and critical thought has to play a central part.

I will be scared of sharks when I enter the ocean, I just don’t want significant amounts of public money spent on reducing the risk or my fears. We have greater challenges.

Paul Higgins

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