All posts by douglashfisher

Director of Outreach, Education, Diversity, and Synthesis (OEDS) of CompSustNet

Science Outreach that Lasts: Scouting

I hiked around Ithaca, NY, the day before the 4th International Conference on Computational Sustainability  at Cornell University, and happened upon a knickknack shop, where I found a cache of 1963 Boy Scout merit badge pamphlets. I bought two that I didn’t have already — Gardening and Bookbinding. Gardening was one of the original merit badges that were introduced in 1911. The Gardening pamphlet, at least the 1963 printing, was written by Professor Paul Work of Cornell University, probably in the 1940s when the material was copyrighted. Professor Work died in 1959, after a distinguished career, which  included authoring The Tomato  —  you’ll see that Professor Work apparently liked to put faces to science, as part of the prefacing material to that book.


Image: The Gardening Merit Badge by Professor Paul Work. Click to enlarge.

I haven’t researched the history yet, but Boy Scout merit badges are my earliest recollection, as a scout myself, of formalized mechanisms of promoting lifelong and project-based learning through badging, and communicating science and technology to the public. Professor Work’s outreach on gardening may seem closer to hobbyist than to scientific material, but there is science outreach in that badge, and among the other 1911 merit badges were those that were clearly science outreach, including Astronomy, Ornithology (later Bird Study), Chemistry, and Electricity. Still others of the originals had sustainability connections as well, to include Conservation, Agriculture, and Forestry.

Eagle Scout Bridge

Image: Bridge in Cumberland Mountain State Park created by Lee Suydam for his Eagle Scout project (2005). Such projects, and there are many, are exemplars of project-based learning, though they are outside the scope of formal school curricula. Click to enlarge. Photo Credit: Douglas H. Fisher

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) are one of the very first environmental groups in America, and while BSA has been “dragged kicking and screaming” into inclusiveness on some social issues (see Treehugger article), they have been environmentalists consistently. The current crop of sustainability-relevant merit badges are many: Animal Science; Architecture; Bird Study; Composite Materials; Energy; Environmental Science; Fish and Wildlife Management; Forestry; Geology; Insect Study; Landscape Architecture; Mammal Study; Mining in Society; Nature; Nuclear Science; Oceanography; Plant Science; Reptile and Amphibian Study; Soil and Water Conservation; and Sustainability. Moreover, among the required badges for Eagle Scout is either Environmental Science or Sustainability (choose at least one).  A summary history of all merit badges, past and present, is an interesting read, …, for those interested (like me)!

After CompSust-2016, I went to Nashville’s Scout shop and picked up many of the study pamphlets for sustainability-related merit badges,  and was gratified to find attention to climate change in the most recent Sustainability merit badge (instituted 2013), and as importantly, global warming, climate change, and greenhouse effects have found their way into the study pamphlets of older merit badges like Chemistry, Weather, Environmental Science, and others. This article in Treehugger points to exactly the satisfaction and mild surprise that I found in the BSA environmental record since I was last active.

BSA has a long history of technology-relevant merit badges too (e.g Machinery, 1911 – 1995). In “my day” there were badges on Computers (1967-2014), Electronics (1963 – ), Engineering (1967 – ), which has morphed and grown to include Digital Technology; Robotics; Programming; GeocachingGame Design; Entrepreneurship; and Graphic Arts.

This brings me to a  goal of infusing computational sustainability  into the BSA merit badge system. Our NSF-funded network, CompSustNet,  aspires to introduce and nurture outreach in K-12 that reaches far and wide, and that lasts well beyond the network’s NSF funding period. Scouting has a long and proven history of science and engineering outreach (as well as Arts and Humanities outreach — just look at the merit badge list), so its no surprise that we are investigating the outreach possibilities with scouting. While I have focused on BSA, which is integral to my personal story, I am learning about Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) and their badging system, with goals for outreach in GSUSA as well.

Web searches with keywords such as “NSF” (or “National Science Foundation”), “Boy Scouts” and “merit badge” show that there are NSF grants with broader impacts plans that include activities with scouting, and merit badge workshops and study groups (e.g., “CAREER: Computational Modeling of Microstructure Evolution during Vapor Deposition).  Additional poking around finds that there are museums around the country that work with scouts as part of the museum’s disciplinary outreach (e.g., Nashville’s Adventure Science Museum). Museums and other institutions can have their own (digital) badging systems, and we are currently designing the desiderata, requirements, and graphic designs of CompSust badges.

