All posts by douglashfisher

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

Welcome Undergraduates to CompSustNet!

On June 1 two Vanderbilt University rising seniors in computer science, Zimei Bian and Selina Chen, started working with me on CompSustNet. They are supported for the summer by NSF award Collaborative Research: CompSustNet: Expanding the Horizons of Computational Sustainability.

I am so happy to have Zimei and Selina working with me, on behalf of CompSustNet. Some of this post is dedicated to Zimei’s and Selina’s activities, but their tasks can be adapted to any institution within ComSustNet. I conclude this post with a reminder that Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) awards can expand undergraduate participation in CompSustNet still further.

VU undergraduate assistants participate in each of three classes of activities, but students vary in the extent that they concentrate in each area, depending on their interests and strengths, and the needs of CompSustNet.

  1. Each student assistant becomes conversant with the research being conducted in CompSustNet,  by reading articles and participating in CompSustNet conference calls and local meetings. Students with particular interests in communication of science and technology, to include students majoring in Communication of Science and Technology, an undergraduate major at Vanderbilt, dive deeper into selected areas of the network, blog about CompSustNet activities, and prepare overviews of CompSustNet research for publication or broad dissemination through other means (e.g., a YouTube video module).
  2. Each student helps translate selected research problems and results of CompSustNet into educational exercises appropriate for courses across the computer science curriculum (e.g., for inclusion in CompSust wikibooks). Students particularly interested in CS education can concentrate in this area, with additional goals of preparing papers to CS-education focused conferences (e.g., SIGCSE) or broad dissemination through other suitable means (e.g., contributions to Nifty Assignments).
  3. Each student participates in a CompSust research project with me and/or other faculty in CompSustNet or Vanderbilt, with expectations for research result dissemination (e.g., co-authorship on publications) to depend on project and mentor.

Look for blog posts by Zimei and Selina here, as well as references to their other work on CompSustNet. And if you are a CompSustNet participant, don’t be surprised if you receive a query from them, or introduce themselves at the CompSust-16 conference in July!

More generally, CompSustNet will employ systematic strategies to engage undergraduate assistants. We will do this, in part, through REU supplemental awards on selected NSF collaborative awards that directly support CompSustNet. These REU supplements could support undergraduate participation on research projects in CompSustNet, or with proper planning and justification, even suitable projects outside of CompSustNet as currently construed. The appropriate use of REU supplements can be a mechanism for both strengthening the bonds within the network, as well as for extending the network. It is also worth considering whether REU sites might be a distinct way of growing the computational sustainability community still further!

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

CCC Symposium on Computing Research to Address Societal Needs

Two weeks ago I attended the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) symposium on “Computing Research: Addressing National Priorities and Societal Needs.

The invited talks and panels, which were live streamed, are now available on video.

The morning session of the first day was on “Computing in the Physical World” and was opened with a keynote presentation by CompSustNet Director, Carla Gomes. Carla’s talk covered the growth of computational sustainability as a field, and spotlighted the participants and research thrusts of CompSustNet as the most recent addition to that history.

The sustainability challenges are many — protecting biodiversity, citizen science, materials discovery, poverty mitigation, as are the computational approaches implicated by these challenges, to include include dynamical systems, uncertainty, big data, and prediction.

One of Carla’s major points was that computational approaches of broad applicability can emerge by addressing sustainability challenges. In this talk she gives a compelling example of how streamlining constraint reasoning arose from addressing a problem of fertilizer distribution.

The online talk, which is second of the video presentations and includes accompanying slides, and CompSustNet website give many more details.

Talks that followed Carla’s in the Monday morning session are also in the computational sustainability fold, and my twitter feed shows quite a few gems (@DougOfNashville #cccsymposium).  The morning session agenda was as follows.

