UCL Fossil Fuel Divestment debate

UCL organised a debate about fossil fuel divestment, with 7 knowledgeable speakers (all professors), raising argument for and against the suggestion that UCL should divest from fossil fuels and sell its £21million invested in the industry. In the room and on the panel there were more people who supported the motion than those who opposed it. Interestingly, at the end of the discussion more people switched to support divestment. I took notes of the positions and what people mentioned as a way to map the different views that were expressed. So here are my notes, the tl;dr point of each argument and something about my view at the end of this longish post.

Anthony Costello opened the debate and discuss that research from UCL provided evidence to justify the Guardian ‘keep it in the ground‘ campaign. The aim of the debate is to explore different views and see what the general views of the people who attended it.

Richard Horton, the editor of the Lancet opened with some comments officially Chaired the debate – there is a movement around divestment from fossil fuel that is very rapidly growing across society and different places. Universities are special in their role in society – they are creator of knowledge about public policy issues, but they are also a moral space within society, where position can be taken. Some of UK universities decided to divest – Glasgow, SOAS. Other university didn’t decide – e.g. Oxford. It is appropriate to ask what UCL should do, it is leading on considering the impacts of climate change on society at large – e.g. risk to health?

Chris Rapley, opened with nothing that we are the first humans to breath at 400ppm of CO in the atmosphere as a basic composition  – it is above the levels for the last 800,000 years. 40% rise is the same increment between ice age and interglacial age. The change is taking place 100 times faster than anything natural. The conclusion is that it is unwise to increase above 2C from pre-industrial levels, and we have very little left to burn. 80% of coal and 50% of oil are unburnable – we don’t have a solution for carbon capture and storage yet. The first reason to divest is that it’s prudent – it’s the energy of the past, and renewable are the future. The valuations are a bubble so it is best to put the money elsewhere. second point, we need to be put on a trajectory away from fossil fuel by this December – and lot of issues play out in Paris will not be ratified until 2020. We need to connect the trajectory that we are currently on and the future one, so we do it properly. The CEOs of BP and Shell suggested business as usual, and the recent budget gave 1.2 billion to North Sea oil, so the government is not following its own statement. UCL as radical thinker need to do a gesture in the right direction. We are all part of a web of carbon intensive world, and we need to manage the transition.

My TL;DR Rapley: Science is showing the need combined with need to change trajectory 

Jane Holder argued for divestment from the point of view of a teacher of environmental law. The meaning for teaching and learning – the movement that has gone on for the past 20 and more years to increase environmental education at university level. Helping students to deal with contested knowledge, uncertainty and environmental issues. UCL has done a lot of work over the years – changes to the estate and the curriculum, from this perspective, the UCL campaign make a connection between the estate, curriculum and its finance. There is linkages between environmental education and the learning and teaching of UCL. Significance of informal curriculum – the intangible way in which institution instil values in students – there is publicness of university building and the way it treat staff. Secondly, there are broader changes in university – in terms of education, students explained that since tuition fees, the student is viewed as a consumer, and not citizens of the university community. The divestment campaign allow students to act as citizens and not consumer. University is a site for environmental activity and the roles should be combined.

My TL;DR Holder: teaching and learning imperatives and finance is part of it. 

Anthony Finkelstein argued, this is not question of expertise, starting point that accepting the need to change – but expect to see change in energy sources happening with technological advances. The speed and extent of change is complex feedback systems. Generally, he adopts a precautionary view. However, fossil fuel will be part of our future because of their properties – we need to deal with consumption and not production. Consumption is within a political context and the condemnation of fossil fuel is about political failure. UCL should invest according to regulatory aspects. Ownership of asset can be used to exert influence, the concern is about research and UCL strategy – it’s hypocritical to use money from fossil fuel companies for research, but not to invest in them – it sends the wrong message. A lot of research in engineering is supported by fossil fuel companies – also raise the issue of academic freedom. It is not right to ask or to question ethics of people you disagree with. (see the full argument on Anthony’s blog)

My TL;DR Finkelstein: deal with consumption and not production, we are using a lot of funding from fossil fuel companies and there is a risk to academic freedom. 

