All posts by douglashfisher

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

Creating Citizen Science Projects

This is a post by Mateus Winelmann. See Mateus’ bio at the bottom.

We often hear about major scientific discoveries in the media, like how scientists at CERN found the Higgs Boson or that a lifesaving drug like Harvoni, which can cure hepatitis C, is going to market. These are amazing breakthroughs, but oftentimes the process of discovery feels like something far removed from us. After all, most of us don’t have the training or resources to work on these kinds of projects. When cutting edge scientific research often requires years of specialized education and billions of dollars in funding (finding the Higgs Boson is estimated to have cost over US$13 billion), it doesn’t seem like something ordinary people can be a part of. That doesn’t have to be the case though! Citizen science consists of research done largely by the general public, typically without any significant cost for participants, and it can be incredibly valuable. To illustrate that, let’s talk about eBird.

eBird was launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, where the idea is to allow people to document their bird sightings. Bird watchers already tend to keep records of the birds they see or hear, and eBird allows them to make those observations available to educators and researchers across the world. Making that data available is already bearing fruit, with ornithologists at Cornell publishing a paper last year discussing the migratory strategies of birds, which is discussed in a New York Times article. The paper’s authors were able to document how different species of birds from different parts of the country migrate in different ways thanks to eBird. According to one of the paper’s articles, it would have cost researchers millions of dollars to collect this data through traditional tracking methods, and even then, the data would not have been as detailed.

You can learn more about eBird and how to contribute here. If you are interested in finding other citizen science projects, take a look at NatureNet and SciStarter. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you can consider starting your own citizen science project. There are several tools and frameworks out there that can help you create and share a citizen science project, some of which are described here, and a few others I would suggest looking at are CitSci, crowdcrafting, Zooniverse, and iNaturalist. Starting your own project can be an ambitious undertaking, so I’d recommend taking the time to explore what projects are already out there to get an idea about how you might create your own project. While this page is directed at educators, it highlights a few important things to consider if you decide to create your own project. There is no shortage of things to be studied, so it’s just a matter of finding, or starting, a project that interests you.

Mateus Winelmann is a senior undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University. The opinions expressed herein are Mateus’s and not necessarily those of Cornell University. You can reach Mateus at

Livestock Insurance in Africa

This is a post by Emily Markert. See her bio at the bottom of this post.

For pastoralists in East Africa, weather is key.  The threat of drought is recurrent on the African rangelands, and has the potential to kill vast numbers of livestock, throttling herders and their families into poverty.  This uncertainty has been a long-term concern in the region, and has led researchers Andrew Mude, Chris Barrett, and Michael Carter to develop a technology-based insurance program to protect these herders.  This Index-Based Livestock Insurance uses satellite data to monitor weather conditions in pastoral regions, and estimates livestock deaths.  Herders receive payouts based on these predictions.

A team led by Carla Gomes, Director of the Institute for Computational Sustainability, has also developed mobile applications that allow herders to report conditions, introducing an element of citizen science.  The program has been implemented in multiple countries, and this innovative combination of technology and finance has proven to be a success.  The researchers behind this insurance have received numerous awards for their efforts, and countless pastoralists have seen their livelihoods stabilized.  More information on this program can be found in this article from the Cornell Chronicle, in a press release on Dr. Andrew Mude’s receipt of the 2016 Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application, or in this blog post.

Emily Markert is a Computer Science  undergraduate at Vanderbilt University. The opinions expressed herein are Emily’s and not necessarily those of Cornell University. You can reach Emily at

Awards for Computational Sustainability Papers at AAAI-17 and IAAI-17

Computational sustainability has been a special track at AAAI since 2011. The track invites “research papers on novel concepts, models, algorithms, and systems” at the nexus of AI, and environmental and societal sustainability. The 2017 special track cochairs were Bistra Dilkina of Georgia Institute of Technology and Sabine Storandt of Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg.

