Okay, I’ve had a few days to reflect on the session on Software Engineering for the Planet that we ran at ICSE last week. First, I owe a very big thank you to everyone who helped – to Spencer for co-presenting and lots of follow up work; to my grad students, Jon, Alicia, Carolyn, and Jorge for rehearsing the material with me and suggesting many improvements, and for helping advertise and run the brainstorming session; and of course to everyone who attended and participated in the brainstorming for lots of energy, enthusiasm and positive ideas.

First action as a result of the session was to set up a google group, SE-for-the-planet, as a starting point for coordinating further conversations. I’ve posted the talk slides and brainstorming notes there. Feel free to join the group, and help us build the momentum.

Now, I’m contemplating a whole bunch of immediate action items. I welcome comments on these and any other ideas for immediate next steps:

  • Plan a follow up workshop at a major SE conference in the fall, and another at ICSE next year (waiting a full year was considered by everyone to be too slow).
  • I should give my part of the talk at U of T in the next few weeks, and we should film it and get it up on the web.¬†
  • Write a short white paper based on the talk, and fire it off to NSF and other funding agencies, to get funding for community building workshops
  • Write a short challenge statement, to which researchers can respond with project ideas to bring to the next workshop.
  • Write up a vision paper based on the talk for CACM and/or IEEE Software
  • Take the talk on the road (a la Al Gore), and offer to give it at any university that has a large software engineering research group (assuming I can come to terms with the increased personal carbon footprint ūüėČ
  • Broaden the talk to a more general computer science audience and repeat most of the above steps.
  • Write a short book (pamphlet) on this, to be used to introduce the topic in undergraduate CS courses, such as computers and society, project courses, etc.

Phew, that will keep me busy for the rest of the week…

Oh, and I managed to post my ICSE photos at last.

(via Grist) A new report from the World Bank on effects of storm surges and extreme weather as a result of global warming. (See an overview in the NY Times, and the draft report). 

(via Gillian) A report in the Lancet on the impacts on health, which begins with the sentence “Climate Change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st Century”. (See an overview in New Scientist, and the¬†Editorial¬†and¬†full report in the Lancet). But to me, this is the most interesting bit: a roadmap for applied research in health and climate change.

And while we’re on the topic of research roadmaps, here’s one on Psychology and Climate Change, from the Australian¬†Psychological¬†Association.

Update: And another one from WWF And ETNOA – a roadmap on how the ICT sector can contribute to emissions reduction.

I like these roadmaps – send more!

I’m going to SciBarCamp this Saturday. The theme is open science, although we’re free to interpret that as broadly as possible. So here’s my pitch for a session:

Climate Change is the biggest challenge ever faced by humanity. In the last two years, it has become clear that climate change is accelerating, outpacing the IPCC’s 2007 assessment. The¬†paleontological¬†record shows that the planet is “twitchy“, with a number of tipping points at which feedback effects kick in, to take the the planet to a dramatically different climate, which would have¬†disastrous impacts¬†¬†on the human population. Some climate scientists think we’ve already hit some of these tipping points. However, the best available data suggests that if we can stop the growth of carbon emissions within the next five years, and then then¬†aggressively¬†reduce them to zero over the next few decades, we stand a good chance of averting the worst effects of runaway warming.¬†

It’s now clear that we can’t tackle this through volunteerism. Asking people to change their lightbulbs and turn off¬†unnecessary¬†appliances is nothing but a distraction: it conceals the real scale of the problem. We need a systematic rethinking of how energy is produced and used throughout society. We need urgent government action on emissions regulation and energy pricing. We need a massive¬†investment in R&D on zero emissions technology (but through an open science initiative, rather than a closed, centralized Manhattan Project style effort). We need a massive R&D effort into how to adapt to those climate changes that we cannot¬†¬†now¬†avoid: on a warmer planet, we will need to completely rethink food production, water management, disease control, population migration, urban planning, etc. And we will need to understand the potential impacts of the large scale geo-engineering projects that might buy us more time. We need an “all of the above” solution.