Hugh Montgomery – fossil fuel helped humanity, but it need to stop. Energy gain to the planet is equivalent to 5 Hiroshima bombs a second. 7% will stay 100,000 years. Health impacts will be in all sort of directions – and these concern also among military bodies, or the WHO. Not only from ‘extreme left wing’ organisations. Even to reach 2C we have 27 years or even more like 19 years – if we are to act, we have to keep 2/3 of fossil fuel in the ground. There is over-exposure to stranded assets. Why divestment? it’s not ‘rabid anti-capitalist agenda’ – we should change market forces. The aim of the divestment is to force fossil fuel companies to go through transformative change. UCL should do what is right, not only the amount of money, but as a statement. The stigmatisation will be significant to fossil fuel companies.

My TL;DR Montgomery: it’s not only left wing politics, even if you are fairly conservative in outlook, this make sense. 

Jane Rendell – stated that she concerned about the environment and stood down from the Bartlett research vice-dean position because of BHP Billiton funding. Leading on ethics and the built environment in the Bartlett. From her view, investment in fossil fuel is not compatible with UCL research strategy of dealing with judicious application of knowledge to improve humanity. The investment is incompatible with its own ethical guidelines and its environmental strategy. It’s also incompatible with UCL research itself about the need to leave fossil fuel in the ground. The most profound change will come from breaking down practices of finance – it’s not acceptable for fund manager to hide behind claims to ignore their responsibility to everyone else. The only argument is for shareholder engagement, and there is no evidence for it – as well as Porritt declared recently about the uselessness of engagement.

My TL;DR Rendell: incompatibility with UCL policies, and there is no point in engagement. 

Alan Penn – Universities should concentrate in their place in society – relatively new institutions and important in generation of knowledge and passing it to future generation. The ability to critically question the world. We are all invested in this companies – we benefiting from tax from North Sea oil, pension funds. Arguing that money is just transactional property and therefore doesn’t hold value. Arguing that people should invest and force companies to change through engagement.

My TL;DR Penn: don’t mix money with values, and if you want change, buy controlling stake in shares.

After the discussion (with Anthony Finkelstein having to defend his position more than anyone else), there was more support for divestment, although most of the room started from that point of view.

Finally, my view – I’ve started my university studies in October 1991, and as I was getting interested in environment and society issues in my second year of combined Computer Science and Geography degree, the Earth Summit in Rio (June 1992) was all the rage. The people who taught me have been in the summit – that also explains how I got interested in Principle 10 of the Rio declaration which is central to my work. This biographical note is to point that Earth Summit was also the starting point for the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which opens with

The Parties to this Convention,
Acknowledging that change in the Earth’s climate and its adverse effects are a common concern of humankind,
Concerned that human activities have been substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, that these increases enhance the natural greenhouse effect, and that this will result on average in an additional warming of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere and may adversely affect natural ecosystems and humankind …

So for the past 23 years, I’ve been watching from the sidelines how the decision makers are just not getting to the heart of the matter, nor acting although they are told about the urgency. The science was clear then. If the actions of government and industries started in 1992 we could have all been well on the route for sustainability (at least in energy consumption). It was absolutely clear that the necessary technologies are already around. I therefore find the argument of shareholders engagement as unrealistic at this stage, nor do I see the link between investment, where you don’t have control over the actions of the company, and careful decision on which research project to carry out in collaboration and under which conditions. This why I have supported the call to UCL to divest.