There were two CompSust awards given at the 2017 AAAI conference. The AAAI CompSust Best Paper Award was given to
Xiaojian Wu, Akshat Kumar, Daniel Sheldon, and Shlomo Zilberstein for “Robust Optimization for Tree-Structured Stochastic Network Design“. The CompSust Best Student Paper was given to Jiaxuan You, Xiaocheng Li, Melvin Low, David Lobell and Stefano Ermon for their paper “Deep Gaussian Process for Crop Yield Prediction Based on Remote Sensing Data.

The AAAI CompSust Best Paper Committee included Alan Mackworth of the University of British Columbia, Zico Kolter of Carnegie Mellon UIniversity, and Amy McGovern of the University of Oklahoma.

The IAAAI conference, co-located with AAAI, also had computational sustainability representation, and CompSustNet researchers received an IAAI-17 Deployed Application Award for
Phase-Mapper: An AI Platform to Accelerate High Throughput Materials Discovery” by  Yexiang Xue, Junwen Bai, Ronan Le Bras, Brendan Rappazzo, Richard Bernstein, Johan Bjorck, Liane Longpre, Santosh K. Suram, Robert B. van Dover, John Gregoire, and Carla P. Gomes.

Finally,  CompSustNet Executive Council member co-authored  the AAAI-17 Outstanding Paper “Label-Free Supervision of Neural Networks with Physics and Domain Knowledge” by Russell Stewart and Stefano Ermon. The paper describes research on using constraints to reduce the need for labeled data when learning to recognize and track objects. While not a computational sustainability paper per se, it a line of research that has clear implications for computational sustainability.

AAAI-17 CompSust co-chair Bistra Dilkina presents Best Paper award to Xiaojian Wu and Akshat Kumar, for their paper with Daniel Sheldon and Shlomo Zilberstein.


A complete list of computational sustainability representation at AAAI and IAAI is broader than the CompSust special track, and relevant papers from AAAI, IAAI, and the AAAI-17 Workshop on AI+OR for the Social Good (appended at the end) are listed here as a convenience. This list includes CompSustNet members and collaborators too, highlighted in blue.

