StepGreen Site Closing

In 2007 an experiment called StepGreen was started to see if the web and social media could help people make more environmentally conscious decisions. Since then, over 1000 people across half a dozen organizations have used StepGreen to help them … Continue reading

ICT4S Trip Report

A word cloud highlighting popular topics at ICT4S including development, energy, sustainability, data, impact, and more.

Some of the topics popular at the ICT4S conference

I had the pleasure of attending (and speaking at) the ICT for Sustainability conference this week. This is the first sustainability focused conference I’ve had the pleasure of attending since I last attended the conference on Behavior Energy and Climate Change a few years ago (also a wonderful conference). Similarly to BECC, the attendees are highly multidisciplinary, and as can be seen from the word cloud at right, the range of topics covered at ICT4S is quite diverse. I was impressed to see a mixture of life cycle analysis, agriculture, water-focused projects, feedback and energy monitoring, and ICT software and hardware efficiency improvements among the talks I attended. Speakers addressed issues ranging from behavior change to technology to policy.

For example, Grunfeld & Houghton [1] discussed the use of ICT to support sustainable farming (tied to poverty reduction and human development). They identified roles for ICT ranging from knowledge exchange to supply chain management. This was connected to policy issues including climate change, food security, property rights, and funding.

The EcologTex project [2] explored supply chain sustainability for textiles. The authors raised an issue that is becoming a theme for me in thinking about the role ICT has in addressing sustainability issues: The need for data, and for ways of handling uncertainty with respect to that data. One of the most interesting facets of this project for me was their approach of creating a social-network like site for businesses rather than individuals to exchange information. Many of the issues they were facing (such as seeding the site and encouraging participation) are similar to those we face when creating successful social networks for individuals. I wonder whether organizational psychologists will one day add a new perspective to the theory and design of online social sites, or whether the issues are substantially similar. An area for future work.

One of the most compelling cases for feedback that I saw at the conference was the case of solar power (locally generated). The paper, titled “When looking out the window is not enough” [3] explored different ways of helping individuals with their own solar panels to easily understand when a surplus (or limited) amount of power was available so that they could plan their large appliance use accordingly. I wonder whether such a project could project expected use (and availability) to further advance planning.

Much of the conference seemed, from the perspective of a technologist and implementor like myself, to be theoretical or hypothetical in nature. So I was pleased to see specific examples that went beyond this, whether to simulate or model (such as Sissa’s work on modeling rebound effects using agents [4]) or build and deploy, such as Anda et al.’s [XX] deployment of a smart metering infrastructure for water management in Perth. That project included planning, ongoing coaching, and a 2011 deployment lasting 9 months in 9 households. While I hope to see further details on their results, one can see that the higher consuming households decreased to something close to the group mean (and below the australian average) once the meter was installed.

One of my favorite deployments was described by plenary speaker Robert Laubacher, the Climate CoLab. I was particularly impressed by this project because it took the sorts of ideas that have previously been employed for changing individual behavior (something I have critiqued in the past) and found a concrete way to move past that mindset. The CoLab is an online community designed to encourage individuals to think about issues such as climate diplomacy, green economy, geo-engineering, adaptation, and mitigation. The community explicitly includes experts recruited from universities and NGOs in multiple countries with everyday people. Participation is motivated through a series of competitions, and audience and expert judged prizes are both given out. But the most interesting prize is the ability to present to meaningful organizations (U.S. congress, U.N., etc.) or receive seed funding.

Finally, I want to comment on some structural elements of the conference. The organizers did a fantastic job of facilitating a conversation about where ICT for sustainability should be going. They did this by means of bringing in

  • a facilitator who helped to collect and distribute ideas and  connect people (he had people stand up and say “you should talk to me because” before one break for example) 
  • a group of artists who listend and rendered ideas and thoughts in compelling cartoons which were placed on bulletin boards and played in a slide show while participants were asked to submit ideas to the facilitator
  • A wide ranging set of invited speakers who brought in topics and ideas that might otherwise not have been represented.

The conference isn’t quite over, but I feel confident in ending this post here by saying it was well worth the trip. It combined the feeling of a well run workshop with the relaxed time period and ability to hear in depth about research by individuals normal to a conference. I look forward to seeing the final set of recommendations that comes out of this effort.

Rewiring Cities

We’ve been talking recently in my class on the environment, technology and society about different ways of measuring impact, but a recent post on the Nature of Cities blog made me rethink that discussion. What is important is not just the footprint of an individual (or home), but also its location. In particular, the shift from rural to urban settings not only impacts footprint, but also self sufficiency — it is categorically harder (if not impossible in some cases) to produce basic living supplies oneself in an urban setting (food, water, clothing, etc). On the other hand, the literal footprint (land owned, building size, etc) may be much smaller in urban settings. But most important of all, urban settings benefit from and require a collaborative approach to resource management that is not as necessary on a self-supporting farm.

