PlanetData4 - What happened and what you can do next

We first started the #PlanetData series of events in response to the Climate Emergency declared in 2019, as climate strikes took place across the globe and governments were preparing their climate plans. Of course, no one could have predicted the pandemic. The challenge now is to get things back on track in terms of taking climate action. There were some stark observations from lockdowns around the world, such as nature returning to quiet city streets and noticeably better air quality as whole industries were put on hold. Many people also rediscovered their appreciation for nature and green space during stressful times. These things should be built into the 'new normal', where taking climate action is possible for everyone.

At Open Innovations, the #PlanetData events are not only about our response to the Climate Emergency - they're about highlighting the amazing work being done already and demonstrating that action can happen on a small scale and still have a big impact. There is no excuse to wait for the big climate solution when there are small solutions ready to implement now.

That was the key message from Paul Connell, founder of Open Innovations (formerly ODI Leeds), as he opened #PlanetData4 on 21 October 2021. The event was made possible with the support from the Embassy for The Kingdom of The Netherlands, whom we have previously partnered with on the Northernlands series of events, Arup one of our founding sponsors, and with funding from Innovation@Leeds

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Credit: Open Innovations

With only 10 days before COP26, perhaps the most important climate summit in recent decades, it is important to promote active participation not just from governments but from civil society and private companies. Dimitri Vogelaar, Head of Economic Affairs for The Embassy of The Kingdom of The Netherlands, was positive that events like #PlanetData4 were important for providing platforms and voices for the innovative companies working on climate change. He was keen to emphasise that now is the time for combined efforts to respond to climate change and that revolutionary partnerships that transcend borders would be the way forward.

Zeena Farook, the Growth Lead at ARUP, spoke about the company's ethos - 'shaping a better world' - in context of climate change. They had two distinct areas that they focused on - decarbonisation plans, and future climate planning. From experience, it was not easy to find relevant data, and if data could be found, it was often full of gaps, poorly formatted, and required a lot of additional data cleaning before being usable. Future climate planning is particularly important. As extreme weather events become more commonplace, how should towns and cities react and respond? How can they prepare for the next event? What can new buildings and infrastructure do to help alleviate the problem?

We were thrilled when Tracy Brabin, the new Mayor for West Yorkshire, wanted to get involved with #PlanetData4. In an interview chaired by Paul Connell, Tracy set out some of the key priorities and goals for the region in context of the climate emergency, with some ideas already lined up eg. free bus travel for all in West Yorkshire on Halloween. A better public transport service was top of her list, believing that if buses, in particular, were better, more people would leave the car at home. Tracy was also passionate about environmental-focused jobs in the region and felt that they could provide a future for young people and a way to switch careers for those people who were skilled but left behind by changing times.

After the headline talks, it was time for the showcase: Twelve speakers from across the UK and the Netherlands, from diverse companies and backgrounds, all ready to talk about their climate action projects. Michelle Brook, Associate here at Open Innovations, was compere throughout and took questions from the audience after each talk.

First up was Yiu-Shing Pang, Open Data Manager at UK Power Networks. We have recently been working with UKPN on a variety of open data powered projects, including a visualisation of their Heat Street project. They have just launched their open data portal as of October 2021, using it as a way to engage stakeholders. As part of their digital strategy, they wanted to add accessibility, reliability, and interoperability to the data they have available. They would like to develop a sustained community around the portal, and they had one request of portal users to take action right away- tell them what they are using the open data for so they can get feedback about making it better, making it more useful, etc.

Louise Crow, Programme Director at MySociety, was next, talking about MySociety's latest project to collate and 'translate' local government climate action plans into something accessible and useful. Climate change is the biggest global crisis and requires all kinds of change, including democratic. Currently, there is no standard or framework for climate action plans, so when local governments are producing them they end up in various degrees of usefulness. This is volunteer-led at the moment, and soon to be launched in January 2022.

Heather Baden is the organiser of ClimateAction.tech, a global, volunteer-led community created to share events, resources, opportunities, and more. For Heather, uniting people around tech and the climate made sense - technology is cross-sector and has influence in multiple industries; technology often accelerates action; and technology makes the news. ClimateAction.tech is all about shifting conversations, supporting education about climate change, and more, and the fact that the community has tripled in size in the last year shows that there are more people becoming engaged. It is a global movement with local communities, all organised through Slack. You can join and act here now.

Following Heather, it was Daniel Barrett, Head of Energy and Environment at the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, a sponsor of Open Innovations. They have ambitious Net Zero plans that focus on climate resilience, energy supplies that are local and flexible, integrated transport networks, and places and people that are climate-resilient. WYCA believe this can be done via the people of the region themselves. They have developed a 3-year 'no regrets' plan that requires strong partnerships from key organisations, both private and public. The plan itself goes into more detail. In a question from the audience, Daniel was asked if the plan had been published yet. At the time of #PlanetData4, the plan was ready to be considered by the full WYCA committee and if approved without any changes, would be published w/c 25 October 2021. The plan in full was available to read in advance on the WYCA website.

After a timely tea break, it was Marius Smit from Plastic Whale, a Netherlands company that was highlighting the size of the plastic pollution problem by building things from recovered plastic. Marius began this journey over 10 years ago. Knowing it couldn't be done alone, he reached out for help, and thus a community was born and has grown over the years. He really wanted to emphasise that this idea just would not have happened without people joining in. It was daunting for him to start alone but he took that first step, demonstrated that he was committed to doing and not talking, and that's how other people felt empowered to join in. Join in here now to make a difference.

