The BCS team are joining OpenUK at COP26 in Glasgow as part of its Open Technology for Sustainability Day. The aim is to show how the climate crisis can benefit from the use of open source technology. BCS Senior Media Officer Claire Penketh spoke to Amanda Brock, CEO of OpenUK, about how rethinking tech could help to save the planet.
Amanda Brock is a woman on a mission, passionate about using open source technology as a tool to combat climate change. That's why the organisation she leads, OpenUK, is at COP26. But what is the connection between open source technology and sustainability?
Amanda says it's the synergy of principles: "We firmly believe that for technology to be environmentally sustainable, it needs to be open,” she told me in an interview just before leaving for Glasgow. "Whether that's open source software, open hardware or open data - all of this brings the benefit of reduced emissions. The very nature of open source is about openness. If technology doesn't have that and continues to develop in silos, we aren't supporting the evolution of a sustainable environment."
This approach can appear to run counter-intuitive to the modern world of competitiveness, with companies and individuals developing their products and services for their own gain - capitalism at its most basic. But Amanda says change is already happening: "We've seen a massive shift towards open source software over the last decade with most software developed today being open source, and we're seeing that now with open hardware, and we're hearing a lot about opening up data.
"In the UK, we've seen open banking; now we're seeing open energy, where there are clear signs that they are going to open up the sector in terms of a digitalised infrastructure that uses open source software."
As an example, Amanda cites Icebreaker One, and its CEO and founder, Gavin Starks, one of the key figures leading a panel at OpenUK’s COP26 event, which includes a series of high-level discussion panels with tech thought leaders. Icebreaker One's vision statement is to 'empower decision-makers to mandate, measure and act upon the data flows that enable net zero.' Its vision is to 'make data work harder to deliver net-zero.'
Amanda says: "When we look at data, it's about sharing as much data as we can, it's about sharing knowledge and that way, we empower people." She does accept, however, that not everything can be open when it comes to data: "While we hope that open should be the default, there are some things that can't be, and they need to be justified and understood. But then they also need to be traceable and trackable. Icebreaker are doing great work on this. "
Policies make a difference
Amanda says government policies have an essential role to play: "Technology isn't going to be the fix; it is going to be a tool that supports and sustains us in achieving our carbon-neutral goals. We live in an environment that is very technologically driven. Everything we do is on an app; every business and our whole society has gone through a digital transformation.
"We all have digital personalities, whether that's Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, kids on Snapchat, even meeting your partner through a dating app. Our lives are digitalised. What that means is that the infrastructure the public sector and the government provide for us is digitalised. We're talking about internet services and data centres. That 'plumbing' is what our society is now built on to deliver the services needed for our day-to-day lives.
"What we have to remember is that ultimately, the type of technology, how we use and implement it, has to have support from the policymakers, and that's what matters. The code is the facilitator; it can make our lives better. But only if we make the right decisions about it.
“For me, that is about looking at an open first approach because it allows us to reuse and recycle code, to share and collaborate around those projects, as this helps develop the best products, as well as enabling skills development.
“It can build future generations who will have collective equity in those ideas and how they are put together, so we're not always constantly reinventing the wheel but also this collective equity will extend to business and society as a whole."
Data centres in office blocks
Amanda has some quite radical ideas about how to approach the issue of the bad boys of tech - the energy using, heat-generating massive data centres, one of the significant environmental drawbacks in all this technological change.
"What we want to do at COP26 is to present a blueprint for data centres of the future. We've created a patchwork of existing software, hardware, and data technology, all of which is open. When combined, across six buckets essential to data centres, buildings, energy, hardware, network, operations and regulatory environment, it will help to facilitate the reduction in the hardware needed for a data centre.
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"It will allow us to build a model for Edge-based, 5G enabled data centres in, for instance, derelict office stock in city centres. That would bring smaller data centres closer to the end-user, making them more efficient. It would allow us to think more about collective equity and the community. Not only would this reduce heat, but it would be more efficient by using open source software, hardware and continualisation.
"The more we digitalise as individuals, the more data centres are going to be necessary. We have to acknowledge that and look at how we make it more efficient; for instance, how do we use the heat generated? We could put that heat back into the community for those who are less able to afford heat energy, which is a critical thing right now. Or we take a model like the city of Dundee and bring the energy created by the data centres from the gaming sector there and pump it into the new Eden Centre project in the city."
It's not just a dream
But are these ideas too radical? I asked her how she would feel if I suggested her vision was a tad new age, not part of the mainstream? “When I started to get involved in this, over a decade ago, there was an extent that this was how it was seen, but it has shifted and when you look at development and the young developers today, it’s the norm."
Amanda uses the example of Microsoft. In 2001, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer famously branded Linux and by implication open source "a cancer “
"At that time, open source was probably viewed as a bunch of hippies sitting in a basement, coding in their free time," she says. "But Microsoft is now, depending on how you look at it, the single biggest contributor to open source in the world today.
“My friend Steph Walli at Microsoft explains this beautifully. He says that ten years ago, Microsoft customers didn't ask for open source, and now they do; you can’t run a cloud business without it and if you want to hire the best developers today you can’t do that unless you allow them to work in open source, so it makes good business sense.”
There's also been a lot of work around professionalism and good governance in open source to counter concerns about the quality of software developed.
Plus, she adds, open source is everywhere: "When you look at the Cloud, it is almost entirely built on open source software. For big tech companies using open source at scale, it's important to give back. Not just on a 'good thing to do' basis, but because that participation allows you to be at the table and influence the direction of software products and packages. If you want to run a Cloud business today, you have to engage with the open source community."
There's also the anniversary of the Linux operating system, which launched thirty years ago this August, making open source more accessible and acceptable: "If you talk to younger developers today, they don't understand what the big deal is, because they all use open source methodology, it's just how it is. It doesn't make sense to keep rebuilding everything all of the time; nobody wants to do the dull bit again and again. They want to recycle and build on top of it. Linux was the first big example of this in action, and more projects have followed after."
BCS will be playing its part at COP26 at the OpenUK event, showcasing Barefoot computing resources for primary children in the Learning Dome, to have their say about safeguarding the planet's future. The team will also be reporting on tech news as it happens.