Humanities Greatest Challenges and Personal Data

The panel discussion on Humanities Greatest Challenges caused me to ask the question: Can we use technology, the web and personal data to help us reduce our consumption of energy, water and fossil resources without necessarily reducing our sustenance, security and comfort and without restricting developing nations to enjoy the same prosperity? After all, this is mostly a blog about personal data.

Yesterday I attended a Panel discussion at Singularity University at NASA Ames in Mountain View, CA. The event entitled Humanities Grandest Challenges invited us to "Join some of the world’s leading experts in public health, climate change, energy, and others as they discuss the “grand challenges” in water, health, the environment, and energy, and identify some of the technical and political issues associated with making significant progress in finding immediate and long-term sustainable solutions that can positively affect at least one billion people in the next 10 years."

The panelists outlined each of the grand challenges, describing the issues, the wider issues and some potential approaches to solving the problems and as a two hour teaser for how the University's work can be usefully employed it was both effective and inspiring.

Although the panelists' presentations and responses to questions from the floor were great in their own right and I understand that they are looking at these problems in a holistic way, there was a part that to me seemed to be missing.

In particular there were a three comments that I resonated deeply with - all of which I will quote out of context here for my own purposes:

Bill Collins said "stop treating this as a science project", Vijay Vaitheeswaran said something about "economic growth" and Daniel M Kammen mentioned the "discounting rate.".

Pondering the solutions that were being proposed and then looking at the issues themselves, one quickly sees that they are caused by humanity itself. Humanity has become so successful on the planet, that it causes problems unto itself. The Reverend Thomas Malthus had something to say on this back in the late 18th Century, his words still ring somewhat true - "The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world"

So those three quotes had me viewing the problem as a Sociological Anthropological Economic problem and wondering how Personal Data could be employed to change some of our evolved behaviors.

I'm thinking about how we might employ technology to reduce our demands on the planet, not to re-cycle and re-use, but to help create a culture where reduce becomes the operative word. One where acquiring bigger, newer, faster is not the objective, however, this conflicts with the very aspirations that set humankind on the race of technological innovation and advancement in the first place. The drive that caused civilizations to occur, that caused populations to grow and that caused us to be in a place where we can harness the planet's resources to provide us with sustenance, security and comfort.

Can we use technology, the web and personal data to help us reduce our consumption of energy, water and fossil resources without necessarily reducing our sustenance, security and comfort and without restricting developing nations to enjoy the same prosperity? After all, this is mostly a blog about personal data. So what would I do?

I'd like to help people understand the consequences of their actions - Dopplr tracks your travel and in doing so enables you to calculate your Carbon profile and then publish it and share it with your friends. American Express has a reasonable understanding of where I spend my money and Amazon and Safeway have a pretty good idea of what I have bought through online transactions and loyalty card records. If a rough calculation of my impact on the planet could be made, I would be able to see the consequences of my collective actions. The Semantic Web, Personal Datastores and Data Portability will allow these profiles to be shared, perhaps in real time via SmartPhone applications and using cool visualizations like those presented by Dr Hans Rosling at TED - we might be able to change our behaviors for the better.

If at point-of-purchase I understood that the new plastic cased disposable gadget came with it's personal tiny trail of pollution and human misery, I might think twice about buying it. The information is out there, it just needs joining up and presenting in a compelling way. As I think about new applications, I will add Humanities Greatest Challenges into the design objectives.