 

I still need to find the time to write the academic paper to follow my blog post about the role of my research area in fossil fuel exploration

nQuire-it/Sense-it – discovering sensors in your phone

Sense-it Light sensor Sense-it Sound
The Open University, with support from Nominet Trust and UTC Sheffield have launched  the nQuire-it.org website, which seem to have a great potential for running citizen science activities. The nQuire platform allows participants to create science inquiry ‘missions’. It is accompanied by an Android app called Sense-it that exposed all the sensors that are integrated in a smartphone and let you see what they are doing and the values that they are showing.

The process of setting up a project on the nQuire-it site is fairly quick and you can figure it out in few clicks. Then, joining the project that you’ve created on the phone is also fairly simple, and the integration with Google, Facebook and Twitter accounts mean that linking the profiles is quick. Then you can get few friends to start using it, and the Sense-it app let you collect the data and then share it with other participants in the project on the nQuire website. Then participants can comment on the data, ask questions about how it was produced and up or down vote it. All these make nQuire a very suitable place for experimentation with sensors in smartphones and prototyping citizen science activities. It also provides an option for recording geographic location, and it good to see that it’s disabled by default, so the project designer need to actively switch it on.

The value of “analog” user experience

I’ve been using 37Signals’ Basecamp now for over 5 years. I’m involved in many projects with people from multiple departments and organisations. In the first large project that I run in 2007 – Mapping Change for Sustainable Communities – Basecamp was recommended to us by Nick Black (just before he co-founded CloudMade), so we’ve started using it. Since then, it was used for 33 projects and activities which range from coordinating writing an academic paper to running a large multidisciplinary group. In some projects it was used a lot in other it didn’t work as well. As with any other information system, the use of it depends on needs and habits of different users and not only on the tool itself.

It is generally an excellent tool to organise messages, information and documents about projects and activities and act well as a repository of project related information – but project management software is not what this post is about.

I’m sure that in the scheme of things, we are a fairly small users of Basecamp. Therefore, I was somewhat surprised to receive a card from 37Signals. 
I’m fairly passive user of Basecamp as far as 37Signals are concerned – I’m please with what it does, but I have not contacted them with requests or anything like that. So getting this hand-written card was a very nice touch from a company that could very easily wrote the code to send me an email with the same information – but that wouldn’t be the same in terms of emotional impact.

As Sherry Turkle is noting in her recent book, the human contact is valuable and appreciated. This is important and lots of times undervalued aspect of communication and interaction – the analog channels are there and can be very effective. This blog post – and praising 37Signals for making this small effort, is an example of why it is worth doing it.

Geographical Citizen Science

The London Citizen Cyberscience Summit in early September was a stimulating event, which brought together a group of people with an interest in this area. A report from the event, with a very good description of the presentations, including a reflection piece, is available on the ‘Strange Attractor’ blog.

During the summit, I discussed the aspects of ‘Extreme’ Citizen Science, where we move from usual science to participatory research. The presentation was partly based on a paper that I wrote and that I presented during the workshop on the value of Volunteered Geographical Information in advancing science, which was run as part of the GIScience 2010 conference towards the middle of September. Details about the workshop are available on the workshop’s website including a set of interesting position papers.

The presentation below covers the topics that I discussed in both workshops. Here, I provide a brief synopsis for the presentation, as it is somewhat different from the paper.

In the talk, I started by highlighting that by using different terminologies we can notice different facets of the practice of crowd data collection (VGI within the GIScience community, crowdsourcing, participatory mapping …).

The first way in which we can understand this information is in the context of Web 2.0 applications. These applications can be non-spatial (such as Wikipedia or Twitter), or implicitly spatial (such as Flickr – you need to be in a location before you can capture a photograph), or explicitly spatial , in applications that are about collecting geographical information – for example OpenStreetMap. When looking at VGI from the perspective of Web 2.0 it’s possible to identify the specific reasons that it emerged and how other similar applications influence its structure and practices.

The second way to view this information is as part of geographical information produced by companies who need mapping information (such as Google or TomTom). In this case, you notice that it’s about reducing the costs of labour and the need for active or passive involvement of the person who carries out the mapping.