Sunday, February 5
EAAI-17 Blue Sky Ideas in AI Education from the New and Future AI Educator 
Sun 5-5:50, Golden Gate 1-2
  • AI Education through Real-World Problems by Mark Crowley 
Monday, February 6
AIW1: Crowdsourcing Techniques and Methodologies  
Mon 10-11, Continental 9
  • Poster 1475: Species Distribution Modeling of Citizen Science Data as a Classification Problem with Class-Conditional Noise by Rebecca A. Hutchinson, Liqiang He, Sarah C. Emerson
GTEP1: E-Commerce and Auctions 
Mon 10-11, Golden Gate 6
  • Poster 2250: Proper Proxy Scoring Rules by Jens Witkowski, Pavel Atanasov, Lyle H. Ungar, Andreas Krause
IAAI-17: Transportation: AI Applied to Safer and More Efficient Travel 
Mon 11:30-12:30, Golden Gate 5
  • Risk-Aware Planning: Methods and Case Study on Safe Driving Routes  by John Krumm, Eric Horvitz
  • Predicting Fuel Consumption and Flight Delays for Low-Cost Airlines  by Yuji Horiguchi, Yukino Baba, Hisashi Kashima, Masahito Suzuki, Hiroki Kayahara, Jun Maeno
  • Determining Relative Airport Threats from News and Social Media  by Rupinder P. Khandpur, Taoran Ji, Yue Ning, Liang Zhao, Chang-Tien Lu, Erik R. Smith, Christopher Adams, Naren Ramakrishnan
PS1: Planning
Mon 2-3:30, Plaza A
  • Poster 790: Three New Algorithms To Solve N-POMDPs by Yann Dujardin, Tom Dietterich and Iadine Chadès
VIS3: Object Recognition 
Mon 2-3:30, Golden Gate 7-8
  • Poster 2845: Extracting Urban Microclimates from Electricity Bills by Thuy Vu, D. S. Parker
MLA3: Machine Learning Applications   
Mon 2-3:30, Golden Gate 3
  • 1289: Deep Spatio-Temporal Residual Networks for Citywide Crowd Flows Prediction Junbo Zhang, Yu Zheng, Dekang Qi
IAAI-17: Deployed AI Systems 
Mon 2-3:30, Golden Gate 5
  • Phase-Mapper: An AI Platform to Accelerate High Throughput Materials Discovery  by Yexiang Xue, Junwen Bai, Ronan Le Bras, Brendan Rappazzo, Richard Bernstein, Johan Bjorck, Liane Longpre, Santosh K. Suram, Robert B. van Dover, John Gregoire, Carla P. Gomes
AAAI-17 Invited Panel: AI for Social Good
AAAI  Mon 4-5, Continental 4-6
  • Panelists: Eric Horvitz, Peter Mockel, Lynne Parker, and Gideon Mann. Moderated by Milind Tambe.
PS2: Deterministic Planning 
Tue 10-11, Golden Gate 1-2
  • Matrix Factorisation for Scalable Energy Breakdown by Nipun Batra, Hongning Wang, Amarjeet Singh, Kamin Whitehouse
Senior Member Talks 1 (Summary)  
Tue 11:30-12:30, Continental 9
  • 3441: A Selected Summary of AI for Computational Sustainability by Douglas H. Fisher
ML12: Methods 
Tue 11:30-12:30, Plaza A
  • 788: On Human Intellect and Machine Failures: Troubleshooting Integrative Machine Learning Systemsby Besmira Nushi, Ece Kamar, Eric Horvitz, Donald Kossmann
GTEP6: Game Theory
Tue 2-3:30, Golden Gate 6
  • Poster 23: Algorithms for Max-Min Share Fair Allocation of Indivisible Chores by Haris Aziz, Gerhard Rauchecker, Guido Schryen, Toby Walsh
MLA6: Deep Learning / Neural Networks 
Tue 2-3:30, Golden Gate 3
  • Poster 629: Combining Satellite Imagery and Open Data to Map Road Safety by Alameen Najjar, Shuníchi Kaneko, Yoshikazu Miyanaga
  • Poster 573: Regularization in Hierarchical Time Series Forecasting with Application to Electricity Smart Meter Data by Souhaib Ben Taieb, Jiafan Yu, Mateus Neves Barreto, Ram Rajagopal
ML15: Reinforcement Learning
Tue 2-3:30, Plaza A
