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Campuses Getting Greener: IT has a Role to Play

One of the great things about working where I do is that I have an excuse, really a mandate, to spend a lot of time scanning the higher education environment to see what kinds of changes are happening and report on those – not just IT, but student life, campus planning, budget planning, really just about everything.

For some time I’ve been trying to draft up a long article about the relationship between information technology on campus and sustainability efforts. I know the relationship is there, even if it’s just as minor as the fact that (like planners) IT people and sustainability coordinators work across the boundaries between departments and disciplines a lot!

So, I’ve occasionally written pieces in this column, and here’s one again. But I am really having difficulty getting that larger piece finished. If you have some thoughts about that I’d love to hear them: [email protected]

This past week, in particular, I was struck by how frequently IT in areas relating to sustainability kept popping up in the news. Note that “sustainability” d'es not mean just environmental sustainability, in what the leaders in the field call “the Triple Bottom Line.” That phrase is used to expand, for businesses, “the traditional company reporting framework to take into account not just financial outcomes but also environmental and social performance”:see Wikkipedia. Too many, the social consequences part of that includes individual health as well.

So, with that definition in mind, let’s take a look at a string of news items from this week that, to me, have some sustainability thread running through them, despite being “IT” news stories.

CMU's new School of Computer Science is Pretty Green. In this new Carnegie Mellon University (PA) building, which is shared by the school’s Interactive Systems Laboratories and its Institute for Software Research International, CMU is “walking the walk” and “talking the talk.” And, as Brad Hochberg, energy manager for the university, says. “This is not about economics. This is about education. It's about demonstrating to students, staff and faculty that there are alternatives to fossil fuel energy. But, over time, with improved technology and application, it will become economical." IT students got involved with this project to build a digital kiosk which displays a comparision between the new building and the old one, with regard to how many tons of greenhouse gases are being emitted. The display also shows how much electricity, real-time, is being created by the 120 solar panels on the building’s roof, in contrast to how much energy is being used inside the building.

Saving the World With Cell Phones. At the University of California, Berkeley, researchers want to “slip a pollution detector into the mix” of stuff inside your cell phone. These cheap wireless sensors would “sniff out” environmental pollutants, biological weapons, or radiation; providing fine granularity with wide scale coverage, giving central servers somewhere a great deal of valuable information to do good things with.

It’s pretty typical for IT to play important roles, both in discovering environmental problems and in finding solutions for them.

Then we look at the “social equity” part of that Triple Bottom Line.

Even on the Web, Women and Men May be from Different Planets. In a medium founded on information technology, new research is aimed at detecting inequality in the uses of that technology. At the University of Glamorgan, a recent study has shown distinct and divergent ways in which men and women both design and use websites.

Looking at factors such as visuals, language, and navigation, of websites created by students, researchers found that compared on 23 different factors, men and women showed differences in their designs. For example: “Where visuals are concerned, males favour the use of straight lines (as opposed to rounded forms), few colours in the typeface and background, and formal typography. As for language, they favour the use of formal or expert language with few abbreviations and are more likely to promote themselves and their abilities heavily.”

They then showed a selection of university websites were shown to men and women users, and the same preference for design that was displayed by designers was matched by users: women overwhelmingly favored websites produced by members of their own sex, ditto for men.

So then, the researchers looked at the home pages for 32 higher education institution websites and found that 94 percent of the sites displayed a masculine orientation, with only 2 percent favoring a typically female bias. The implications for social performance and equity are clearly there.

Finding the Way at Utah State University At Utah State University, researchers are working at creating a convergence of several technologies into a single device for the visually impaired. None of the technologies is great on its own for an individual’s use, but merging the capabilities of a wireless network, a pedometer, a Global Positioning System, and a digital compass” looks to do a much better job.

Computing in the Cotswolds: Gloscat delivers IT on wheels Finally, the Gloucester College of Art and Technology (UK) has a mission to improve ICT and Internet skills across its rural county. In today’s society (economy, environment, whatever) people need to be connected, or to at least learn the skills they can put to use when they are connected. (That’s inevitable, right?) Thus the Gloscat Commun-IT van, "a mobile computing centre taking e-learning and computer access to some of the remotest areas” which travels the rural areas in the county offering nearly the same amount of courses as at the campus, and also serving specific learning sessions to very local needs.

At this point I might jump onto my hobbyhorse about how much waste is created in the manufacture of our equipment, and the dire need to have better systems of recycling. But we are all pretty aware of that, I think, the problem is how to deal with it.

If you don’t think of this as a problem, then ask yourself, when you throw something away: “Where is ‘away’?” When I was in the Navy (1967-71, including three Vietnam tours) Navy ships just had a 55-gallon drum welded to the back of the ship, and wh'ever was on trash duty would just dump everything into that drum, which led to a chute, which put everything right down into the ocean – I mean everything!

I sure hope they’re not still doing that. In 2005 there is no “away.” Whatever you send out of manufacturer’s drain pipes or drop into the waste containers is going “somewhere” but we’re increasingly aware that it’s not really going away. And IT advancements are leading the way into that increased awareness, too!

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