We can aspire to create BSA and GSUSA badges on Computational Sustainability, but in the near term, our focus is on workshop materials that scouts and their mentors can use to integrate computing into satisfaction of sustainability-themed badge requirements, and to integrate sustainability into computing-themed badges.

One “secret formula” of BSA, at least in my experience, is that the “library” research involved in merit badges, ecology-themed and otherwise, is side by side with in-the-world activities (including merit badges and Eagle projects) in Backpacking; Cooking; Gardening; Scuba Diving; Search and Rescue; Climbing; Fishing; Citizenship in the Community, Nation, and the World; and so many others — that amalgamates interests in nature, citizenship, science, and humanities — at least it did in me.


Image: Glendora Explorer Post 494 scouts and leaders hiking Mount Whitney (circa 1974). Click to enlarge. Photo Credit: Douglas H. Fisher

Infusing computational sustainability into scouts (and other badging systems and K-12 institutions) appears very promising. There will be other outreach efforts by CompSustNet that are intended as long-lasting and consequential as well — we will be posting these activities to this blog,

Thanks to Professor Paul Work too, for being a pioneer in communicating science to the public. It was serendipity that I discovered him, but serendipity that was made more probable by a curiosity about and appreciation for the place I was in.

Douglas H. Fisher is CompSustNet’s Director of Outreach, Education, Diversity, and Synthesis. The opinions expressed herein are Doug’s and not necessarily those of Cornell University. Contact Doug at 

Computational Sustainability for Everyone: Untapping the Potential of Games, As Told by Pokémon GO

This is a post from Zimei Bian. See her bio at the bottom.

If you haven’t been living under a rock for the past two weeks, you’ve probably heard about the new cultural phenomenon sweeping the world–at least in countries where the game has been officially (or unofficially) released — that is Pokémon GO.

Pokemon logo large

(Pokémon Go logo, property of The Pokémon Company)

So what is Pokémon GO, and why are we talking about it on a Computational Sustainability blog? In brief, Pokémon GO is a location-based augmented reality (AR) game on mobile devices that allows players to capture and train virtual creatures “encountered” in the real world from the Pokémon franchise. Players can “hatch” Pokémon eggs by walking certain distances and battle other players for control of Pokémon “gyms” at various landmarks. With the exception of completely optional in-game microtransactions, the application is free to download and play with the help of the built-in GPS and camera capabilities available on most modern iOS and Android handheld devices.


(Screenshots of Pokémon GO gameplay. Image credit: Zimei Bian)

In a little over a week since its release, Pokémon GO has not only surpassed Twitter in terms of active daily users, but has made significant contributions everywhere from increasing voter registration to improving users’ mental health. Looking at these reports, the question arises: can games like Pokémon GO play a part in sustainability efforts? The answer, as it turns out, is that it already has.

In addition to motivating people to explore National Parks, helping communities fall in love with their cities, and encouraging players to pick up trash in public spaces, Pokémon GO has created ample opportunities for users to encounter real life plants and animals as they track down fictional Pokémon (many of which are based on real animals). Scientists on Twitter have caught on to this phenomenon and have created citizen science initiatives under the hashtags #PokeBlitz and #PokemonIRL to help Pokémon GO users identify and learn about the wildlife they come across on their adventures. Judging by the influx of posts with these hashtags, it appears that many users are interested in more than just virtual creatures. But how can we further harness this innate curiosity for sustainability? And what role can gaming play in our efforts?


(#PokeBlitz and #PokemonIRL tweets on Twitter)

Two weeks ago, I attended the 4th International Conference on Computational Sustainability at Cornell University, where Computational Sustainability experts and enthusiasts from all over the world gathered to share their research. Many of the talks were centered around wildlife conservation and the potential impact of citizen science in these sustainability efforts. One of my personal favorite projects in this category was eBird, a highly successful CompSustNet project launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society that provides an intuitive web application for bird watchers across the globe to report observations and access information about their personal records as well as interactive visualizations of all collected data. Despite the popularity of the project in the global birding community, one of the points of discussion that arose around eBird and citizen science projects in general (iNaturalist, Project Noah, etc.) was how to attract and retain users that are not already experts–or even prepossess some particularly strong interest–in the field. In this respect, I believe that we can learn a lot from Pokémon GO, an application that has somehow managed to attract an abundance of users from all walks of life — many of whom were not fans of Pokémon (or even exercise, in many cases) in the past.