Put simply, we’ll need all the brainpower that the planet has to offer to figure out how to meet this challenge. We’ll need scientists and engineers from every discipline to come to the table, and figure out where their particular skills and experience can be most useful. We’ll need to break out of our disciplinary straightjackets, and engage in new interdisciplinary and problem-oriented research programs, to help us understand this new world, and how we might survive in it.

Governments are beginning to¬†recognize¬†the scale of the problem, and are starting to devote research funding to address it. It’s too little, and too late, but it’s a start. This funding is likely to grow substantially over the next few years, depending on how quickly politicians grasp the scale and urgency of the problem. But, as scientists, we shouldn’t wait for governments to get it. We need to get together now, to help explain the science to policymakers and to the public, and to start the new research programmes that will fill the gaps in our current knowledge.

So, here’s what I would like to discuss:

  • How do we get started?
  • How can we secure funding and institutional support for this?
  • How can professional scientists redirect their research efforts to this (and how does this affect the career scientist)?
  • How can scientists from different disciplines identify where their expertise might be needed and identify opportunities to get involved?
  • How can we foster the necessary inter-disciplinary links and open data sharing?
  • What barriers exist, and how can they be overcome?

I just spent the last two hours chewing the fat with Mark Klein at MIT and Mark Tovey at Carleton, talking about all sorts of ideas, but loosely focussed on how distributed collaborative modeling efforts can help address global change issues (e.g. climate, peak oil, sustainability).

MK has a project, Climate Interactive,[update: Mark tells me I got the wrong project – it should be The Climate Collaboratorium. Climate Interactive is from a different group at MIT] which is exploring how climate simulation tools can be hooked up to discussions around decision making, which is one of the ideas we kicked around in our brainstorming sessions here.

MT has been exploring how you take ideas from distributed cognition and scale them up to much larger teams of people. He has put together a wonderful one-pager that summarized many interesting ideas on how mass collaboration can be applied in this space.

This conversation is going to keep me going for days on stuff to explore and blog about:

And lots of interesting ideas for new projects…

A group of us at the lab, led by Jon Pipitone, has been meeting every Tuesday lunchtime (well almost every Tuesday) for a few months, to brainstorm ideas for how software engineers can contribute to addressing the climate crisis. Jon has been blogging some of our sessions (here, here and here).

This week we attempted to create a matrix, where the rows are “challenge problems” related to the climate crisis, and the columns are the various research areas of software engineering (e.g. requirements analysis, formal methods, testing, etc…). One reason to do this is to figure out how to run a structured brainstorming session with a bigger set of SE researchers (e.g. at ICSE). Having sketched out the matrix, we then attempted to populate one row with ideas for research projects. I thought the exercise went remarkably well. One thing I took away from it was that it was pretty easy to think up research projects to populate many of the cells in the matrix (I had initially thought the matrix might be rather sparse by the time we were done).

We also decided that it would be helpful to characterize each of the rows a little more, so that SE researchers who are unfamiliar with some of the challenges would understand each challenge enough to stimulate some interesting discussions. So, here is an initial list of challenges (I added some links where I could). Note that I’ve grouped them according to who immediate audience is for any tools, techniques, practices…).

  1. Help the climate scientists to develop a better understanding of climate processes.
  2. Help the educators to to teach kids about climate science Рhow the science is done, and how we know what we know about climate change.
    • Support hands-on computational science (e.g. an online climate lab with building blocks to support construction of simple simulation models)
    • Global warming games
  3. Help the journalists & science writers to raise awareness of the issues around climate change for a broader audience.
    • Better public understanding of climate processes
    • Better public understanding of how climate science works
    • Visualizations of complex earth systems
    • connect data generators (eg scientists) with potential users (e.g. bloggers)
  4. Help the policymakers to design, implement and adjust a comprehensive set of policies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  5. Help the political activists who put pressure on governments to change their policies, or to get better leaders elected when the current ones don’t act.
    • Social networking tools for activitists
    • Tools for persuasion (e.g. visualizations) and community building (e.g. Essence)
  6. Help individuals and communities to lower their carbon footprints.
  7. Help the engineers who are developing new technologies for renewable energy and energy efficiency systems.
    • green IT
    • Smart energy grids
    • waste¬†reduction
    • renewable energy
    • town planning
    • green buildings/architecture
    • transportation systems (better public transit, electric cars, etc)
    • etc