The third, and arguably new way to view VGI is as part of Citizen Science. These activities have been going for a long time in ornithology and in meteorology. However, there are new forms of Citizen Science that rely on ICT – such as movement-activated cameras (slide 11 on the left) that are left near animal trails and are operated by volunteers, or a network of accelerometers that form a global earthquake monitoring network. Not all Citizen Science is spatial, and there are very effective examples, especially in the area of Citizen Cyberscience. So in this framing of VGI we can pay special attention to the collection of scientific information. Importantly, as in the case of spatial application, some volunteers become experts, such as Hanny van Arkel who has discovered a type of galaxy in Galaxy Zoo.

Slides 16-17 show the distribution of crowdsourced images, and emphasise the spatial distribution of information near population centres and tourist attractions. Slides 19-25 show the analysis of the data that was collected by OpenStreetMap volunteers and highlight bias towards highly populated and affluent areas.

Citizen Science is not just about the data collections. There are also cultural problems regarding the trustworthiness of the data, but slides 28-30 show that the data is self-improving as more volunteers engage in the process (in this case, mapping in OpenStreetMap). On that basis, I do question the assumption about trustworthiness of volunteers and the need to change the way we think about projects. There are emerging examples of such Citizen Science where the engagement of participants is at a higher level. For example, noise mapping activities that a community near London City Airport carried out (slides 34-39) which shows that people can engage in science and are well placed when there are opportunities, such as the ash cloud in April 2010, to collect ‘background’ noise. This is not possible without the help of communities.
Finally, slides 40 and 41 demonstrate that it is possible to engage non-literate users in environmental data collection.

So in summary, a limitless Citizen Science is possible – we need to create the tool for it and understand how to run such projects, as well study them.

Computers and the Renaissance of Cartography (1976)

While sorting out our departmental GIS library, I came across a small booklet titled Computers and the Renaissance of Cartography from 1976. It was written by Dr Tom Margerison, the first editor of New Scientist, and describes the activities of the Experimental Cartography Unit (ECU), which pioneered the use of computers for geographical and cartographical applications. Though Prof. David Rhind told me that the description should be taken with a pinch of salt, and that there are alternative accounts.

Interestingly, the ECU operated within the Royal College of Art to encourage new designs and innovations in map making. It was established in 1967 and operated until the late 1980s.
The booklet provides a description of the main processes of assembling maps at the ECU in the middle of the 1970s, and what is especially interesting is to see some amazing outputs of maps from that time, which, unlike the typical crude output of Symap, are beautiful and clear.
I have asked Dan Lewis, who was involved in the digitising of the CATMOG catalogue of booklets about quantitative methods in geography, to turn this booklet into PDF format so we can share it. Dan put some of the maps on his blog .

If you want to download the booklet – it is now available here.

Today is a good day to publish this booklet, following the announcement that Prof. Peter Woodsford, who was among the founders of Laser-Scan (now 1Spatial), received an MBE for his services to the geographic information industry in the Queen’s birthday honours list, and it was the equipment of Laser-Scan that enabled the creation of these maps.

The end of the ‘ARC/INFO driving licence’ era

The discussion about the future of the GIS ‘profession’ has flared up in recent days – see the comments from Sean Gorman, Steven Feldman (well, citing me) and Don Meltz among others. My personal perspective is about the educational aspect of this debate.

I’ve been teaching GIS since 1995, and been involved in the MSc in GIS at UCL since 1998 – teaching on it since 2001. Around 1994 I was contemplating the excellent MSc in GIS programme in Edinburgh, though I opted to continue with my own mix of geography and computer science, which turned out to be great in the end – but I can say that I have been following the trends in GIS education for quite a while.