In her previous post on this blog, Selina Chen wrote about the importance of providing ways for the average citizen to feel that they can be involved in and make substantial contributions to sustainability efforts. One way to do this, as mentioned in the aforementioned post, is by bringing the issues home and highlighting their impact on a local scale. The widespread appeal of Pokémon GO suggests another potential method: by making it so that exploring and contributing to sustainability causes is fun. While this may not seem like a particularly sophisticated suggestion, research shows that having fun motivates further pursuits of knowledge and increases the likelihood of meaningful connections being made during learning in both children and adults. And what does it say about the power of fun that in just a little over a week from the game’s launch, Pokémon GO players from all over the world have already banded together to contribute observations to extensive crowdsourced Pokémon species-sighting maps–an endeavor eerily similar to what wildlife conservation scientists have been encouraging people to do for years? The Fun Theory, an initiative of Volkswagen, is dedicated entirely to the idea that “something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better.” One illustration of this initiative’s many incredibly simple but effective ideas can be viewed below:

(“Bottle Bank Arcade”, one of many ideas from Volkswagen’s The Fun Theory initiative.)

Winston Churchill once said, “I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.” The reason that this quote has survived for so long after its originator’s death is because we can all relate to it. The same could be said about keeping our New Year’s resolutions and practicing socially-and-environmentally responsible behavior–we all want to do it, but it’s often inconvenient and much easier to just toss to the side. How can we motivate the average person who is undoubtedly already busy with their own lives to learn about, care about, and contribute to solving global sustainability problems? With all the conversation around the wildly successful Pokémon GO right now, there really is no better time to start thinking seriously about how the Computational Sustainability field can utilize games and emerging gaming technologies to engage and motivate a wider demographic to start taking part in our sustainability efforts.

Who knows? We may even have some fun in the process.

Zimei Bian is a CS undergrad at Vanderbilt University with a special passion for interactive storytelling and using tech for social good. In her spare time, she enjoys internet cat pictures and story-driven video games. The opinions expressed herein are Zimei’s and not necessarily those of Cornell University. You can reach Zimei at

Professional Development in Computational Sustainability

The 4th International Conference on Computational Sustainability (CompSust-16) was last week at Cornell University in Ithaca NY. It was a great conference, and videos of all presentations will be online soon. We will be using many of these online presentations as jumping off points to talk about the individual CompSust network projects, so stay tuned to this blog.

My own presentation on the broader impact plans for CompSustNet will be online as well, and my slides are available now.

Naturally, I will be addressing themes found in my talk from time to time. In this post, I briefly highlight professional development (e.g., bullet points at the bottom slides 6 and 13) and the creation of a new LinkedIn group on Computational Sustainability, with a mission as follows.

“Computational sustainability concerns the application of computing to challenges of environmental and societal sustainability, and the research and development required for such applications.”

“This group investigates, reports, and discusses career trajectories in computational sustainability in industry, academia, government, and non-profit sectors. The membership includes professionals, faculty, teachers, students (at all levels) in all the computing and sustainability sciences, as well as general educators, and other interested citizens.”

“All areas of computing — including artificial intelligence, machine learning, database, hardware and operating systems, mobile computing, robotics, multi-agent systems, social computing, visualization, algorithm analysis — have applicability to sustainability. The sustainability areas of importance are vast, including wildlife conservation, climate change mitigation and adaptation, urban design and traffic, disaster management, energy, agriculture, and poverty response.”

Three conversations at CompSust-2016 motivated this addition to CompSustNet’s social media outlets, which also includes Facebook and Twitter.

After my presentation, two undergraduate computer science majors who were attending the conference, suggested a LinkedIn group to learn and network about computational sustainability career opportunities and trajectories, to include the importance of internships and course selection. In fact, they thought that LinkedIn was the most relevant and important of all the social networking sites for purposes of building community.

A PhD student, and then another, expressed growing interests, as graduation approached, in learning more about computational sustainability career opportunities in industry, and our discussion (with Carla too) also raised the potential for government and non-profit opportunities. Clearly there are academic positions in computational sustainability too, which was well illustrated at the conference by the involvement of many new faculty in the area.