Keynote – Computational Sustainability: Computational Methods for Sustainable Development by Carla Gomes, Professor and Director of the Institute for Computational Sustainability at Cornell University

Short Talks and Panel Discussion- Opportunities in Urban Environments (Smart Cities)

  • Sokwoo Rhee, National Institute of Standards and Technology – Internet of Things and Smart Cities
  • Carter Hewgley, Johns Hopkins University, Center for Government Excellence- Converting Insight into Action
  • Charlie Catlett, Argonne National Laboratory and the Computation Institute – Open Data and Instrumented Cities

Short Talks and Panel Discussion- Opportunities in Agriculture, Environment, Disaster, Food-Energy-Water

  • Sonny Ramaswamy, National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) – Societal Challenges and Nutritional Security: The Role of Cyberphysical Systems and Big Data
  • Shashi Shekhar, University of Minnesota – Computing Challenges in Food, Energy, and Water Nexus: A Perspective
  • Robin Murphy, Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) and the Center for Emergency Informatics and Texas A&M University – Computing for Disasters

In addition to the plenary talks and panels, poster summaries are also online, to include a poster on Computational Sustainability by CompSustNet Executive Council member, Bistra Dilkina, of Georgia Tech.

The CCC is an office of the Computing Research Association (CRA), and CCC/CRA hosted an earlier visioning workshop on the Role of Information Sciences and Engineering for Sustainability, as well as workshops in many other areas. In fact, this most recent symposium was something of an overview of selected earlier workshops, to include those on privacy and healthcare, as well as sustainability.

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

CompSust-2016: 4th International Conference on Computational Sustainability

Earlier this week, CompSustNet Director, Carla Gomes, announced the CompSust-2016: The 4th International Conference on Computational Sustainability.

          CompSust-2016 @ Cornell
          4th International Conference on Computational Sustainability

          Correct Important Dates

          Abstract submission -May 21, 2016
          Doctoral consortium application – May 21, 2016
          Notification of acceptance May 27, 2016
          Early registration deadline June 3, 2016 (5pm EDT)
          Conference July 6-8, 2016

          For more information check the conference website:

          Hope to see you there,


        Carla P. Gomes
        Conference Co-Chair

You can find the list of past CompSust conferences at the bottom of the 2016 conference website. I attended the first CompSust conference in 2009, very probably the most exciting and interesting conference I have attended since my graduate student days, when all things were new. I am reposting my somewhat rambling recollections of that first CompSust conference, both when I touched down at Ithaca airport prior to the conference and as I left the same airport after the conference, on my personal blog.

In addition to dedicated conferences on computational sustainability, equally important outlets for computational sustainability research are established, mainstream conferences on artificial intelligence, such as AAA-16, which will be a topic of posts in the near future.

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

Professor Sir David MacKay passes away

There is sad news that computer scientist and energy policy expert David J.C. MacKay passed away on April 14.  Professor Sir MacKay was knighted earlier this year.

In computer science Professor MacKay is known for his work on information theory, signal correction, machine learning, and assistive software.

In 2008 he published “Sustainable Energy — without the hot air” in which he analyzes the UK’s ability to operate on renewable energy sources only.  This is a self-published, freely-downloadable book that is also a highly-praised — not characteristics one often sees in one book! Bill Gates says of it,

…this is one of the best books on energy that has been written. If someone is going to read just one book I would recommend this one. It isn’t an easy read but that’s because you learn so much. Even after you read this book you will want to keep it around since whenever you read about a new development in energy technology, the framework in this book will help you understand how important it is and where it fits in.

A 10-page synopsis of the book is available.

I am not intimately familiar with Professor MacKay’s work in computer science and related fields, but it appears that his research in these areas was, on the surface, independent from his work on energy policy. Underpinning both, however, is a sharp analytical and computational approach. David MacKay spoke at UAI 2015 on climate change, and at ICML 2012 on “Information Theory and Sustainable Energy. This latter talk, in particular, may reveal his synthesis of his two areas of broad expertise. The video of the talk is not viewable at time of writing this post, but I will back edit with a link to a functioning video if and when I find it.

At times like this I am reminded of Turing Award winner Judea Pearl’s injunction to put human faces to science, and I will be doing that when I cover Sir David MacKay’s research in my computational sustainability course this Fall. Professor Sir David MacKay has left us with an impressive legacy of science and service at their very best.

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


University Courses in Computational Sustainability

CompSustNet is a network of researchers who are developing new computational approaches to addressing challenges in environmental and societal sustainability. In my role as CompSustNet’s Director of Outreach, Education, Diversity, and Synthesis, I plan to blog regularly about each of the topics indicated in my title, as well as posting publicly-accessible overviews of the research being undertaken in the network. For this latter area of responsibility, in particular, I will also recruit graduate and undergraduate students with an interest in communicating science and technology to the public, as fellow bloggers and co-authors of articles. Contact me if you are interested.