A recent post about urban ecological footprints and innovations around the same at The Nature of Cities provides some examples of collaborative approaches to resource and water management in two cities of very different sizes.

I am curious: To what extent does the research currently contributing to work in online communities, collaborative (and crowdsourced) creation of knowledge, and other social science results coming out of the HCI and CS communities provide new ideas for how we could foster novel urban sustainability solutions. If research on group identity, motivation, and so on can influence the design of successful online communities, can we use the same information to intentionally design offline communities that are able to sustain themselves (and their environment)? What role might online tools and websites have in sustaining and supporting such offline communities?


A global food crisis?

The New York Times reports on a growing food crisis.

Consumption of the four staples that supply most human calories — wheat, rice, corn and soybeans — has outstripped production for much of the past decade, drawing once-large stockpiles down to worrisome levels. The imbalance between supply and demand has resulted in two huge spikes in international grain prices since 2007, with some grains more than doubling in cost…. the latest scientific research suggests that a previously discounted factor is helping to destabilize the food system: climate change.

The article ends on a hopeful if sobering note:

“We’ve doubled the world’s food production several times before in history, and now we have to do it one more time,” said Jonathan A. Foley, a researcher at the University of Minnesota. “The last doubling is the hardest. It is possible, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Water is of course one important component of this. However, food types (as described in the New York Times article) and garden layouts can overcome water shortages. Consider Geoff Lawton’s desert turned garden, as an example.

What role, then, might technology have in all this? One possibility is to help educate a new generation of gardeners, building on the increasing popularity of urban homesteading. A huge amount of knowledge once passed from parent to child must be made available to new gardeners, and online communities could help to supply that. Computer vision techniques could be used to help with the initial diagnosis the causes of plant diseases, while planning tools could help with garden layout and timings. Sensor networks could contribute information about microclimates (or help homesteaders to measure whether they had successfully created such climates), and build up information over time that could help guide seed planting schedules. The distribution of food (and labor) as crops become ready for harvest, sometimes in a surplus to need, could be facilitated by communication tools.

Some of these ideas may seem far fetched, but I am confident that technology has a role to play (some even exist already). After all, while I can’t claim this idea as my own, I recently discovered a robotic, solar-powered chicken coop for sale!


Global Grabs for Water and Land

Global Grabs for Water and Land

This is the first in a series of posts that attempt to pose the question: What role might technology play in some of the most pressing sustainability problems today? In exploring this, I am explicitly attempting to move beyond a focus on affluent western single homeowners (Aw Shucks). This article describes a new global trend- a global power for limited resources.

The top water-grabbing nations by volume are China, Egypt, India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States, and some of the most grabbed countries are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Another take, specifically on American farmers buying up land in Brazil. Good for the economy? Bad for locals? Perhaps most importantly, this issue is a big unknown — who owns what land, where, and who stands behind the owners (in some cases) appears to be a very muddled issue.

Even setting aside the question of who owns the land (and the disclosure of this data, which is likely to be an issue requiring international policy making), the impact of a land purchase in terms of water access (and/or contamination), groundwater use (and/or contamination), and soil quality may not be immediately obvious or easy to predict. While much of this depends on the intended use of the land, the areas affected can be estimated based on data about nearby rivers, and streams, historical reactions to different types of land use in similar settings, and so on. There could be value in exploring how this information might be provided and collected prior to purchase decisions being made. Given better, centralized data about ownership and use even more might be done including mapping out the connections between parcels of land and  locations of owners.


Greening ourselves

Green isn’t just a hot research topic in the school of computer science — it’s also something that many of us attempt to make part of our daily lives. SCS faculty, staff and students love their bikes (email us at … Continue reading


Sustainability Panel, 3:00pm, October 2, GHC 6115

The Fall 2012 Sustainability and Computing seminar series will kick off October 2, 3:00-4:00pm (GHC 6115), with a panel discussion of four computer science faculty working on different facets of the sustainability problem: Jen Mankoff, Zico Kolter, Dave Andersen, and … Continue reading


Energy Institute Launch, 4:30pm, 9/21, Rashid Auditorium (Gates)

CMU is launching a new Energy Institute, headed up by Granger Morgan. Come participate, listen to a symposium of top campus energy experts, and chat about the new institute at the upcoming launch.


Zico Kolter 9/26/12, Noon, BH 129, Building an Informatics of Personal Energy Consumption

Zico Kolter, an incoming Assistant Professor in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon and currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, will be the CEIC’s featured speaker on Wednesday, September 26, … Continue reading


CALS Green finishes up

Stepgreen’s biggest support effort to date has been the year long deployment run by Cornell University’s CALS Green effort. CALS Green “sponsored a year-long competition amongst six buildings. Within that year users committed to actions, saving over 2,000,000 lbs carbon … Continue reading