Finally, at an evening meeting of conference leadership, the importance of developing and demonstrating career trajectories in computational sustainability was discussed at length.

The LinkedIn forum will followup with thoughts that flow from the CompSust-2016 conference on career opportunities. We also plan to create videos from professionals who have followed a computational sustainability career path, and to make such videos a regular contribution of the Linked In group.

Douglas H. Fisher is CompSustNet’s Director of Outreach, Education, Diversity, and Synthesis. The opinions expressed herein are Doug’s and not necessarily those of Cornell University. Contact Doug at 

Surveys by CompSustNet

CompSustNet is collecting information and feedback in two forms. Please fill one or both out, as you deem appropriate.

Census of CompSustNet Participants: This questionnaire is to collect basic data on participants, broadly construed, of CompSustNet, as well as to collect information more broadly about those working on (or at least interested in) problems of computational sustainability.  If you want to be added to the CompSustNet mailing list, please fill out this form. All questions are optional, but we hope to get your name and affiliation at a minimum.

Feedback on OEDS at CompSust-16: We welcome feedback on issues related to Outreach, Education, Diversity, and Synthesis (OEDS) for CompSustNet. All questions are optional. Questions 4-8 follow the broad areas outlined in the OEDS presentation at CompSust-2016. The final question is an opportunity for less structured comments. Feel free to email any other thoughts on OEDS issues at any time to

Douglas H. Fisher is CompSustNet’s Director of Outreach, Education, Diversity, and Synthesis. The opinions expressed herein are Doug’s and not necessarily those of Cornell University. Contact Doug at 

Making it Local

This post is by Selina Chen. See her bio and contact information below.

When I told a friend that I was going to be doing research with a professor over the summer on Computational Sustainability, my friend said, “That’s so cool!….what’s Computational Sustainability?”.

Having barely been introduced to the field at the time myself, I tried to explain it as best I could: “It’s, you know, computing! But for sustainability!” (Such a great in-depth explanation, I know. Though I’m undoubtedly still a novice in the field, I like to think I could offer a more thorough and compelling answer now.)

Nevertheless, I’m sure this is a question that many across the CompSust Network have encountered when speaking to people who aren’t in the field. It isn’t that people aren’t aware of Computational Sustainability efforts – you hear about awesome, new inventions to help protect the environment in the news all the time, like the PAWS software mentioned in a previous post on this blog. It’s just that the name “Computational Sustainability” isn’t tied to these projects that are in the news, which is understandable given the field’s relative youth.

So what can we do to get people’s attention, and let them know that this a field of study that they, too, can participate in and learn more about?

Well, we already discussed some of the current efforts being made to raise interest and awareness, including the introduction of Computational Sustainability into higher education. However, for the general public, broader, less academic-focused overtures need to be made. Your average citizen isn’t going to dive into research papers on how best to optimize wildlife protected habitat or how to best locate wind farms, for example.

A huge component in getting people interested in Computational Sustainability, and sustainability generally, may involve making them feel like they can contribute. Of course, getting everyone to participate has its difficulties, as people don’t just want to be told they make a difference – they want to see the visible impact that their efforts have made. A common question is “What difference can one person make?”. This is an understandable attitude, since the difference one individual can make by changing their lifestyle and habits is so very small, but one that needs to be overridden if change on a global scale is to occur. For example, research into behavioral wedges seek to incentivize and change environmental behaviors of individuals.

One way we can get people engaged is by “bringing the issues home.” This can be done in a variety of ways, such as focusing more on consequences of research and development on local community. For example, NASA’s Exploring the Environment through Global Climate Change website has some excellent instructional tools and resources for making it local and educating the community on environmental issues. Since I am writing from Nashville, I will draw upon some Nashville examples.

An example of computational sustainability research that would be of great interest in Nashville, and many other places, is a paper written by researchers at the University of Colorado. They address the ways in which residential landscape design can conserve water through the phenomenon of facilitation, in which some plants are placed to shade other plants from harsh sun. Obviously, such an application, focused on residential systems, would have attractions in a local setting.