Based on this experience, I would argue that the motivation for studying an MSc in GIS over the past 20 years was to get the ‘ARC/INFO driving licence’. I use ARC/INFO as a metaphor – you can replace it with any other package, but ARC/INFO was the de facto package for teaching GIS (and its predecessor ArcGIS is today), so it is suitable shorthand. What I mean by that is that for a long time GIS packages were hard to use and required a significant amount of training in order to operate successfully. Even if a fairly simple map was needed, the level of technical knowledge and the number of steps required were quite significant. So employers, who mostly wanted someone who could make them maps, recruited people who gained skills in operating the complex packages that allow the production of maps.

The ‘ARC/INFO driving licence’ era included an interesting dissonance – the universities were telling themselves that they were teaching the principles of GIScience but the students were mostly interested in learning how to operate a GIS at a proficient level to get a job. I’ve seen and talked with enough students to recognise that many of them, in their daily jobs, rarely used the spatial statistical analysis that we were teaching and they mostly worked at ‘taming the beast’, which GIS was.

As expected, at UCL there was always a group that was especially interested in the principles of GIScience and that continued their studies beyond the MSc. But they are never the majority of the cohort.

The model worked well for everyone – universities were teaching GIS by a combination of principles and training of specific packages and the students found jobs at the end and joined GIS departments in different organisations.

The disruption that changed this arrangement started in the late 1990s, with Oracle Spatial starting to show that GIS can be integrated in mainstream products. The whole process accelerated around 2005 with the emergence of GeoWeb, Free and Open Source GIS (FOSS GIS) and the whole range of applications that come with it. Basically, you don’t need a licence any more. More and more employers (even GIS consultancies) are not recruiting from GIS education programmes – they are taking computing professionals and teaching them the GIS skills. Going through an MSc in GIS to be proficient with a tool is not necessary.

So in an era in which you don’t need a licence to join the party, what is the MSc in GIS for?

The answer is that it can be the time when you focus on principles and on improving specific skills. Personally, that was my route to education. I started working in GIS software development without much more than high school education in 1988. After hearing people around me talking about registers, bugs, polygons and databases I was convinced that I must understand these principles properly. So I went for a degree that provided me with the knowledge. In the same way, I would expect that MSc programmes cater for the needs of people who gain some practical experience with operating geospatial technologies and want to learn the principles or become specialists in specific aspects of these systems.

We already see people doing the MSc while working with GIS – currently studying an MSc by distance learning or in the evening is very popular and I expect that this will continue. However, the definition of what is covered by GIS must be extended – it should include everything from Bing Maps API to PostGIS to ArcGIS.

I can also see the need for specialised courses – maybe to focus on the technical development of geospatial technologies or maybe on spatial statistical analysis for those who want to become geographical information analysts. I would also expect much more integration of GIS with other fields of study where it is taught as a tool – just look at the many MSc programmes that currently include GIS. I’m already finding myself teaching students of urban design, development planning or asset management.
All in all, I’m not going to feel sorry that the ‘ARC/INFO driving licence’ era is coming to its end.

UPDATE: a more detailed version of this post appeared in Cartographica, and can be accessed here or email me to receive a copy.

Terra Future 2009 – OpenStreetMap and Ordnance Survey

I have checked on Twitter to see how the follow-up meeting to Terra Future 2009, last Friday, went. It was a very pleasant surprise to see that the idea that I have put forward in February, that the Ordnance Survey should consider hosting OpenStreetMap and donate some data to it, was voted the best idea that came out of Terra Future 2009. With this sort of peer-review of the idea, and with the added benefit of 2 months for rethinking, I still think that it is quite a good idea.

The most important aspect of this idea is to understand that OpenStreetMap and Ordnance Survey can both thrive in the GeoWeb era. Despite the imaginary competition, each has a clear value to certain parts of the marketplace. There are a very clear benefits that the OpenStreetMap community can gain from working closely with the Ordnance Survey – such as some aspects of mapping that the Ordnance Survey are highly knowledgeable about, and vice versa, such as how to innovate in delivery of geographical information. A collaborative model might work after all…

I wonder how this idea will evolve now?