  • Oral 2097: Maximizing the Probability of Arriving on Time: A Practical Q-Learning Method by Zhiguang Cao, Hongliang Guo, Jie Zhang, Frans Oliehoek and Ulrich Fastenrath
VIS6: Videos
Tue 2-3:30, Golden Gate 7-8
  • Poster 1854: Counting-Based Reliability Estimation for Power-Transmission Grids by Leonardo Duenas-Osorio, Kuldeep S. Meel, Roger Paredes, Moshe Y. Vardi
IAAI:17: Smart Environments: Using AI Systems to Improve Day-to- Day Life 
Tue 2-3:30, Golden Gate 5
  • Crowdsensing Air Quality with Camera-Enabled Mobile Devices by Zhengxiang Pan, Han Yu, Chunyan Miao, Cyril Leung
  • Real-Time Indoor Localization in Smart Homes Using Semi-Supervised Learning by Negar Ghourchian, Michel Allegue-Martinez, Doina Precup
  • ParkUs: A Novel Vehicle Parking Detection System by Pietro Carnelli, Joy Yeh, Mahesh Sooriyabandara, Aftab Khan
MLA8: Applications of Supervised Learning  
Tue 4-5, Golden Gate 3 
  • 1751: Predicting Demographics of High-Resolution Geographies with Geotagged Tweets  by Omar Montasser, Daniel Kifer
ML17: Classification and Clustering   
Tue 4-5, Plaza A
  • 353: POI2Vec: Geographical Latent Representation for Predicting Future Visitors by Shanshan Feng, Gao Cong, Bo An, Yeow Meng Chee
IAAI-17: Decision Support: AI for Better Decision Making
Wed 10-11, Golden Gate 5
  • Cracks Under Pressure? Burst Prediction in Water Networks Using Dynamic Metrics by Gollakota Kaushik, Abinaya Manimaran, Arunchandar Vasan, Venkatesh Sarangan, Anand Sivasubramaniam
  • Optimal Sequential Drilling for Hydrocarbon Field Development Planning by Ruben Rodriguez Torrado, Jesus Rios, Gerald Tesauro
SCS1: Constraint Satisfaction  
Wed 11:30-12:30, Golden Gate 7-8
  • Poster 1556: General Bounds on Satisfiability Thresholds for Random CSPs via Fourier Analysis  by Colin Wei, Stefano Ermon
RU2: Sequential Decision Making 
Wed 11:30-12:30, Golden Gate 4
  • Poster 2970: Hindsight Optimization for Hybrid State and Action MDPs by Aswin Raghavan, Scott Sanner, Roni Khardon, Prasad Tadepalli, Alan Fern
STCOMPS1: Dynamic and Spatiotemporal Systems
Wed 2-3:30, Golden Gate 4
  • Oral 2042: Fast-Tracking Stationary MOMDPs for Adaptive Management Problems by Martin Péron, Kai Helge Becker, Peter Bartlett, Iadine Chadès
  • Oral 823: Robust Optimization for Tree-Structured Stochastic Network Design by Xiaojian Wu, Akshat Kumar, Daniel Sheldon, Shlomo Zilberstein
  • Oral 3171: Dynamic Optimization of Landscape Connectivity Embedding Spatial-Capture-Recapture Information by Yexiang Xue, Xiaojian Wu, Dana Morin, Bistra Dilkina, Angela Fuller, J. Andrew Royle, Carla P. Gomes
  • Oral 2303: Spatial Projection of Multiple Climate Variables Using Hierarchical Multitask Learning by André R. Gonçalves, Arindam Banerjee, Fernando J. Von Zuben
  • Oral 2412: Deep Gaussian Process for Crop Yield Prediction Based on Remote Sensing Data by Jiaxuan You, Xiaocheng Li, Melvin Low, David Lobell, Stefano Ermon
MLA11: Machine Learning Applications  
Thu 11:30-12:45, Golden Gate 6
  • Oral 1922: Fine-Grained Car Detection for Visual Census Estimation by Timnit Gebru, Jonathan Krause, Yilun Wang, Duyun Chen, Jia Deng, Li Fei-Fei
ML25: Recommender Systems
Thu 11:30-12:45, Continental 1-3
  • Oral 1502: Polynomial Optimization Methods for Matrix Factorization by Po-Wei Wang, Chun-Liang Li, J. Zico Kolter