Another research project with the potential to connect computational sustainability with local concerns is the Nashville Yard Project, which is also concerned with landscaping. The goal of this project is to help homeowners make eco-friendly lawn care decisions on lawn fertilization so as to mitigate nitrous oxide emissions. This project does not currently employ computational methods, but there are clear possibilities to use and study computing-enabled social networks and citizen science, agent-based modeling, and computer simulations.

Various other projects are being carried out by groups like Metro Nashville Public Works, the Cumberland River Compact, and the Mayor’s Office Infrastructure and Sustainability team. An on-going example is the Green and Complete Street Project, which involves designing sustainable, eco-friendly streets, which help to alleviate flooding and promote commerce. An article detailing the design process and implementation of the first of these streets, Deaderick Street, can be found here.

(A photo of the Deaderick Street, Nashville’s first ‘Green Street’ project. Image Credit: Douglas H. Fisher)

The Green Street Project, as with the Yard Project, may not involve computing in its current form, but social networking, citizen science, and agent-based modeling are all computational sustainability themes that could be employed in this project. Certainly, they may have already used computational concepts during the project, such as optimization to maximizes greenery and water diversion, while providing enough room for traffic, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

My highlights of the Green Street Project and the Yard Project are intended to show the potential of starting with a local project, and bringing computational sustainability into it. The first paper I highlighted, on landscape design to conserve water, highlights the potential for the inverse — starting with an abstract computational sustainability project and making it local.

With the exception of the completed Deaderick “Green” Street and other green streets (e.g., Korean Veterans Parkway), the projects above are research that lack visibility to the general public, and thus ones in which the citizenry cannot participate in or use for their own ends. Sure, people believe that “more plants = good” but they probably don’t know that the type of fertilizer they choose can have an impact on emissions or that the way they decide to design their gardens/landscape could help conserve water.

One of our aims on this blog, and one of the projects you’ll be hearing more about from us in the future, is our goal of coming up with strategies that take research results and make them local, and otherwise compelling to citizens.

(A photo of the Korea Veterans Parkway, another of Nashville’s ‘Green Streets’. Image Credit: Douglas H. Fisher)

Selina Chen is a Computer Science  undergraduate at Vanderbilt University, with a love for sci-fi novels, superheroes, and art.  Currently, she’s having fun exploring the various ways art can be used to make data beautiful and engaging for the public.The opinions expressed herein are Selina’s and not necessarily those of Cornell University. You can reach Selina at

Towards a Global Online Course in Computational Sustainability

A number of us at CompSustNet have been talking about the timeliness of an open, online course on computational sustainability. This blog post elaborates on that suggestion, drawing significantly from my unpublished presentation on the subject to the 18th Annual Conference of the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities (October, 2012) entitled Regional Sections of Massively Open Online Courses.

Open online courses, both synchronous (aka “massive”) and self-paced, and other “unbundled” educational content encourage a world community of learners and educators. Perhaps for the first time in history, instructors at different institutions, even separated by great distances, can co-create and co-teach courses (see my  Online Learning report with Armando Fox for the Computing Community Consortium of CRA). Beyond the considerable research prowess in CompSustNet, there is growing experience with the teaching of computational sustainability. The time seems right for a global course on computational sustainability.

Experience with open, online courses is that local groups sometimes self-organize, meeting in coffee shops and libraries, to discuss and collaborate on online course material. Moreover, local study groups can be organized by the online course teams (e.g., an online course for future STEM university educators), anticipated by my 2012 talk.

In a distributed computational sustainability course created and managed by CompSustNet, we can also explore ways that collocated institutions can cooperate in hosting more formalized regional “sections” of the online course, allowing students at these institutions, together with other enrolled community members, to come together to collaborate on the materials, perhaps facilitated by faculty and other partners. The images below show cities with CompSustNet-affiliated institutions in the United States and Europe, with other affiliates, not shown, in Australia and Ecuador.


Image: Cities of CompSustNet-affiliated institutions in the U.S. and Europe (click to enlarge).

A global course can also be a way of growing the network of affiliates, both in the immediate vicinity of current affiliates, but also into new parts of countries and continents.

