Sustainability: how can open data help?

John Spanton from Valtech.

“I was keen to run a session on sustainability and how open data can help. I thought I’d start with a bit of fun.” [Slide: a set of stripes – actually, temperature change in Manchester over time, showing it’s getting hotter!]

Who else was in the room? Researchers and companies looking at sustainability in different sectors, from transport to universities, and local authorities to energy. John asked them about their experiences of working with open data.

A speaker from the transport sector said they used open data to try and give individuals an idea of how much carbon they could save, by going by rail rather than driving. He felt the calculators were quite basic, but another speaker said she loved them and “find them super-useful.”

Another good example is the Surfers Against Sewage website, which tells people about discharges, and has a crowd-sourced element, because people can report being sick. “It allows people to visibly see a problem,” one speaker said. Although whether it enables them to do much about it is another question.

John said this raised a couple of interesting questions. How detailed and accurate does information have to be to be useful? How can we get information from private companies to improve sites and calculators (especially if the data is going to show them in a bad light)? How can information collection be standardised and automated. And how do we fill in gaps?


When it comes to gaps, speakers argued there are some opportunities around. For example,  John said he’s keen to install sensors in his house, to show how much energy is being saved by his new heat pump system. While another speaker took this further, by arguing it should be possible to create digital twins for buildings, to show people the impact of, for example, putting on the air conditioning, or using natural lighting.

However, another noted that it’s important to make sure the monitoring itself is sustainable. “I see more and more things being monitored, and lots of these monitors have lithium batteries, and do we really need them in every building?” she said. “Perhaps we just need a cross-section of buildings to give us some insight into what is good enough.”

Is data always useful, or just depressing?

That issue of what, if anything, is done with the data is also key. Calculators, such as Fruggr, use open data to enable individuals and companies to assess the impact of their IT operations – or “digital pollution.”

But a speaker argued they’d only be effective if businesses “see this as core to their operations” and not as something off to one side of them. Perhaps, the session suggested, there might be drivers in a university seeing how much energy it could save by doing things differently, or a landlord having a new tool to market an efficient building?

Another speaker who works in sustainability noted that lots of effort is putting into informing individuals about climate issues. But “this can be quite depressing” if “the seas are still full of poo” and temperatures keep on rising. “I am sure there are good news stories,” she said.

So, perhaps one thing to do is to go and find them: looking to other countries, if necessary. Training courses, such as Carbon Literacy, can also be useful to put different issues in context.

To conclude, John said Valtech has just started a blog series on “trailblazers and disruptors” to address some of the “negativity that is out there.” Because it’s not just finding data, but using it to drive change, that matters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *