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Tusind Tak Copenhagen!

So the CompSust2012 Conference is over and our mixed band of computer scientists, ecologists, operation researchers, engineers, urban planners (and more) are dispersing back to their homes in Denmark, Jordan, Uganda, Italy, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada and the USA (and that’s just people I talked to, who am I missing?).

I think everyone would agree it a was a very well run conference and very productive. Over powerpoint slides, posters, food and even beer we all gained insights into challenging computational and sustainability problems and topics we probably didn’t know about before we came.

We all know finding ways to improve the sustainability is full of important and challenging problems, but it a different thing to see exactly what people are struggling with around the world and what solutions they have found.

For example, did you know that…

  • if you count of all the wireless devices people have access to that the locations of about one third humanity is knowable in principle? Paul Luckowicz described this and other amazing facts about what he calls our digital shadows to us during his Master class discussion on Wednesday. This data can be used for good or for ill but it will be used; so it’s best to start thinking and planning for it, that’s what his FuturICT project is looking at.
  • the widespread use of Linear programming techniques for policy making was essentially kickstarted in the 1970s by the success of these methods at predicting the end of oil independence in US as demand grew? Warren Powell gave a rousing and thought provoking Master class seminar on the broad area of stochastic optimization in dynamic domains and described how he believes a broad range of methods from different communities can work together if there is increased communication between researchers.
  • in Uganda, smart phones with internet connectivity are becoming so common it is assumed that most research projects using technology to help with sustainability will utilize them? So that’s what John Quinn is doing. His machine learning group in Uganda is creating solutions for automated data collection and disease diagnosis using Android phones to augment the restricted access to trained experts on the ground. Their applications range from malaria detection, to plant disease spread to traffic monitoring.
  • owning and powering a fully electric car uses about as much power as an entire household? Hartmut Schmeck pointed out that the concern is not just that this costs a lot of money or uses energy, but also puts a huge new load on power systems already at their maximum level at the local distribution level. Several talks friday morning by Nick Jennings, Hartmut Schmeck and Holger Hermanns described these kinds of power grid challenges in the UK, Germany and elsewhere. The good news is there are ways to make this manageable if we are smart about it. The really good news is there are challenging computational research problems about how to do that.
  • some day your house might be able to learn it own customized weather forecast? It will do this by tracking the actual weather outside and learning how it drifts from the predicted regional forecasts, allowing your house to better manage it’s energy usage. This is one of the projects Nick Jennings is working which he talked about in his plenary talk.
  • some day consumers may be able to band together to demand better or more sustainable policies from their service providers such as power companies? Well, that’s already happening and researchers are using the techniques of co-operative game theory to work out how it would work.

This is just a sample of some of the topics from the plenary talks alone, there were also great parallel track talks on energy management, species distribution modeling and conservation planning, water management, social analysis and incentives and how to integrate computational sustainability into computer science education.

The full program can be found here and many of the slides from talks will be up on line at the conference website when they become available.

Finally, I’ll end this little summary where Carla Gomes began the conference, with her inspiration for the field of Computational Sustainability. She described it as being part of the evolution of Computer Science into what could be considered a third age. The first age included working out the practicalities or hardware, computation and networks; the second included, among other things, the creation of the powerful abstractions of artificial intelligence and machine learning. The third age involves these and other advances of computer science reaching out an integrating with other disciplines to bring the power of computational thinking to bear on the world’s most challenging problems.

Few problems are more challenging than how to make our growing civilization sustainable on the finite resources of the Earth; but that is what Computational Sustainability faces and it looks like we’re well on our way to contributing to meeting this challenge.

If you went to CompSust2012 keep the discussion going :