16 May 2007

Fighting Climate Change with Open Data

Here's an interesting idea on several levels:

the Zerofootprint platform, powered by Business Objects, provides urban dwellers the ability to view their “environmental footprint” – the effect their daily habits have on pollution levels and the strain they place on our natural resources.

Enter accessible data — such as miles driven each year, miles flown, kilowatt hours used, location of home and office — and you can easily calculate your effects on the earth. The calculator measures not only the amount of carbon dioxide emitted (the carbon footprint) but also the use of resources such as land, trees and water. Once an individual's impact has been calculated, the Zerofootprint tool provides information on how to reduce it, measuring the results.

I think this makes an important point: if you can't measure something - in this case environmental impact - then you can't manage it. Providing direct feedback to people on the consequences of their day-to-day choices seems a sensible way to engage them in fighting climate change and the destruction of the environmental commons.

Interestingly, there's another level:

Much of the data gathered will be stored on the Insight database — and then the real work begins.

The challenge, or challenges, will not stop with the creation of a database. As soon as a representative sample size is available, business analysts and number crunchers everywhere can roll up their sleeves to use the information in meaningful ways.

For instance, imagine a visualization comparing the carbon footprint per kilowatt hour of electricity used in Paris versus Shanghai.

“When we are able to analyze and visualize this data, that is bound to suggest a myriad of solutions,” says Ron Dembo, founder of Zerofootprint, whose mission is nothing less than to change the world by helping people reduce their environmental footprint. “The database created here will be the ‘creative commons’ for building models for many different opportunities.”

Again, this is hardly a novel insight, but it is an important idea. Aggregation of open data in this way provides a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. What's striking is that both this and the idea of providing some kind of feedback lie at the heart of open source and related open endeavours. Modularisation means that people can work on small elements that together contribute to a larger whole; and the feedback they get for their efforts - typically peer esteem - is what keeps them going.
(Via Ars Technica.)

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