Reflections on the politics of dashboards and Green IT

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 16 June 2011

Howard Noble from the JISC Open to Change project has blogged about the recent energy dashboards event held in Oxford. This event focused upon a number of emerging themes.

  1. How to represent/visualise energy data so that those who use institutional infrastructure can see the impact of their work? An outcome of the work on dashboards was that whilst some are seeking to reveal cost in terms of everyday activities that make sense to individuals, like the equivalent number of cups of tea that could be made, users of energy generally think about [are encouraged to think about?] their energy use as a cost in cash-terms. Money is the dominant metric in this approach to visualisation.
  2. Much of the focus appears, as yet, to be focused on individual behaviour change, rather than seeing this as a mutual, co-operative endeavour. There are plenty of examples of how networks or communities coming together can engage in a discussion about resilience, rather than sustainability, for example, Transitions Towns, Dark Mountain, the Co-operative College. However, this involves a focus, less on personalisation, which is a driving characteristic of societal and educational “value”, and more on mutualism, negotiation and collaboration.
  3. This need to re-focus discussion upon shared use of space and energy within it demands meaningful, long-term, public engagement. This is one of the outcomes of the DUALL project at DMU, and its successor GreenView, which wishes to enter into negotiation with people about “the impacts of our individual and collective actions, notably our increasing energy use and consumption of goods and services.” This includes technologies that are locally-hosted, but also those which are out-sourced to the cloud. Exactly where are we shifting our carbon commitments, so that we can shift any medium-term environmental risk off our short-term balance sheets?
  4. Thus, I think it is important to see energy dashboards in the context of a deliberative process that surrounds the discussion and opening up of visualisation data as a crack in our accepted norms of energy use. The process of opening-up our energy data, and opening up the production process that underpins those data needs to drive a wider discourse around our socio-technical activities within higher education. We need to move away from seeing dashboards as an end in themselves, as a set of data to be turned into a commodity that can be traded, exchanged or quantified in a league table. We need to use those data and their representation as a way to unpick the activities we engage in within Universities. In a draft article [under review], Joss Winn and I look at such activities in light of emissions and peak oil, and argue for a higher education where:
  • educational technology is a public rather than a private or institutionalised good with an acceptance of less energy-intensive, individualised access to processing power;
  • there is prioritisation of digital technologies in strategies for community consensus-building;
  • Universities are networks that act as hubs for local, community-level engagement with technologies, and high-level digital processes;
  • individual access to the web is less of a right than community access, based on a literacy of openness. Open is central;
  • outsourcing decisions are based on community need related to a critical analysis of environmental impact, rather than on a discourse of cost-effectiveness;
  • persistent and on-going procurement and renewal of hardware and software is rejected, in favour of re-use and re-purposing; and
  • students and staff produce and share their open curricula and artefacts, through trans-disciplinary approaches to global crises, like peak oil and climate change.

Engaging with a critique of the Triple Crunch and developing meaningful alternatives means that we need to think beyond business-as-usual, as realised through investments in a Green New Deal or long-term investments or out-sourcing risk and impact, in order to engage socially with the work, tasks and activities of our everyday, educational lives.

This means that we need to move away from a focus on values and attitudes to engaging with the deep, structural issues that are revealed by the work we undertake. How do the teaching, administrative and research processes of the University bind us into unsustainable practices [in terms of peak oil and carbon emissions], and make our communities less resilient? I am thinking of this in terms of our instant, recurrent, personalised, intensive use of energy-through-high-technology. How might energy dashboards and the information they project, help us to open up a dialogue about the ways in which we live our educational lives?

One lesson from the workshop is that we have a tendency to outsource, and that this makes us less well able to engage in a discussion of responsibility at scale. This might be in terms of institutional outsourcing of our carbon, or personal outsourcing of solutions to Government. This point has been reiterated in terms of corporate influence of public policy making and a withering of democratic engagement, in opposition to the social uses of technologies that should enable communities to share in “collaboration, process, experience, expertise, and knowledge”.

This is, of course, more difficult in a space where the rule of money and the invisibility/ubiquity of energy dominate the landscape, and where there is little discussion of complexities like the Jevons Paradox or alternative ways of working. We need to re-think our educational activities, in order to think about dashboards not as the next commodity or means of acquiring research funding, but as indicators of our shared consumption and production. We need fewer futuristic, positivist stories of green technologies, or green energy, and more focus upon our histories of adapting to energy shortages across communities. Meaningful public engagement is critical here, because Universities are located in time and space, and through community activity, external income generation, distance learning and outsourcing, they have a considerable carbon/energy footprint/requirement.

Clearly, this work demands a politics of energy use within and across higher education, which does not just engage students and staff with energy-as-money, but with issues and ideas of peak oil and consumption/production, and with their necessary activities/technologies. Until we have such a deliberative policy, dashboard-related work risks being the next commodity, or end-point, that salves our liberal, democratic consciences about energy use, but which actually change nothing. Hope lies in the dashboard and its production as a cipher for deliberation and socio-cultural change.

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