Computational Sustainability Virtual Seminar Series launches!

Dear Colleagues,

Stefano Ermon
Stanford Assistant Professor Stefano Ermon

We are pleased to kick-off the Computational Sustainability Virtual Seminar Series with a talk by Professor Stefano Ermon of Stanford University, co-author on ”Combining satellite imagery and machine learning to predict poverty” (Science, August 19, 2016) .

Anyone may register here to receive connection details on this Zoom webinar (it’s free!). Please distribute this link to others who may be interested, especially colleagues and students.

The Computational Sustainability Virtual Seminar Series first talk is scheduled for

Tuesday, September 27, 2016
4:00 – 5:00  pm Eastern Time (1:00 – 2:00 pm Pacific Time)

Measuring progress towards sustainable development goals with machine learning
Stefano Ermon, Stanford University

Recent technological developments are creating new spatio-temporal data streams that contain a wealth of information relevant to sustainable development goals. Modern AI techniques have the potential to yield accurate, inexpensive, and highly scalable models to inform research and policy. As a first example, I will present a machine learning method we developed to predict and map poverty in developing countries. Our method can reliably predict economic well-being using only high-resolution satellite imagery. Because images are passively collected in every corner of the world, our method can provide timely and accurate measurements in a very scalable end economic way, and could revolutionize efforts towards global poverty eradication. As a second example, I will present some ongoing work on monitoring agricultural and food security outcomes from space.ermon-map-of-poverty-092016

BIO: Stefano Ermon is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Stanford University, where he is affiliated with the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the Woods Institute for the Environment. He completed his PhD in computer science at Cornell in 2015. His research interests include techniques for scalable and accurate inference in graphical models, statistical modeling of data, large-scale combinatorial optimization, and robust decision making under uncertainty, and is motivated by a range of applications, in particular ones in the emerging field of computational sustainability. Stefano has won several awards, including two Best Student Paper Awards, one Runner-Up Prize, and a McMullen Fellowship.

The Computational Sustainability Virtual Seminar Series will present talks by researchers and educators in Computational Sustainability, and is being sponsored by CompSustNet, with support from the National Science Foundation’s Expeditions in Computing program.

Best regards,

Carla Gomes and Doug Fisher

Watch this video to learn more about the Ermon Lab’s “Combining Satellite Imagery and Machine Learning to predict poverty”

Event listing on the CompSustNet web site





CompSustNet collaborator Dr. Andrew Mude awarded 2016 Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application by World Food Prize Foundation

By Cornell University Professor Chris Barrett
Christopher B. Barrett is the Deputy Dean and Dean of Academic Affairs of the College of Business and the Stephen B. & Janice G. Ashley Professor of Applied Economics and Management and an International Professor of Agriculture in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, a Professor of Economics in the Department of Economics, and a Fellow in the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell University.

Dr. Andrew Mude, a research scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, earned his Ph.D at Cornell University

I first met Andrew when he was a first year Ph.D. candidate in Economics and he dropped by my office to chat about his interests in development, particularly in Africa. We had many stimulating conversations and I wound up supervising his dissertation, which ranged from applied microeconomic theory applied to questions of microfinance and informal lending for education – a common practice in rural Kenya – to empirical work on the functioning of farmers cooperatives based on original survey data he collected in rural Kenya.  Toward the end of his doctoral studies, Andrew worked as my research assistant on a project using data from the Kenyan government’s early warning system in the pastoral drylands. As we studied those data we uncovered systematic patterns that led us to believe that one might be able to predict herd losses statistically with some precision.

L-R: Andrew Mude (ILRI), Chris Barrett (Cornell University), Brenda Wandera (ILRI), two Ethiopian herders, Birhanu Taddesse (ILRI).  Dr. Mude working with colleagues from IRLI and Cornell University to retrofit and secure GPS-enabled tracking collars for cattle in the Borena region of Ethiopia.
L-R: Andrew Mude (ILRI), Chris Barrett (Cornell University), Brenda Wandera (ILRI), two Ethiopian herders, Birhanu Taddesse (ILRI). Dr. Mude working with colleagues from IRLI and Cornell University to retrofit and secure GPS-enabled tracking collars for cattle in the Borena region of Ethiopia.

