söndag 23 januari 2011

Data driven sustainability

A ph.d. student at my department, Jorge Zapico, has come halfway and so and he wrapped up one research project and kicked off a new one this past week. These projects are not his own personal projects, but he is the person most heavily invested in them and the driver and de-facto (though not formal) coordinator and project leader.

I could not attend the part where the "Persuasive services" project was wrapped up, but I did attend lunch and the official kick-off of the "Data driven sustainability" project. I will be one of three persons in the "reference group" for the project, i.e. I will not work in the project itself but will have a ancillary role in supporting, evaluating and providing constructive feedback and advice. I will start doing that right here and right now.

I have not had time to speak further with Jorge about the project beyond reading the project plan and there are several things I do not understand yet. Although I did find the project plan exciting, I also found it lacking in coherence. In a best-case scenario this is due to a lack of understanding on my part. In a worst-case scenario this is due to conceptual weaknesses in thinking about (and writing up) the project. Somewhere in-between and hopefully closer to the truth is the case of:
- a) the project plan being really open and only hinting at and pointing in a general direction (i.e. for now leaving many things open), or,
- b) having some basically sound ideas that could be developed further and that (perhaps especially) could be communicated better.

I can certainly see that the basic techy ideas can dazzle someone who is not knowledgeable in the area and who might then restrain himself from asking further questions and making a fool of himself. That person might be me not being knowledgeable enough - except that I'm not afraid to ask about what I don't understand. Furthermore, it is pretty pointless for me to be in the reference group unless I really grok what the project is about.

So I expect to have conversations with Jorge, with Hannes and with Ambjörn around our coffee table about this project during the coming months and look forward to that. This is what I understand the project to be about right now:

There are several cool up-and-coming technologies such as increased numbers of sensors and increasing amounts of real-time data, open data, linked data, APIs and mashups. This makes it possible to explore new metrics, applications, tool and theories for using this data so as to support sustainability by making environmental information more visible and more based on facts (quantitative data) of how things really are - right here and right now. Collecting, accounting and analyzing environmental information should thus support better decision-making in the area of sustainability.

That's about it. I also understand that so-called "interventions" are an important part of the expected results of the research project. These interventions are basically prototypes or (web) applications that are part proof-of-concept, part open-ended "toys" (albeit serious) and part something else. An example of an "intervention" from the "persuasive services" project is carbon.to (check it out, it's fun!).

It thus sounds like a practical and really fun project. What I don't understand is how the project is supposed to create a "theory" of... something (as per the project plan). The plan states that one of the two main outputs of the project is "A theoretical framework and toolkit of how ICT can allow making visible the environmental variables and how this information can help to move towards sustainability". That's a worthy goal, but I can't right now connect the actual (practical) work that will be done in the project with these more "heavy" theoretical outputs of the project. What I can see is a project that explores different ideas, builds stuff that might spread virally and thus change the world by "starting a revolution" from below.

Hopefully things will become a little bit more clear later this term. I anyway with Jorge the best of luck in launching the project!

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