Because registration at most schools for Fall 2016 courses is starting soon, or is very recently underway, higher education in computational sustainability is a timely topic.

In the last 5 years or so there have been a number of college-level courses in computational sustainability, some with an emphasis in one subarea, but most with broader coverage. Here is a list of the courses that I know.

Beyond the topics themselves, at least two things strike me as notable about these courses.

  • Instructors openly use and acknowledge educational content from other courses and other instructors, in addition to making nontrivial use of guest lecturers. As I plan for my Fall 2016 special topics course, entitled Computing, the Environment, and Energy, I will be using much from my earlier 2011 course, but I will also undoubtedly take Stefano Ermon (Stanford) and Dan Sheldon (UMass) up on their offers to share resources. I’ll consider drawing from other courses as well, and I expect to line up a few guest lectures over video conferencing as well.
  • These are not courses that fit the stereotype of “computing and society” or “computing and ethics” that require little or no computing background. Such introductory courses would be a good addition to the course portfolio, but consistent with the CompSustNet mission, the courses so far have opted to advance the education of committed and knowledgeable computer science students.

In the future, I will be posting more on computing courses, including my own Fall 2016 course. I invite others to contribute one or more posts on their experiences too. In addition to standalone courses in computational sustainability, I will be posting on “deep infusion of sustainability material into NON-sustainability-themed courses”.  Deep infusion doesn’t seek to spinoff computational sustainability to specialized courses, but seeks to make it ubiquitous across the entire computing curriculum.

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

NSF Expeditions of Computing award funds CompSustNet

In January 2016, the National Science Foundation announced the $10 million, 5-year Expeditions of Computing award for CompSustNet, to support a research network in computational sustainability led by Cornell University, and including Oregon State University, Bowdoin College, California Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Howard University, Princeton University, Stanford University, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, University of Southern California, and Vanderbilt University.

CompSustNet is “a transformative computational sustainability network, bringing together computer scientists, environmental and social scientists, biologists, physicists and material scientists to expand the nascent field of computational sustainability,” says Carla Gomes, the Principle Investigator on the lead Cornell award.

This is the second Expeditions of Computing award led by Gomes on Computational Sustainability, a testament to how important it is that computer scientists and researchers in related disciplines take up the challenges of environmental and societal sustainability.

In addition to the funded network nodes referenced above, there are many other collaborating network members from the United States and across the world.

  • Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) – Land and Water Flagship
  • Data61 (formerly NICTA), Australia
  • Delft University of Technology, Trans-African Hydro-Meteorological Observatory (TAHMO)
  • Distributed Sun LLC
  • Earth Networks Inc.
  • International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) – Materials Measurement Laboratory
  • Nature Trust of British Columbia
  • Northwest Watershed Research Center
  • Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ)
  • Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL)
  • Technical University of Dortmund
  • Technical University of Lisbon
  • The Nature Conservancy (TNC)
  • United States Geological Survey – Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
  • Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Instituto de Ecología Aplicada (ECOLAP)
  • Università di Bologna
  • University College Cork, Insight Centre for Data Analytics
  • University of British Columbia
  • University of British Columbia
  • University of British Columbia,
  • University of Idaho,
  • University of Lleida – Artificial Intelligence Research Group
  • University of Maryland
  • University of Oxford
  • University of Sydney
  • University of Washington, Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST)
  • USDA Forest Service – International Programs
  • World Wildlife Fund (WWF)

The research leadership and contacts from all institutions are listed on the CompSustNet website.

In the coming weeks, months, and years, look here and to the CompSustNet website, for updates on CompSustNet activities, as well as for opportunities for participation with the network. Please tell us about computing research in computational sustainability, whether previously called by that name or not, and please tell us of efforts to effectively communicate computational sustainability research to the public.

Douglas H. Fisher is the Director of Outreach, Education, Diversity, and Synthesis for CompSustNet, and is an associate professor of computer science at Vanderbilt University.

Twitter: @compsust #compsustnet