Another of my Ph.D. students, Sommarat Chantarat (Economics PhD 2009) then took up the challenge of designing an index-based livestock insurance (IBLI) contract in her dissertation, which won national and international awards. Dr. Chantarat, Dr. Mude – who moved to the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) after completing his Cornell degree — and I worked closely with other partners to get IBLI designed and commercially piloted beginning in early 2010. We have had an extensive collaborative work agreement with Dr. Mude’s team at ILRI since 2008, which has supported Dr. Chantarat’s work as well as a more recent Ph.D., Nathan Jensen (AEM, 2014) whose dissertation evaluating the impacts and uptake of IBLI also won international recognition. This has been an especially enjoyable, fruitful, and impactful collaboration, which we are delighted continues quite actively today. The range of projects we have undertaken together has broadened over time, increasingly including computationally intensive work with Institute for Computational Sustainability  faculty and staff.

Andrew_playing_IBLI_Game_in_Kargi_D87A7A6606BF2This work to help address systemic risk among some of the poorest and most marginalized populations in the world is tremendously important and exciting. It is an enormous privilege to work with a collaborator as talented, committed and kind as Dr. Mude.

Click here to read the  press release by International Livestock Research Institute, all rights reserved, 2016

Working across borders is essential for birds, but also people

Opinion originally published in The Hill on August 26, 2016
By Amanda D. Rodewald
With political divisiveness so often headlining the news, how refreshing it is to celebrate a centennial that demonstrates the power of countries coming together. One hundred years ago, the United States and Great Britain (for Canada) came together for birds when they signed the Migratory Bird Treaty, a convention to protect migratory birds across international borders.
At the time, populations of many birds were plummeting due to poorly regulated hunting. The plume trade, for which an estimated 5 million birds — especially waterbirds like egrets and herons — were killed each year for feathers to adorn hats, eventually incited people to action. In response, the landmark treaty and subsequent act to enforce it (the Migratory Bird Treaty Act) protected more than 1,100 migratory bird species by making it illegal to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill or sell live or dead birds, feathers, eggs and nests, except as permitted through hunting regulations for game birds.
What made this treaty particularly inspiring was that President Woodrow Wilson and King George V made the pledge amid the chaos of World War I. Soon after, the treaty was used as a model for similar agreements with Mexico (in 1936), Japan (1972) and Russia (1976). The Migratory Bird Treaties and subsequent international collaborations to conserve birds show how, when taken together, these global and hemispheric actions are far more than the sum of their parts. Collectively, these efforts are paving a path forward to protect birds and the ecosystems on which both birds and people depend.

International efforts are necessary to conserve migratory birds because birds don’t recognize geopolitical borders. Over the course of a year, songbirds, like the magnolia warbler, may spend 80 days breeding in the boreal forests of the northern U.S. and Canada, 30 days at resting and refueling sites during migration, and over 200 days overwintering in Latin American countries like Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras.

Looking back at the last 100 years, it’s heartening to see that where we acted together, we had success. The plume trade was virtually halted, and populations of herons, egrets and ibises rebounded. Waterfowl, too, have benefited tremendously from multinational habitat restoration and careful hunting management, in part guided by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan and transformative legislation like the North American Wetlands Conservation Act that leveraged billions in funding for restoration and conservation of over 30 million acres in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Hunters and sportspeople were instrumental in this success, as they became the key drivers of conservation. Our investments have paid off: Populations of waterfowl and other waterbirds have increased, and the wetlands protected along the way now keep our drinking water clean and reduce flood risk.

