Computational Sustainability: The Projects Of EcoHack

What happens when computer nerds turn their talents toward environmental projects? Glowing warnings about sewage overflows and deep dives into ancient ships’ logs.

Computational Sustainability: The Projects Of EcoHack
The hacks at the EcoHack conference were considerably more advanced… Flickr user Björn Söderqvist

Last weekend’s EcoHack conference, at NYU, showcased some fascinating–and inspiring–examples of how the Internet and heavy data-crunching can help solve environmental problems. Here are some highlights (the full list of participants is here).


Leif Percifield, a Parsons graduate, wants to do something about the 27 billion gallons of raw sewage dumped into New York’s harbor every year. His remote sensing system collects data from “combined sewage overflows,” so that residents can know when the sewers could be about to overflow. The aim is to get New Yorkers to think about whether to flush at that moment, and, in time, to help the DEP fix the larger problem. He’s currently fundraising on ioby.

Hacking deforestation

Robin Kraft, of REDD Metrics, is visualizing deforestation in near-real time. He said maps of forest-cutting normally show only year-to-year effects. By presenting “sub-annual data” in a compelling way, it’s possible to better understand the impact of government policies, and influences like commodity price movements on how fast we’re cutting trees and how many we have left.

Old Weather

Who cares about the weather in 1914? Stuart Lynn does. An astronomer by trade, Lynn explained how Old Weather wants to recover weather observations from British Navy logbooks. Why? Because such data is useful for scientists trying to build up a picture of historical weather patterns. The project has signed up over 20,000 online volunteers to transcribe the data into a useable format.


Transparency wins

Andy Rossmeissl, of Brighter Planet, which in its own words “has pioneered the practice of computational sustainability,” talked about the Climategate controversy. He argued that one cause of skepticism about climate change is that people are asked to trust the word of a few scientists. The alternative is a “science as service” model, where instead of being given the pre-prepared truth, citizens are able to interrogate the data themselves and see exactly how calculations are made. Armed with Brighter Planet’s carbon models, we might all become climate scientists.

Project Noah

Yasser Ansari presented Project Noah–a website that allows nature enthusiasts to send in their wildlife “observations.” Since launching 2010, the site has registered 75,000 users, from 211 countries, and received 116,000 such observations. Ansari described Project Noah as “Darwin’s Foursquare.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.