IT & the environment


[Digital nations in the making: Update Pages 11 & 32 – Use of mobile phones]

When making grant applications for IT and web-based projects, I’ve always been a tad hesitant when it comes to answering the environmental benefits question. Can I really claim, hand on heart, that the intended activities will really bring benefits – for instance by reducing participants’ travel and thus lowering their carbon footprint?

Well, recent studies in Japan – where I have been this month – have come up with some fascinating findings. A survey of 1000 people for Gulliver International, a major used car dealership chain, comparing 2007 with 1997, found that their major areas of interest were now the Internet [74%] and the keitai (mobile phone) [56%].

Details are in an article “Interest wanes in cars” in the Asahi Shimbun (30 January) and include another survey by the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association (JAMA), which showed the numbers of 20-25 year old young men, not owning a car had risen significantly in just four years from 1 in 5 in 2001 to 1 in 3 in 2005 (21% to 32%).

Costs of car ownership, congestion, more urban living and good public transport were all likely causes as well, but the findings show that the car is losing out as a ‘must-have’ status symbol with the young.

On the plane coming home, I did an informal survey myself on these results with two young women, Mikiko and Ayaka, who were in their first year at university studying nutrition. All twenty students in their group had keitai and some like Mikiko had two. No doubt there about the importance they attached to this communication tool for the social networking generation.

“What about the decline in car ownership?”, I asked them. They smiled and nodded in agreement. I could see them asking themselves, “When you’ve got a cool keitai, who needs a car?”

Maybe I can answer those environmental questions now with a clearer conscience!

NOTE: For more on the use of keitai in Japan, see my blog posting exactly a year ago, “Setting standards in the Land of the Rising Sun”

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I’d not been since the 1960s to Crete’s Samaria Gorge, with its history of human settlement stretching back to the 8th century BC. So when our son Barney, who’s taking some time off after 8 years working with the travel company Expedia, agreed two weeks ago that he could join me for some high mountain hiking there, it was a great chance to escape rain-soaked England for a few days.

Only 24 hours out of Manchester we were en route for Omalos in the west of the island. At 1100 metres this mountain plateau is the springboard for the magnificent 16 kilometre descent of Europe’s longest gorge to Agia Roumeli on the south coast and we were eager to be off.

Then came the shock when we stopped at a local taverna. Serving us our lunch, Maria reported that they had just found that morning the bodies of two members of an escorted group of 31 Polish tourists. There had been a massive search of the Gorge for 4 days but without water, the 37 year old brother and his 40 year old sister had been unable to survive the temperatures of up to 45 C.

The walk through Samaria Gorge is strenuous and hot but the 5-7 hour route is obvious enough, with steps and railings, WCs, resting and water points, a medical centre and even a helipad – all provided with the aid of generous EU grants for setting up this National Park.

How I wondered could people in a guided group die or even get lost and we found ourselves piecing together the story and events from people we met and from newspaper accounts. Rumours and theories were initially rife, but over the next 6 days we built up a consistent picture of just what had happened (though a coroner’s report is still awaited).

  • The group leader failed for two days to report that the two were missing.
  • The authorities were told the two were seen in the Samaria Gorge itself; and because of this 4 days were wasted on searching the wrong area.
  • On 26 July the brother was found still just alive by a Greek walker who had decided himself to climb above and away from the Samaria Gorge to the more westerly and dangerous Tripiti gorge.
  • The two made no contact via mobile phone to seek help during their 6 day ordeal – presumably because there was no coverage available.
  • The Greek walker had climbed higher in order to use his mobile phone to get news back to the cafe at the head of the Gorge.
  • The resulting search party found the two bodies early on 27th July after a long night climb; and helped the Greek walker back to safety.
  • It’s a tragic story but will lessons be learnt about support and emergency procedures, staff training, registration and group sizes? Basic mountain craft procedures of counting the group in and out of the Gorge were simply not used and there were the other obvious failings (identified above).

    Nor do the Park’s own control systems appear to have been put in place for checking off all successful descents at the southern exit point of the Gorge. Our own exit control counterfoils (See No 24753 below) were not checked or requested from us by the Park officials at the exit gate despite our early descent on 28 July being only a day after the bodies of the two walkers had been found.

    Ticket for Gorge with counterfoil, not removed.

    Finally there’s a key question about the deployment of mobile phone technology. With up to 800 people being bussed daily into the Samaria Gorge (and perhaps 50,000 in a full season), this is big business and a major income generator for the whole island.

    This area of the White Mountains is no ordinary remote wilderness, but a place of mass tourism where the vast majority of people will not be experienced mountaineers but will have a mobile phone.

    A phone mast on the top of Mount Gigolos above the Gorge at 1964 metres (See photo below) wouldn’t stop mistakes being made, but it would provide coverage for emergency calls for most of the area. Is this too much to ask for to lessen the risks to life in this wild and wonderful walkway?

    Mt Gigolos above the Samaria Gorge - a suitable site for a phone mast for SOS calls.

    Perhaps the EU Commission should be asking this question when next it comes to consider an application for a tourism development project for Crete. In the meantime though if you’re travelling abroad, check out the emergency number you need to use for the relevant country on this website. The number 112 is widely used in Europe but it’s worth checking the details before you go.

    Sadly it would not have helped Marek and Danuta Sawicka last week.