Showcasing another innovative company from the Netherlands, it was Coen Bakker from The Waste Transformers next, talking about an aspect of climate response that we're all aware of but perhaps we don't think about enough - food waste. Food that ends up in landfills contributes to climate pressure during the decomposition process, releasing harmful gases. What The Waste Transformers have created is a converted shipping container with all the equipment needed to convert food waste into biogas and other forms of energy. The idea is to place them in neighbourhoods that don't already have food waste collections, allowing those neighbourhoods to start tackling their food waste. The people in those neighbourhoods also benefit from reduced taxes because they don't need to pay for the services that would transport/convert their waste. Get in touch with Waste Trasformers to get involved.

Berend Rikkert from Net2Grid was next, talking about their services that help energy providers to help their customers be more energy aware and take steps towards being energy efficient. At Net2Grid, they help energy providers shift from providing products (energy) to providing services (real-time energy use), which requires reliable data models. Even though the client base tends to be energy suppliers/providers, Berend describes their work as being for customers. It's all about helping the energy providers help their customers. They have recently been working with a Dutch bank, which would like to advise their customers about improving sustainability in their home. With the ability to break down energy bills with more accuracy, they can appropriately advise customers about any money decisions for improving their home, for instance.

Dan Stowell's talk was next. Dan is an associate professor in machine learning but is collaborating with Alan Turing Institute and OpenClimateFix on a project about solar panel installations. There is good existing coverage of the larger solar power farms but not for the smaller ones. The aim is to develop a high-coverage open dataset about the locations/presence of solar photovoltaic panels. The project presently is just for the UK but with Open Street Map at the core, this project could easily be repeated anywhere in the world. This was a very community-driven project and it was thanks to over 300 volunteers that the mission to map solar panels got a considerable boost in 2020.

Then it was Fatima Garcia, Data Analyst for The Data City, who shared some insights and findings from recent research into the Net Zero economy. The Data City has developed a machine learning method to categorise companies into RTICs (real-time industry classification) which is based on the real descriptions that companies use on their websites. They have used this method to identify the companies that are contributing to the carbon-neutral future (Net Zero focus), which cuts across all kinds of industries and sectors, such as agritech, carbon capture, electric vehicles, renewables, building technology, and many more. By identifying these companies, The Data City have found economic value and geographical knowledge about the burgeoning Net Zero economy. For example, the number of Net Zero companies grew by 209% between 2012 and 2021. So who has been interested in this dataset about the Net Zero economy? The most interest has come from public institutions, like LEP's and local authorities, with a particular focus on startups and businesses. These organisations are looking to potentially support growing Net Zero businesses in line with wider goals for Net Zero plans.

Following on from Fatima was Sam Milsom, Programme Development Manager at Open Data Manchester. He wanted to share his experiences with public engagement with environmental projects and data, in particular the insights from Our Streets Chorlton, which is a community-driven project to help locals decrease carbon emissions. From the start, they knew that data would be important for this project so wanted to run data collection alongside the other public engagement activities. In particular, they wanted the community to be the data collectors. It wasn't just one-way - it was important for the locals to openly discuss what data they thought should be counted and would be relevant for them. For example, counts for wheelchair users, e-scooter users, etc, were added to the traffic-counting data collection based on local recommendations and observations.

The penultimate talk of the morning was Stuart Lowe, Data Projects Associate at Open Innovations, who expanded on his work about website emissions. First explored 2020 for #PlanetData2, Stuart has been investigating different ways to keep the Open Innovations website lean, fast, and mobile-friendly. By making decisions for our own website, it then made us curious about the websites, especially for public-facing organisations where visitors to the website might have to rely on mobile or limited data, etc. It was startling to find several local authority websites were using data-munching script libraries and images that were not necessary. For example, a 60mb photo was found on one website! Simply reducing the dimensions of the photo reduces the file size considerably and doesn't impact on the quality. But why does it matter? The benefits are two-fold - a clean, lean website is easier to access for everyone, including those on limited data plans; check out how to improve your website.

The final talk of the morning showcase was given by Will Smith and Rob Allen of Tred. Tred is an eco-fintech based in Leeds, launching the UK's first 'green debit card', planting trees as you spend money. The rest of the Tred product provides the banking services you would expect, with added environmental perspective. For example, Tred can tell you how environmentally sound your purchases are. They use a method that combines categories of shopping (groceries, fashion, etc) with personal and vendor profiles to generate the impact of your shopping choices. The ultimate aim is to continue to improve this method so that customers can be presented with product swaps and various other environmentally friendly hints and tips. Find out more and sign up here.

#PlanetData4 was another successful event, with an engaged online audience and lots of lively questions and discussions. We must thank our event sponsors again for their time, support, and contributing speakers: ARUP, who also sponsor Open Innovations' broader innovation projects; the Embassy for The Kingdom of The Netherlands, who are enthusiastic collaborators and champions for innovative partnerships; and Innovation@Leeds, whose support has enabled us to provide an accessible and interactive online event, and nurture connections between startups and entrepreneurs.

We must also thank our wonderful speakers! They have shared amazing projects and initiatives that demonstrate the power of taking action. They have also shown that projects can start with a community or local focus and still have a much wider impact. Don't think of a small local project as being too small to make a difference - think of it as the first step to building or creating something greater, a foundation for more things to be built on.

There are numerous ways that people can respond and start making a difference and it should not be difficult to do so. With #PlanetData4, we hope we have shown people how they can take climate action without breaking the bank, without needing any special know-how, and without the pressure of drastic lifestyle changes. The climate emergency is everyone's emergency.