But we need to do more. Unlike a century ago, when hunting decimated bird populations, today’s threats are more insidious. Birds are often collateral damage when habitat is lost and exotic species invade, and they are further endangered by collision with buildings and other structures, contamination, and even seemingly innocuous choices like letting our cats roam freely outdoors. These pervasive threats span geopolitical borders and, consequently, are best addressed through coordinated international action. Indeed, the recent “The State of North America’s Birds 2016” report indicates that without conservation action, over one-third of all North American bird species are at risk of extinction.

As we approach the next 100 years of conservation, we must remember that bird conservation is not only about birds; it’s about people, as well. We derive so many benefits from healthy bird populations, including pollination, seed dispersal, insect control and other ecosystem services. Birds also help us to understand the world around us and connect us with nature. And birds are a critical economic resource as well. Activities like hunting and birdwatching contribute billions of dollars to the U.S. economy alone. In fact, the North American Bird Conservation Initiative was originally created by the governments of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico in 1999 to recognize birds as an international “natural economic resource.”

The bottom line is that habitats healthy for birds are also healthy for people. We must work with diverse partners and stakeholders to identify conservation approaches, like sustainable forestry, that meet the needs of local communities and conserve birds and other species. Looking ahead, I believe that an integrated approach, where social and ecological needs are both accommodated, will be the hallmark of the next century of bird conservation.

Rodewald is the Garvin Professor of ornithology and director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University, and faculty fellow at Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. Views expressed in her column are hers alone and do not represent those of these institutions.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

The Institute for Computational Sustainability supports Code Red club

By Christianne White and Karina Burbank

The Institute for Computational Sustainability was proud to support Ithaca High School’s Code Red club’s  2016 build and competition. The Code Red Robotics Team 639 is part of the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) groups founded by Dean Kamen. In 2016 more than 75,000 students in more than 3,000 teams in 10 countries participated in 74 regional competitions that led to 1 championship competition. ICS supported the local Ithaca High School team Code Red during the six-week build session when students and their mentors design, build and test a robot, and then participate in successive rounds of competition.   Institute for Computational Sustainability especially admires the teamwork and creative problem-solving fostered by Code Red, which will prepare students well for further study in computer science, engineering, and design.

At Code Red students get help and advice from Ithaca High tech teachers but also mentors from the world outside the school. Karina Burbank, Code Red’s public relations officer writes, “Many of these mentors are engineers or other business professionals in the community, who give their time to help students during build season. While Code Red is a student-led team and we always make sure our students are involved and make major decisions, our mentors are vital to our success. They advise and guide students, helping every team member learn as much as possible, each day. This past season, we were lucky to have 16 community mentors.”

Freshman member Julian Perry works on the 2016 robot Predator’s frame, under the guidance of team mentors. This robot was designed, built and assembled during the 6-week build season.

Luvelle Brown, superintendent of Ithaca City School District commented on the relevancy of the club,” Code Red Robotics has done the best job of any program in the district that I can think of at truly integrating technology, at relationship-building between students and adults, and relevancy, making the curriculum come alive in a way that engages and makes the work important to young people.”

Anyone is welcome to join, and students can participate in a number of ways, so it’s not just for tech-trained nerds or kids who are super smart in math and physics.  Many kids participate all four years of high school even though the time commitment during the six weeks of ‘build’ commits them to at least 31 hours each week over and above their regular classes and homework.

Seniors Pooja Reddy and Kenzo Uchigasaki work together on the 2016 robot frame, even as electronic components are being installed at the front. The team's electronics subteam designs and assembles all of the robot's electronics. Other subteams handle programming, media, CAD, and machining.
Seniors Pooja Reddy and Kenzo Uchigasaki work together on the 2016 robot frame, even as electronic components are being installed at the front. The team’s electronics subteam designs and assembles all of the robot’s electronics. Other subteams handle programming, media, CAD, and machining.