Regionally-situated sections may bring special perspectives to the material, feeding into the course’s world discourse. For example, a worldwide course on machine learning and optimization for environmental and societal sustainability may have a theme of “What will ‘our’ region be like in 30 years?” A Nashville section with Vanderbilt University, and other local universities, such as Fisk, Tennessee State, Belmont, and David Lipscomb universities as partners could have a special focus on computing analysis of water resources, flood events, and other Nashville-specific concerns, with additional partners such as the Nashville Civic Design Center, the Cumberland River Compact, and the Richland Creek Watershed Alliance, with possibilities for community-based projects.

As I prepare the second offering of Vanderbilt’s course in Computing, Energy, and the Environment for this Fall, I will be contacting guest presenters from across CompSustNet, and I hope that this and other guest lecture arrangements across the network serve as a stepping stone towards a computational sustainability online course that is open to the world.

Douglas H. Fisher is CompSustNet’s Director of Outreach, Education, Diversity, and Synthesis. The opinions expressed herein are Doug’s and not necessarily those of Cornell University. Contact Doug at Doug would love to hear about your computational sustainability education efforts — in universities, colleges, K-12, and professional development.

Computational Sustainability for Everyone: Poaching the Poachers with PAWS

This post is by Zimei Bian. See her bio and contact information below.

Poaching is the illegal hunting, killing, or capture of wildlife. Preyed on by both trophy hunters and those that seek to profit from their extraordinarily-priced body parts, animals playing critical roles in our ecosystem have been pushed to near-extinction in recent years as their populations have dropped to unsustainably low numbers. To get an idea of the extent of the problem, the Black rhino population has declined by 97.6% since 1960, and up to 35,000 African elephants were killed just last year. To learn more about the motivations and impact behind illegal poaching, watch “Last Days”, a short film by Oscar-winning director Kathyrn Bigelow (of Last Days of Ivory), below:

(“Last Days”, a short film by Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow)

To combat this global poaching crisis, a team of researchers at the University of Southern California led by CompSustNet Associate Director Milind Tambe are adding artificial intelligence (AI) to the mix. While human patrols at wildlife protection agencies serve as the primary form of protection for endangered species, the large sizes of reserves and limited resources give illegal poachers a significant advantage in avoiding capture. Funded by the Army Research Office and the National Science Foundation (NSF), Dr. Tambe’s team is working on the Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security, or PAWS, to assist conservation agencies in optimizing patrol routes that cover areas where poachers are most likely to attack.

(PAWS visual model – credit to

Developed in 2013, PAWS builds a behavior model that aims to predict poaching activities by analyzing existing patrolling and poaching data while accounting for natural routes with the most animal traffic. The software then generates randomized patrol strategies in the form of route suggestions for rangers to cover the potential problem areas while avoiding predictable patterns, taking into consideration the protected area’s existing terrain to minimize time and energy consumption. As more data is collected, the information is fed back into the PAWS system, allowing the software to “learn” and improve its strategies. You can watch the official video for PAWS here:

(PAWS video – Winner of Best Application of Artificial Intelligence @ AAAI Video Competition 2016)

The PAWS software is currently being tested. A field test was conducted in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park in 2014, and the study was presented at the AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence this past February. In the meantime, check out this poaching infographic by the African Wildlife Foundation and learn more about this incredible application of computational sustainability here.

Stay tuned for the debrief on other exciting projects in the Computational Sustainability Network!

Zimei Bian is a Computer Science  undergraduate at Vanderbilt University with a special passion for interactive storytelling and using tech for social good. In her spare time, she enjoys internet cat pictures and story-driven video games. The opinions expressed herein are Zimei’s and not necessarily those of Cornell University. You can reach Zimei at

Computational Sustainability at the Symposium on AI for Social Good

The Computing Community Consortium (CCC) sponsored yet another symposium with clear connections to computational sustainability — I summarized an earlier symposium on Computing Research: Addressing National Priorities and Societal Needs.

This most recent symposium on Artificial Intelligence for Social Good was co-sponsored by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), as well as the CCC. The videos of the talks and panels are online.

CompSustNet Deputy Director Thomas Dietterich and Associate Director Milind Tambe are featured on the panel on Environmental Sustainability.

