From: Issue 39
The Web of Sustainability
Page 3 of 4
Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the world's first website in 1991. Two decades later his World Wide Web has become a force for environmental and social good.
Sawadogo has shared his approach with locals over the past two decades, and through word-of-mouth other farmers have successfully deployed the technique. More than half a million hectares (1.2 million acres) of infertile land in Niger and Burkina Faso has been re-greened, resulting in crops that are creating jobs and feeding the hungry.
But there’s potential for so much more. “You reach physical limits,” explained Stephane Boyera, a program manager at the foundation. He said the face-to-face exchange of ideas can only go so far and move so fast. Knowledge becomes locked in geographic silos. The challenge is to take local pockets of wisdom and innovation and share them on a much larger scale, in a way that is accessible to a mostly illiterate population.
The foundation is trying to break down these barriers using voice-based technologies, leveraging the fact that most farm families or communities have access to a mobile phone. The voice-interaction system being set up makes it possible for farmers to use their mobile phones to contribute to or retrieve content from the web, regardless of their reading skills or the dialect they speak. Local radio stations can access the information the same way, allowing knowledge in a web repository – such as the farming techniques pioneered by Sawadogo – to be broadcast throughout remote communities in the region.
“Clearly, the role of the web here is to enable sharing of solutions among people facing the same problems,” said Boyera.
Taking the Planet's Pulse
Further amplifying the sharing power of the web is a new generation of wireless devices, sensors and “apps” that are allowing us to collect and make accessible an unprecedented amount of raw data about the world around us.
“This is what the whole Internet of things is about,” said Peter Williams, chief technology officer of Big Green Innovations at IBM. “You can sense traffic conditions, water conditions, energy usage, air pollution, and so on. Typically today this is all Internet-enabled and accessible through a website.”
We have sensors for buildings that can detect natural sunlight levels and automatically adjust inside lighting to save energy, while carbon-dioxide sensors can tell if a room is empty (by detecting the absence of breathing) and turn off fixtures. We can capture the movement of cars and people by picking up their cellphone signals and mapping them on the web, allowing city officials to better manage traffic flows.
Increasingly, we have the ability to monitor how much electricity the devices and appliances in our home are consuming in real time. Using the web, we can access this stored data, look at our historical usage patterns, compare how we’re doing against our neighbours and other communities, and learn how to reduce our energy use. This is the basis for smart buildings, smart cities, smart homes and smart grids of the future.
But we’re just scratching the surface, said Williams. “There are wristwatches now that connect to your cellphone and beam instant information about ozone and noise levels in a city.” The Green Watch project in Paris does exactly that, taking regular readings from dozens of pollution-monitoring watches worn by citizen volunteers. The data is uploaded to a web platform called Citypulse and available for all to see.
In Copenhagen, Denmark, bicycles equipped with sensors are being used for the same purpose. “You really have sensor platforms on all kinds of things now,” Williams added. “They even have sensors hanging on the necks of cows that measure the methane they’re producing and grass they’re eating.”
The newfound ability to gather and share information has ushered in the era of citizen science – a form of what is sometimes called crowdsourcing – where anyone with a smart phone can contribute to our knowledge of the world. Web-based technologies, in effect, are helping us to become better stewards of the planet and watchdogs for humanity.