From January to March, Code Red designs and builds their robot to meet the challenge sent out by FIRST, and develops their strategy to use during competitions.    Karina explains, “This challenge is different every year, but it’s always some sort of game that has two alliances of three robots competing against each other. This year’s game was called FIRST Stronghold, and our robot had to cross a series of defenses like a drawbridge, portcullis, and other similar things, as well as shoot balls into a goal, and pull itself up on a five-foot high bar.”

For some students, it’s all about winning, and Code Red did very well during 2016.  Karina let us know that, ”This year, we won the Fingerlakes Regional competition, as well as the Engineering Inspiration Award at Fingerlakes Regional (which celebrates outreach and education about STEM and robotics in a community), both of which qualified us for World Championships. At World Championships, we placed 6th in our division, and got to our division’s semi-finals as an alliance leader. (There are so many teams at champs that they are divided into several, simultaneously playing divisions.) This puts us in the top 2% of teams world-wide this year.”

The FIRST competitions are designed so teams must form alliances and cooperate with other teams in order to win. A few years ago Code Red was instrumental in helping nearby Trumansburg form a team, and this year Trumansburg’s team brought a great robot to competition. In April Team 639:Code Red Robotics posted on their Facebook page,” We’re going to elimination matches!! We won our last qualification match, placing us in 6th place in our division! This means that tomorrow, we will be able to select our own alliance to compete with in the finals. We think that this is the first time in Code Red history that we’ve been alliance captain in Champs elimination rounds, though we’ve participated as part of an alliance before.’  The Ithaca Journal reported that Trumansburg’s team co-founder Kevin Griswold was grateful to Ithaca’s Code Red team, “In our first year when we first formed the team, the whole group of us attended Code Red’s first meeting just to see how they ran things and to use them in a leadership role and as a role model for how we wanted to project ourselves,” Griswold said. “It’s only grown from there. Last year, we collaborated on a few practice runs to compete and practice against each other and did that again this year at the end of build season just to have another team to practice with.”

Code Red is not just about building robots. Karina helped us understand the wider scope of the club’s activities.  “Outside of the build season, we do a lot of community service and demos. This past year, there were 56 students on our team and we estimate that in total, including the individual community service we ask our team members to do, we did about 2,360 hours of community service. We also frequently do demonstrations and presentations about our robot and engineering, especially to young kids at the Sciencenter, 4-H, and local schools. Community service and outreach is a huge part of our team, and we always try to be as active in our community as possible, and help spread knowledge about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) to our community.”  Casey Dill, a Code Red and IHS  alumnus says, ”It’s a team that’s really trying to help the community,  teaching people and getting the younger generation excited about robotics and engineering before they ever get to the high school. Younger kids get a light in their eyes when they see what’s going on.”

Senior Kieran Loehr and junior Abigail Lee talk about the 2014 robot (now used as a demo robot) at the YMCA Healthy Kids Day. At the demo events team members show kids how the robot moves and plays games, and encourage them to come up to touch the robot and ask questions.
Senior Kieran Loehr and junior Abigail Lee talk about the 2014 robot (now used as a demo robot) at the YMCA Healthy Kids Day. At the demo events team members show kids how the robot moves and plays games, and encourage them to come up to touch the robot and ask questions.

Professor Gomes likes to support projects that are both competitive and cooperative, like Code Red.  She is recognized as a leader in the computational sustainability field, having received a second 10-million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation to develop the field of Computational Sustainability, so her own projects are both cutting-edge and collaborative, bringing together multiple scientists and institutions from a wide range of fields.

To see Team 639 in action watch this documentary produced by Ithaca College students.


IHS junior Code Red member Abigail Lee and mentor Jim Bedore volunteer with Code Red at the Ithaca Sciencenter outdoor playground. Code Red frequently volunteers as a team around Ithaca, to clean up parks, work at the Ithaca Children's Gardens, and more.
IHS junior Code Red member Abigail Lee and mentor Jim Bedore volunteer with Code Red at the Ithaca Sciencenter outdoor playground. Code Red frequently volunteers as a team around Ithaca, to clean up parks, work at the Ithaca Children’s Gardens, and more.



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

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