Big Data

White House attacks climate change with hackathons, crowdsourcing, and big data

Accessible climate data from the government is allowing tech enthusiasts to be on the front lines of the fight against climate change.

ecohack
EcoHack is an annual global hackathon that tackles the effects of climate change.
Image: EcoHack

For years, climate scientists have been telling us to respond to our changing climate. Rising seas, more intense heat waves, more frequent natural disasters, a warming atmosphere — these things are happening at an alarmingly rapid rate.

Those scientists can't create the technological tools that will assist our modern society in coping with climate change, but there are plenty of other people who can: activists, next generation thinkers, technologists, and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and beyond. For the first time, tech savvy innovators have access to an open database of climate data and research through the federal government and many are preparing to take advantage of it.

The new and improved climate.gov is part of the Climate Data Initiative, an effort to make the government's extensive amount of climate data and analysis easily accessible to the public. President Obama encouraged the private sector to utilize the data to make tools that will help the world become more resilient to climate change.

"Up until now, climate data has been one of those data sets that has really big implications for all of society, but getting access to that data has been challenging," said Andrew Hill, who is a coordinator of EcoHack, an annual hackathon that is using the government data for its event this year. "To think there is such top level support for that data to be public is powerful, and from the bottom up, the community is supporting it at the same time."

Democratizing climate data

Last June, the president launched the Climate Action Plan in an effort to cut carbon emissions and prepare the US for the effects of climate change.

"Climate change is a fact," said President Barack Obama in the 2014 State of the Union Address. "And when our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say 'Yes, we did.'"

The Climate Data Initiative is part of this broader plan, but it has multiple facets of its own. The website climate.data.gov was built with leadership from NOAA and NASA, who made the information accesible, digestible, and particularly useful to students, teachers, researchers, and journalists. Currently, the site is focused on coastal flooding and sea level rise and includes more than 100 curated data sets.

Big technology companies have committed to this effort as well. Google will donate one petabyte of cloud storage to host massive amounts of climate data and support the creation of these high-resolution tools and maps drawn from government open data and scientists. They will also donate 50 million hours of processing time on Google Earth Engine. Intel will host several hackathon events in New Orleans, San Jose, and the Chesapeake Bay. Microsoft Research will grant 40 climate scientists with free access to cloud computing for a year, which is up to 20 terabytes of storage.

The government announced a series of projects through both the public and private sectors to encourage developers, entrepreneurs, and technologists to utilize this data. The technology and climate science worlds are colliding in these projects around the country, including:

  • CartoDB, a data visualization company that will launch a grant program to support nonprofits and foundations in creating data-driven tools and services
  • Climate Central, which will release a web tool with local maps, projections, and data about sea level rise for coastal cities and counties after the government assesses the areas this year
  • Circle of Blue, a nonprofit news organization partnered with Qlik, a data analytics company, to develop tools so people can better understand how energy, water, and food are affected by climate change, and will compare them to global trends
  • Code for Philly, which is Code for America's Philadelphia Brigade, will use sensors to track temperature and pollution data from buses

Change from the bottom up

The Climate CoLab is a project by the Center for Collective Intelligence at Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT). The goal is to harness the collective intelligence of people around the world to address climate change. More than 10,000 people have registered and more than 400 proposals have been submitted. People are encouraged to submit proposals at any time outlining possible ways to fight climate change, but Climate CoLab's most popular projects are its contests.

The two most recent contests, which are in line with the government initiative and its data sets, ask participants to address what can be done to adapt to the impacts of climate change and how crowdsourcing can provide more efficient disaster risk management.

"Contests are interesting," said Robert Laubacher, research associate for the Center for Coordination Science at MIT. "They often can get that small number of really great ideas that might not have emerged through typical processes of innovation inside a company, a government agency, or a nonprofit."

Because climate change is such a huge, complicated problem, Laubacher said, it's easier to break it into pieces and address them separately. Through CoLab's crowdsourced contests, people can pitch ideas about how to address climate change adaptation, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and geoengineering on a local level or on a broader scale.

"We certainly think that people grappling with these ideas, this will kind of give them a greater awareness of educational value, and come up with ideas that are implementable, so the platforms over time gain visibility in the halls of power," Laubacher said. "[This initiative] is successful in creating a sense there is stuff being opened up behind the vaults of government servers and becoming useful in our daily lives."

Another one of these projects is EcoHack, an annual weekend-long hackathon where people come up with products and ideas dedicated to tackling the challenges in our environment and natural world. It started as a conference three years ago, but the coordinators decided there was too much talking and not enough action. This year, the hackathons will take place in Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Sao Paulo, Brazil on May 9 and 10. With the government's new climate website, participants will have an easier time gathering and using data for their developments.

"The nice thing about this is it's short, very focused, has a result, and [you] just have to try things," said Robin Kraft, coordinator of EcoHack. "Not everything is going to stick, you're throwing a bunch of ideas at the wall and hoping it will stick, but everyone is learning and collaborating. It's a very informal way to move technology and environmental work forward."

The hackathon isn't limited to tech enthusiasts. Environmental activists, journalists, and scientists are encouraged to bring their knowledge to the table. Seeing everyone's creativity come to life through this cross-pollination is the most gratifying aspect of the event, Kraft said.

"It can be really empowering for people who care about environment and the reality of climate change, as sometimes you feel like you can't do anything about it," Kraft said. "But if you feel like you have some measure of influence or something you can do and take action through the use of technology, it seems a little bit less scary."

These types of projects, as well as the availability of open climate data, lead to a more informed population, he added.

"If you get people understanding they can make changes, and crack open data, that might help improve public policy around climate change," Kraft said.

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Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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