#PlanetData2 - continuing the climate conversation
Thinking about climate change might be the furthest thing from most people's minds right now. They might have noticed the fresher air due to the quieter roads or the fact they can hear and see more wildlife than they ever used to. But thinking about keeping things that way might be too much for some. However, we can't afford to brush the climate aside because once the coronavirus crisis is over (and it will be one day), the climate crisis will still be waiting for us.
As Leeds Digital Festival made the pivot to coordinating the events that could go online, we followed. #PlanetData2 could be taken online, and with the support of EY and Leeds City Council, we secured lightning speakers, picked a platform that could allow for some breakout sessions, and set to work!
On 29 April 2020, we hosted #PlanetData2 with 50+ attendees all joining us from their living rooms, their spare rooms, and even some kitchens and sheds. Scaled down to a 2-hr morning event, we had lightning speakers, breakout sessions, and a chance to wrap up at the end. A small but mighty event, we were very ambitious about what we wanted to do. After the success of #PlanetData back in November 2019, we wanted to keep that momentum going and keep conversations ticking over by introducing new perspectives, updates on other projects, etc. Despite the very unique challenges being thrown at us by the coronavirus crisis, there are very good people working on very good ideas to help tackle the climate emergency.
After an introduction from Paul Connell, founder of ODI Leeds, it was then Tom Knowland from Leeds City Council who shared some context around the specific Leeds climate emergency and how they were responding to it. The council declared their Climate Emergency in March 2019 and they understand that by taking a leadership position on the Climate Emergency, they have the potential to influence positive change across the whole city region. This includes improving 'climate literacy' amongst their workforce and citizens. The Big Leeds Climate Conversation played a crucial role in this, where Leeds City Council (and Tom personally in many cases) spent time talking to people and visiting the places where the message about the Climate Emergency might not reach. The headline results of the Big Leeds Climate Conversation can be seen on Data Mill North.
The first lightning speakers of the morning were David McKee of Slingshot Simulations, and Patrick Lake of ODI Leeds. David is the CTO and founder of Slingshot Simulations, and was previously a senior lecturer in large-scale and cloud computing. His aim is to create a 'digital twin' of the city of Leeds to allow for modelling and predictions that are based on accurate, timely data rather than assumptions. There are ambitious plans in place to reduce the carbon footprint in Leeds but David says that, in order to do that, we need to understand 'consumptive behaviour' as well. This is the knock-on effect of behaviour when moving in or out of Leeds, such as travelling for work/leisure, etc. And as the coronavirus crisis has demonstrated, behaviour has a huge influence on carbon emissions. Since the lockdown began, air pollution has plummeted because so many people are staying at home instead of using cars to travel in/out of the city. How do we maintain the positive change after the crisis passes? This is where a 'digital twin' can help. A digital twin is a digital version of a city, powered by data (preferably open and as real-time as possible). It allows for modelling and for safe 'experiments' of things like closing roads without any physical changes. David is also a fan of iterative prediction. He says that predictions are almost always wrong the minute you make them, but you are closer to getting it right compared to not trying anything! His vision for this digital twin of Leeds is to enable rapid prototyping (hours and days compared to months or years currently) and to create a platform that is open to everyone, not just the technical experts.
Patrick followed with his emissions dashboard, which was first shown at #PlanetData last year. Aviation emissions are high and generally not included in UK reporting, mostly because it was felt to be too hard to attribute the emissions (who is responsible? the departure or the destination?). But it's still important to understand the impact of aviation emissions. Patrick began with just our local airport - Leeds Bradford Airport - and created the dashboard so that people could have everyday comparisons with the amount of energy being used. For example, how many cups of tea could you make for the carbon cost of a single flight. (We must say at this point that the carbon dashboard was showing a lot of zeros for flights and airports because in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, a lot of flights were completely suspended.) We now host a centralised index of airports, and anyone can add their local airport to the index and it will be added to the tools we have already built. There is lots of guidance about how to do this via the GitHub.
After a quick tea break, we had the second set of lightning speakers.
Doug Johnston, who leads on Climate Change and Sustainability Practice at EY, was up first to share some of EY's internal actions in response to the Climate Emergency and talk about climate change in a business context. EY is a global organisation with 250,000 people and has been recording various measures of their emissions, energy use, etc, for decades. They are deeply committed to encouraging positive changes in their workforce that can help bring emissions down, and also heavily invest in technology that either reduces emissions or takes emissions out of the atmosphere. Becoming carbon neutral (their aim is by the end of 2020) is more than just buying carbon credits. They actively support offsetting projects, and use technology to reduce the need for transport (video call instead of awkward travel for instance). As an organisation that advises others about strategy, it's important to observe how things are changing. EY has seen climate change start to disrupt industries in momentous ways. For example, in the energy sector, customers want to turn away from traditional hydrocarbon-based fuels (oil, gas) so energy suppliers are having to rethink their distribution models and strategies to meet customer demand.
Shauna Zheng from Pawprint followed shortly after to talk about their brand new app and service, launching in Leeds very soon. On the surface, you might think that Pawprint is just another carbon footprint calculator (there are increasing numbers of them). You are asked about your lifestyle and it generates a carbon 'pawprint' score. Where Pawprint differs is in the ways you counter your score. A lot of carbon calculators focus on offsetting, presenting various options (planting trees, restoring peat, etc) as ways to scrub out your bad carbon score. Pawprint instead offers you challenges and tips geared towards changing your behaviour in the long-term, and 'pawpoints' as rewards if you stick with the new changes. The team at Pawprint are all mission-focused and passionate about using engaging ways to encourage behaviour change, and believe that information about what a carbon footprint is and how it works should be accessible.
And to round off the morning, Stuart Lowe from ODI Leeds talked about an often overlooked aspect of emissions - websites. Specifically, how much carbon it costs to load a web-page, with images, animation, video, scripts, etc. It's easy to think that it must surely be infinitesimal in the grand scheme of things, but there are millions of websites out there, that could all be visited thousands, even millions, of times a day. The energy required by servers to store and serve this content builds up as websites become more complex. For example, if a web-page (a single page, not a whole site) produces 1.5g of CO2 everytime it is visited then it would produce 1.5kg of CO2 after 1000 visits. If a web-page got 1000 hits a day, every day of the year, that would be 547,500kg of CO2. Boggles the mind, doesn't it? There are ways to bring the carbon footprint of a web-page down and Stuart wrote them all down right after his talk.
As we wrapped up the session, Paul took another chance to thank Leeds City Council and EY for their support in delivering #PlanetData2 in challenging circumstances. Video conference fatigue is a real problem for many during the coronavirus crisis so we were thrilled that so many participants stayed with us for the whole session. There is a clear passion for fixing the climate, and a clear curiosity for exploring the new ways to engage people and bring the climate emergency into focus. After the coronavirus crisis is gone, the climate crisis will still be waiting for us and that presents far greater challenges that will require more forward-thinking, fewer barriers to entry, less red-tape and bureaucracy, and innovation for all.
Using open data and open innovation to help face the challenges of the Climate Emergency has become a recurring theme in much of our work, and it cuts across all other themes of work as part of our open strategy.There will be more #PlanetData events to come, and we hope you will join us for #PlanetData3 in Autumn 2020!