Workshop on AI+OR for Social Good

14:00-14:35: Invited Talk: Daniel Sheldon, University of Massachusetts Amherst and Mount Holyoke College, “AI for Ecology and Conservation”

14:35-14:55: Sean Mcgregor, Rachel Houtman, Claire Montgomery, Ronald Metoyer and Thomas Dietterich, “Factoring Exogenous State for Model-Free Monte Carlo”

14:55-15:15: Yiqun Xie, Kwangsoo Yang, Shashi Shekhar, Brent Dalzell and David Mulla, “Spatially Constrained Geodesign Optimization (GOP) for Improving Agricultural Watershed Sustainability”

15:15-15:35: Rui Zhang, Jefferson Huang and Tarun Kumar, “Preventive Leak Detection for High Pressure Gas Transmission Networks”

Promoting Computational Sustainability to the Public

This is a post by Selina Chen. See her bio at the bottom of the post.

When I attended the 4th International Conference on Computational Sustainability at Cornell University, I was surprised at the large number of projects that came with some involvement in incentivizing users — whether by making the technology more accessible for the average user or coming up with ways to get people interested in using the product.  Before the conference, I had thought research consisted of the studying and making of things, and the issue of actually “selling” the product to public would be one which would be foisted off to the companies who decided to use the research.  Doubtless, my view was clouded by the fact that that I’d been raised by two biochemists, whose jobs consisted of developing and testing new drugs, which would then be marketed and sold by another company or department in that company.  Yet, as I learned at the conference, this cycle of create-and-pass-off was not so in the CompSust research community. Oftentimes, it became the job of researchers to figure out how to properly integrate sustainability into public life by paying attention to behavioral science, as well as technology.

In her blog post last week, Zimei Bian talked about how the new mobile app, Pokémon GO, is sweeping the world and how games, and the concept of fun in particular, can be used to engage the public in sustainability efforts.  Also mentioned was Cornell’s eBird project, a web and mobile application that uses crowdsourcing to document the presence and absence of various bird species around the world.  Through this app, birdwatchers can submit data on birds found in their region and can even take a look at hotspots in other regions.  The inexperienced birdwatcher or the casual user who just likes to use the app for kicks can also use Merlin, another mobile app developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in conjunction with eBird to help identify birds.

Video: A promotion for Merlin Bird ID App (1 minute 54 sec) — Credit to Cornell Lab of Ornithology

But the Cornell Lab of Ornithology didn’t stop there!  Taking advantage of public’s love of games and competition, the lab, in close collaboration with the Cornell Institute for Computational Sustainability,  also developed a treasure-hunting app to go along with eBird called Avicaching, described  in the talk by Yexiang Xue of Cornell University.   The game combines eBird and geocaching to encourage users to search for birds in underrepresented locations by letting you earn a variable number of points for each location visited.  Equipped with a leaderboard that updates in real-time, the game encourages users to visit places with the most ‘points’, helping to reduce eBird’s sampling bias and collect a more accurate distribution of the bird population for scientists to use.  Currently, the game is in the process of development, having only been deployed in two New York counties, but with the initial success seen by the game, it may potentially be expanded into other regions.

Though they were quite memorable for how they built on top of and supported each other, eBird, Merlin, and Avicaching were not the only wonderful projects aimed at selling computational sustainability to public that stuck out to me at the conference.

Another great example of a project that had some focus on public perception included a talk given by David Shmoys of Cornell University on the rebalancing problem found in bike sharing.  Keeping bike racks in balance amidst fluctuating demand is key; a full bike rack will prevent users from stashing their bikes when they’re done and an empty one will deter potential users.  Therefore, bike racks must be managed and optimized to provide an appropriate level of stock at any given time during the day.

A photo of a Citibike station in New York -- credit to Wikimedia user Jim.henderson
A photo of a Citibike station in New York — credit to Wikimedia user Jim.henderson

Similarly, in taxi systems, there is also a demand problem and the issue of user perception.  In his talk on Smart Cities, Bo An of Nanyang Technological University described the peak time dilemma faced by many taxi users in cities: not being able to get a taxi. Because most taxis are priced by distance and because traffic is very slow during peak times, many taxi drivers will simply not work during those hours! The drivers do not believe that driving during peak times is cost effective.  Just like any other user, taxi drivers will attempt to game the system to their advantage, finding the best times to work to maximize their profit.  In order to “sell” the idea of working during peak periods, an incentive like raised fare prices must be brought to the table.  Further detail on this pricing and scheduling scheme can be found here. Its also important that we study possible rebound effects that might result from making “dysfunctional systems more tolerable“.

In a field like computational sustainability, which aims to touch all lives, human and otherwise, now and in the future, by building a better tomorrow, it is especially important that the public is “sold” on what we’re creating, lest the phrase “Everybody’s innovating, nobody’s integrating” becomes applied to us.  Fortunately, as seen by the conference, many researchers are already a step ahead and are proactive.

The projects mentioned here were only some of my favorite ones from the conference that touched on the idea of “selling” sustainability to the public. A complete list of talks hosted at the conference can be found here.

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


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.