    POSTSCRIPT – 10 August 2007

    Yesterday Polish Radio announced that prosecutors in Wroclaw, capital of Lower Silesia, were investigating the deaths to discover if the travel company which organised the trip had put the two walkers into unnecessary danger.

    [Digital nations in the making: Update Page 98 – Web 2.0 & adult education].

    The mid November Economist had an interesting article on ‘blogging professionals’ (Going Pro, p. 67, 16 November 2006). These are people whose blog readership generates sufficient income from click-through advertising to enable them to concentrate solely on blog production to the exclusion of other work. They represent a small percentage of bloggers, but are by no means restricted to the technical.

    dooce.com is a good example from a disillusioned Mormon woman – who has suffered from depression and chats away about home, kids, husband and the world – and shows the kind of advertising she has attracted to the site. She shares high popularity rankings with the author of You-Tube’s geriatric1927, whose wartime memories, recorded on simple home video, have found a seam which absorbs the interest of thousands of people.

    One blog mentioned in the Economist article was that of Om Malik, which I was particularly interested to see, as I had used his excellent material in Digital nations in the making when writing about developments in Web 2.0

    Another sign of the times for blogging is the attention paid by the mainstream press. Most have links on some day of the week. The Wall Street Journal (27 November 2006) for instance had Jessica Marmor’s Blog Watch on the highly topical issue of Weather and Climate. Two caught my eye as being of particular interest to tutors and learners studying environmental topics. 

    Jeff Masters, an expert in air pollution meteorology, who has literally flown into the eye of many storms to collect data, has  a wunderblog, full of informed views and data, including a good review of Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. Another site realclimate.org has expert contributors from many countries and significantly looks at the politics as well as the science relating to climate change. Both are well worth looking at.

    For the last (and best) word on the subject of climate change, Jeff Masters recommends “for every citizen of the globe” the website of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of over 2000 scientists from 100 countries, mandated by the UN.

    Fred Garnett, ACL policy advisor at Becta, has for long been telling me of the need to link information technology to environmental issues and has been exploring this in Deptford through his involvement with the Creekside Education Trust since 1999. His has been a lonely voice, but it would be good to hear of similar work elsewhere. Post a comment here if you have any information on this or know of a good environmental project with adults in the UK. There's lots of potential here for community learning courses and projects, as councils start to promote green policies more energetically.

    In Seattle where I 've been for the last two weeks, this theme has a much higher profile. Last week I was down at City Hall to hear presentations from a roomfull of some 120 pupils from five high schools about surveys they had done with maps and GIS to discover issues about their environment and its social impact through the Homewaters Project, a nonprofit body based at North Seattle Community College. This inquiry based system is linked to the Green Map system and supported by the City's Department of Information Technology.

    The results and work of the students were impressive and reminded me of some of the North American environmental projects involving adult learners which I looked at for my book, Digital Nations in the making. This was not an isolated example as Jean Godden, Chair of the City's Energy and Technology Committee reminded us.

    The building itself was the only green City Hall in the US, using many recycled materials and meets many of the criteria for the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification – which is being pushed strongly by a number of cities keen to promote effective environmental policies. It was also a very pleasant environment with a small stream running through the hall and down the steps outside. (See photo).
    Aerial view of stream and steps leading down from Seattle City Hall.

    There's a lot of information available about energy efficiency to be found on the Alliance to Save Energy's website; and there's plenty of interesting work being done elsewhere in the US. In Massachusetts there's an Environmentally Preferable Products (EPP) Procurement programme, which has available downloadable tools  to show how substantial savings can be made on items like light bulbs and toner cartridges. You can read a Q&A article about the EPP work in e-Gov Monitor, which points out that the savings have been 22 times the cost of running the programme.

    With its population of 3.5 million, Seattle has a reputation as being one of the the top 10 cities in the US for quality of life, but don't imagine that it is all perfect! Hills and lakes can make it difficult to move from area to area and the public transport system is pretty poor for some parts. Cars flourish in this environment and congestion on the big roads can add long tedious delays. Number 1 priority for Mayor Greg Nickels is to "get Seattle moving".

    As you'd expect in a city with big name companies like Microsoft and Amazon, technology can help a little, in the form of a sophisticated network of traffic cameras for the Puget Sound area. You can enjoy the videos from your armchair back home! The montage below is of traffic roaring across the Montlake Bridge over the canal, which links Lake Union and Lake Washington. At least it was moving this time!

    Photos of cars crossing Montlake bridge.
    More photos of cars crossing Montlake bridge.

    My friend Mary emailed me recently. Yes she would be down at the Hay festival and it was going to be a great party. She ought to know as her daughter is one of the organisers. But it sounds to have been even bigger and better than I'd expected to judge from the stories and diaries spilling out all this last week. Two people caught my eye.

    Al Gore as the next US President who didn't make it, has deservedly got lots of column inches for his book and film, An Inconvenient Truth, on the dangers of environmental damage to the planet from fuel emissions and global warming. What has scarcely been mentioned – but is explored with some fascinating detail in Digital Nations in the making – is Gore's pivotal role in another contemporary story.

    As Vice-President in 1993, Gore was responsible for driving the US Government onto the net and into the digital age through the Performance Management Review and subsequent Re-engineering through Information Technology report. They may sound dull, but the results helped to change the way the world works!

    Oh yes and the second person – well it's the same Canadian novelist referred to in Digital Nations in the making, whom I mentioned in Q3 of my last post, as using a telechiric device. Get the name and details and you're a third of the way to the right answers for the £25 prize!