  • Short Talks and Panel – Environmental Sustainability
    Moderated by Greg Hager, Johns Hopkins University
  • Tom Dietterich, Oregon State University – Understanding and Managing Ecosystems through Artificial Intelligence
  • Reuben Sarkar, The U.S. Department of Energy – Getting SMARTer on Future Mobility and Energy
  • Milind Tambe, University of Southern California – Green Security: How AI can help protect endangered wildlife, fish, forests
  • Tanya Berger Wolf, University of Illinois at Chicago – Crowdsourcing, Computer Vision, and Data Science for Ecology and Conservation

Tom Dietterich (at 2:30 minutes) categorizes computational sustainability projects by their focus on data collection, data interpretation, data integration, model fitting (through machine learning), policy optimization for decision making, and policy execution, with exemplar projects in each category. Milind Tambe (at 18:10 minutes) talks about game theory applied to protection of natural resources, notably the the Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security (PAWS), a focus of an upcoming post by Zimei Bian.

Other sessions are also relevant to CompSustNet, most notably the panel on Urban Computing.  All three speakers focused on transportation, a topic with good representation  in AAAI-16’s Computational Sustainability track too.

  • Short Talks and Panel Discussion – Urban Computing
    Moderated by Amy Greenwald, Brown University
  • Dan Hoffman, Montgomery County, Maryland – The Interface between People and Their Government
  • Stephen Smith, Carnegie Mellon University – Smart Infrastructure for Urban Mobility
  • Pascal van Hentenryck, University of Michigan – Reinventing Mobility with Artificial Intelligence

Dan Hoffman addresses policy and operational challenges of using autonomous public transportation (e.g., buses). Stephen Smith (at 10:00 minutes) describes a pilot project in Pittsburgh that uses adaptive and reactive software to control intersections with demonstrated benefits at reducing congestion, and reducing the consequences (e.g., CO2, time and monetary costs). Pascal van Hentenryck (at 20:30 minutes) describes a pilot project in Canberra Australia that uses a system of commuting hubs (i.e., park-and-rides) and on-demand public transportation, such as express buses and cabs, to reduce urban congestion as well.

Computational sustainability topics appear elsewhere in the symposium program, including Eric Horvitz’ keynote talk, in which he spotlights a number of areas, to include “precision agriculture” (at 22:15 minutes) and wildlife protection planning (24:15 minutes).

Douglas H. Fisher is CompSustNet’s Director of Outreach, Education, Diversity, and Synthesis. The opinions expressed herein are Doug’s and not necessarily those of Cornell University. Contact Doug at

Summary of Computational Sustainability Papers at AAAI-2016

My survey of selected papers in the Computational Sustainability track of AAAI-2016 will appear in the July/August Issue of IEEE Intelligent Systems, with an allowed preprint on my website available now.  The preprint includes links to the papers in the online proceedings.

The IEEE Intelligent Systems article surveys computational methods that aid in various aspects of human decision making, to include data collection; learning models from data; model-based reasoning and simulation; reactive decision making under existing-design constraints; and designing sustainable environments “from scratch”. These methods are applied to sustainability applications involving the natural environment; socio-economic dimensions of sustainability; transportation; and other human-built infrastructure.

In addition to briefly summarizing each of the eighteen papers of the Computational Sustainability track, I offer some meta-commentary on

  • the potential rebound effects on the environment of computational applications (e.g., that result from making what are largely disfunctional traffic systems slightly more tolerable);
  • tradeoffs between various design criteria (e.g., designing road networks for routine commuting and design for emergency evacuation); and
  • being cautious about design criteria that are related to, but at a distance from, environmental impacts (e.g., energy cost savings versus energy use savings).

As editor of the Sustainability column of IEEE Intelligent Systems, I am on the lookout for guest columnists. If you have a computational sustainability topic that you would like to write up for a broad audience of computing professionals, please contact me … if I don’t contact you first! IEEE Intelligent Systems allows you to keep a preprint on your Website.

Douglas H. Fisher is CompSustNet’s Director of Outreach, Education, Diversity, and Synthesis. The opinions expressed herein are Doug’s and not necessarily those of Cornell University. Contact Doug at

Exploring Synergies with other NSF-Funded Centers and Networks

CompSustNet is a big investment for NSF, as are other NSF-funded sustainability-oriented centers and networks. Even as we further the depth and breadth of research within our own network, there are opportunities for understanding our place in the larger set of sustainability centers and networks, and building and exploiting relationships with them. These need not be tightly-coupled relationships, and probably will not be, at least not initially. Loosely-coupled interactions with other centers and networks include (a) trading wisdom and plans about managing big network/center operations, to include outreach and education plans (e.g., by attending other-center workshops); and (b) using our (CompSustNet’s) computational methods to analyze data that are generated by these other centers.

