Sunday, August 28, 2011

Greenwash and climate fraud....

Not too long ago, Australian newspapers carried the story of a company that was engaging in fraud by collecting money by way of carbon credits (the owner became quite vague when asked which specific carbon mitigation projects the money was being spent on). I fear that too much of that is going on...Any number of commercial operators will gladly accept your money and promise to deliver a greener planet, a more sustainable future or some such in return.

How do we tell the good ones from the bad? Some operators deliver real value, some minimal value, and some are downright fraudulent. Let the market decide, you might say, because it always has, in other areas of human endeavour. But this is too important to let slip. A business knows when it is being delivered value, and when it isn't. A business can there pick and choose.

The planet too knows which bits are real, which products deliver real green value. But it can't tell us.

We need an impartial academic body to sit in judgment. Perhaps certify....

Software engineering in the service of human functionality

Software engineering uses (hopefully, or seometimes) rigorous techniques to design computer-based functionality. But the functionality doesn't have to be computer-based - it could be any functionality, to be executed by human, machine or some combination thereof. This opens up exciting possibilities, and takes software engineering where it has never gone before. I sometimes have people respond by saying - oh yeah, that's business process management (BPM). How I wish it were...The current state of play in BPM theory and practice leverages software engineering only minimally. And formal software engineering (where I think the real excitement lies)? Almost not at all.

And then again, is business process modeling the final word on the modeling of human-executed functionality? I think not (and there's a body of literature poking holes in the current state of play in process modeling that would agree).

The paper ("A Formal Approach to Service Management in the Rural Sector") describing our tool and methodology, UNNOTI, is now set to appear at the International Conference on Services for Emerging Markets. This is a gold-mine of high-impact results, and we have only started scratching the surface.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Collaborate for a greener planet!

I've been trying to convince my academic colleagues that this is a no-brainer. I was watching a documentary on green energy, and someone from Princeton's Carbon Mitigation Porject spoke quite emphatically about the need for efficiency - that the quickest wins are to be had by doing better with available technologies, by operating existing infrastructure more efficiently. They've designed the "wedges game", with physical, wooden wedges that also drives home this point. But our leaders (and the vast majority of us) are missing the point. Why pour money into new technologies when we haven't even started leveraging efficiency opportunities with existing technologies?

We have to optimize to survive.

The Optimizing Web project that I've been working on seeks to leverage agent-based distributed optimization and planning techniques to ensure that we don't just locally do the right thing (which, as things stand now, is the best that we might do - and we aren't even making efforts in that direction) but do the right thing globally. It isn't enough to simply do the greener thing from our local perspective. We need to collaborate to be greener from a broader, more global perspective. What is optimally green from a local perspective might be significantly suboptimal from a more global perspective. Locally suboptimal behaviours might actually do better when we broaden the view.

So (in the spirit of the earlier motto "no taxation without representation") I might say "no carbon mitigation without collaboration".

More soon.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Service-oriented social enterprise

The wheels of social enterprise have been turning. I've been working, with my colleagues at the Univ. of Calcutta, and in Tripura, on the application of formal software engineering techniques to the modelling, analysis, monitoring and redesign of rural services in emerging economies. We have a tool, tentatively called UNNOTI (the Bengali word for "progress"). We entered the idea in the Trailblazer innovation competition at the Univ. of Wollongong, and got the Runners-up Award. I've been promised support in making this off-beat, but potentially powerful idea into a full-blown social enterprise. Let's hope it happens....

Open systems and the price they pay

The recent crisis with the US debt ceiling had me thinking. We know that closed systems are more efficient but brittle, while open systems are far more robust, though inefficient. So are we going to penalize the US for choosing the open systems approach? Inefficiency (a.k.a. raucous democracy) is a necessary price to pay for robustness - but why not?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Computing for humanity in action: Ushahidi for the Australian floods

I gave a talk some weeks back on "computing for humanity", or how the collective social conscience of us computer scientists obliges us to explore ways in which our work can find immediate humanitarian application. I started the talk by discussing Ushahidi (Swahili for "testimony"), an open source application that was initially set up for crowdmapping violence in Kenya following its recent presidential elections, and subsequently used during the Haiti earthquakes and elsewhere (see Crowdmapping taps into the wisdom of the masses by generating an interactive spatio-temporal visualization of events on Open StreetMaps or Google Maps - these events being reported by citizen journalists via SMS (often the last remaining mobile service when all else fails in a disaster) or via email etc.

So my colleague and long-standing associate of the Decision Systems Lab, Lothar Hinsche, went and walked the talk. In the space of 11 hours last Tuesday, just as the flood waters hit Brisbane, he set up the Ushahidi platform for crowdmapping that disaster - see the site at

That was quite a feat. We tried hard to get an SMS gateway from major telcos, but that's been a challenge. We also tried to get some way of pubicizing the site so that more people might SMS event reports in, but that too has been a challenge. But the site has been up, bravely doing its thing, despite all of this...

In the meantime, the research dimension has been intriguing me for a while. Adaptive case management instead of BPM, driven by crowdsourced spatio-temporal event maps? Complex event processing? More to come...