Large NSF-funded centers for which there are synergies with CompSustNet include those that attend to decision making and human behavior, the natural environment, energy efficiency, and materials. Indeed, large centers will typically cross some of these broad areas. The list below, with mission statements, may seem long, but its only a start.

  • Transdisciplinary Research Network for Sustainable Climate Risk Management : “… SCRiM links a transdisciplinary team of scholars … to answer the question, “What are sustainable, scientifically sound, technologically feasible, economically efficient, and ethically defensible climate risk management strategies?
  • National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center : “The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) is dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. We support new interdisciplinary collaborations that pursue data-driven solutions to pressing socio-environmental problems.
  • AirWaterGas: A NSF Sustainability Research Network : “AirWaterGas is a team of scientists, engineers, public health experts, educators, policy analysts, economists, and lawyers working together to address a single driving question: How can we better integrate information about the environmental, economic, and social tradeoffs of oil and gas development into policy guiding development and regulations governing development?”
  • Water and Environmental Technology Center : “The mission is to develop methods/technologies to detect, understand, mitigate and/or control contaminants, including emerging contaminants of concern, that can adversely impact water quality and the environment. The vision of the WET Center is to minimize any potential adverse effects of contaminants on human health and/or the environment.”
  • Center for Energy Efficient Electronics Science“To enable a radical reduction in energy consumption in electronic devices: Research to lead to fundamentally new science; Educate a diverse generation of scientists, engineers, and technicians; Promote the application of the Center’s research outcomes.”
  • Center for Aerosol Impacts on Climate and the Environment : “The mission of CAICE is to transform our ability to accurately predict the impact of aerosols on climate and our environment by bringing real-world chemical complexity into the laboratory.”
  • Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry : “Conduct curiosity-driven and use-inspired research to enhance the sustainable chemistry toolbox with new methods and new techniques that will advance the scientific enterprise and transform the next generation of products, while preparing students to become the next generation of green chemists.”
  • Center for Sustainable Polymers“The mission of the Center for Sustainable Polymers (CSP) is to transform how plastics are made and unmade through innovative research, engaging education, and diverse partnerships that together foster environmental stewardship.”
  • The Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology“We aim to understand, predict, and control the specific chemical and physical interactions between nanomaterial surfaces and living systems via a molecular level, chemistry-centered approach.” 

Some NSF centers may have little in common thematically with CompSustNet, but may nonetheless present opportunities for new applications of computational approaches.

  • Mid-InfraRed Technologies for Health and the Environment
    “MIRTHE’s goal is to develop Mid-Infrared (λ – 3-30 µm) optical trace gas sensing systems based on new technologies such as quantum cascade lasers or quartz enhanced photo-acoustic spectroscopy, with the ability to detect minute amounts of chemicals found in the environment or atmosphere, emitted from spills, combustion, or natural sources, or exhaled.”

There are other centers that CompSustNet would complement with a sustainability focus. For example, the Center for e-Design reveals no explicit concern with sustainable design, an area in which some CompSustNet members are deeply interested, so interactions across networks may increase the scope of each.

  • Center for e-Design : “The coalition was established to create new design paradigms and electronic design tools that will assist in generating high quality products and systems at a reduced cost while also reducing the time associated with designing complex engineered products and systems.”

Finally, there are many centers  and networks that are funded by sources other than NSF, which CompSustNet will also undoubtedly connect with.

  • Center for Water and the Environment :  “To foster the economic development of Minnesota’s Natural Resources in an environmentally sound manner to promote private sector employment.”

Enumerating the conceptual and social connections — existing and potential — between large centers could be a great benefit to NSF. It is probable that no such map exists in the corridors of NSF or elsewhere, primarily for reasons of NSF staff workload (e.g., as discussed under posts on NSF Program Director experience and  implementations of NSF broader impacts). The CompSustNet synthesis team will be working to produce an easily visualized map across centers and networks, as well as building on existing visualizations created for within-CompSustNet relationships.

Douglas H. Fisher is CompSustNet’s Director of Outreach, Education, Diversity, and Synthesis. The opinions expressed herein are Doug’s and not necessarily those of Cornell University. Contact Doug at