Environment Variables
The Week in Green Software: DIMPACT with Andri Johnston
May 24, 2023
Host Chris Adams is joined by Andri Johnston, Digital Sustainable Lead for Cambridge University Press and Assessment as they talk about using DIMPACT to calculate the carbon impact of digital publishing as well as news from the world of green software concerning one acronym; ESG and one portmanteau; LightSwitchOps. They also cover some upcoming events and we learn about Andri’s love of books!
Host Chris Adams is joined by Andri Johnston, Digital Sustainable Lead for Cambridge University Press and Assessment as they talk about using DIMPACT to calculate the carbon impact of digital publishing as well as news from the world of green software concerning one acronym; ESG and one portmanteau; LightSwitchOps. They also cover some upcoming events and we learn about Andri’s love of books!

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Transcript below:

Andri Johnston: We have no control over what device people are using or what energy grid they're using, but we do have control over how we're building our software and making it as energy efficient as possible. And in my experience, the moment we were able to show that those numbers to board execs and that kind of level, it was like, oh, okay, so we actually can do something.

Chris Adams: Hello and welcome to Environment Variables, brought to you by the Green Software Foundation. In each episode, we discuss the latest news and events surrounding green software. On our show, you can expect candid conversations with top experts in their field who have a passion for how to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of software.

I'm your host, Chris Adams.

Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Week in Green Software, where we bring you the latest news and updates from the world of sustainable software development. I'm your host, Chris Adams, and in this episode we'll be looking at the news from the world of green software that involves ESG and a portmanteau LightSwitchOps.

Not only do we have this, but we'll also have some exciting events for you to attend. As always, we usually try to introduce our guests before we get started, and this week we have Andri Johnson joining us. Andri say hi.

Andri Johnston: Hi. Thank you so much for getting me on the podcast. So yeah, I'm Andri Andri Johnson. I am the digital sustainability lead at Cambridge University Press and Assessment. And a little bit about me. I'm a very keen runner and gardener, however, that's taking a backseat right now cuz I am 36 weeks pregnant and I've deep dived into the world of sustainability and babies, which is a very weird world, but really exciting.

So, yeah. That's me.

Chris Adams: Cool. Thank you. Andri, you seem to be continuing our trend of guests who are just about to have kids before they disappear onto the other one. Yeah. Sara. Sara Bergman who was on before. She was also just coming to the end before she popped a sprog as well. And uh, yeah, uh, nice to hear. I wish you were the best for the second half of this actually.

Okay, so for everyone who is, who listened to this first time, this is basically a news roundup show. So what we do is we look at some stories that caught our eyes, we share a couple of records about them, and then. Basically move on from there and if we discuss anything or any links come up that might be interesting.

We'll make sure we add it into this show notes, so if there's any acronyms or anything like that, we'll work to point to some either definitions or lists for further reading. Okay. Andri, will that further ado? Should we look at the first of these stories?

Andri Johnston: Yeah, sure. Let's go.

Chris Adams: Okay, so this first story is ESG as a lever for sustainability impact by Elise Zelechowski at ThoughtWorks.

Elise is actually the co-chair of the policy working group, and this is a blog post that she's written about some of the approaches that ThoughtWorks is taking around esg. ESG for the uninitiated stands for environmental, social and Governance, and it's a kind of set of terms or a kind of framework that people use to assess a company's performance in terms of sustainability and across a number of dimensions.

ThoughtWorks has been talking about some of this for a while, and they've been probably one of the, in many ways, kind of leaders in this particular field. They've literally got a url, which is thoughtworks.com/socialjustice, to give you an idea of where they stand on a bunch of this stuff. And Andri, Andri, you had to look through this piece.

Is there anything you wanna add on this one?

Andri Johnston: Yeah, I found it really interesting and I'm really encouraged by the fact that especially on the tech side, more companies are starting to look at ESG. Not just reporting on carbon emissions. So at Cambridge University Press and Assessment, ESG is very important to us because we are linked with the University of Cambridge, we have to comply with a lot of social issues as well.

And our environmental team and our EDIB team work very closely together. So for me, this was really interesting that Elise was talking about how companies need to evaluate themselves on all of these factors, and also working with your suppliers and that kind of thing, because that's, that's difficult.

Like it's one thing, getting your carbon emissions from them, but really making sure you align with their ethics and it aligns with your ethics. I think that's really important. So I found it really interesting and very encouraging that more companies are starting to do that. Yeah.

Chris Adams: I wonder how much might also be tied to, so ThoughtWorks went public this year and uh, there are over the last year or two, you have seen. A real uptick in ESG as a kind of buzzword in investment circles and in particular, say Europe for example, things you might consider kinda like green investments are able to get access to capital in ways that other groups don't.

Particularly with something related called the European Taxonomy, which is specifically about saying, okay, these things which are green, Which we have decided society needs more of, get access to lower interest rates so they can borrow cheaper compared to other ones. And, uh, this is, there's a real push from investors asking about this in many ways.

Sort of getting an idea of what they're exposed to from a climate point of view, but also from a kind of governance point of view and things like that as well.

Andri Johnston: I guess there's also something around how this sits with your employees, because for us, we're technically a not-for-profit and for us, a lot of people come to work. At UP&A because of the ethics around it, the university, a couple of years had to de divest because of connections with big oil companies.

And for us, it's the same. Our internal colleagues will ask us questions, who are we partnering with? What's their ethics? How does that align? So I guess there's both the investment part but also thinking about your colleagues internally and how they feel about your sustainability as a whole. So using this as a measure.

Chris Adams: Yeah. This is definitely a thing. Actually, there's a few interesting kind of jump off points here that may be going outside the remit of green software, but a problem might be of interest. I know in the UK there's an organization called ShareAction that's been doing a. Bunch of really interesting work on employees and where their money's invested, because a lot of the time if you're working for a company where that you feel that you believe in or you want to be spending some time with, you'd, you'd like the the money that's being put aside for you to also be doing things that you also believe in, rather than propping up fossil fuels or doing things like that.

Especially when the science is spelling out that we really need to not be involved in that as well. Okay. And there is also an organization called, I think As You Sow they've done some really interesting work with shareholder activism, specifically about putting shareholder resolutions to get a large organizations to move more quickly on sustainability.

There's some really fascinating work that they did with Microsoft actually to basically really push for some more circular electronics. And what we'll do is we'll share a link specifically about how basically some engagement at a kind of shareholder level using the kind of shareholder resolutions mechanism was used to basically say, let's actually look at the environmental impact of say things like, say Microsoft Services lasting longer, and is that actually a net gain for us?

And it turns out that it was, it's a really nice and interesting story because yeah, it turns out there are lots of ways that you can push for things rather than just coding. And I think that's gonna be the next thing we might touch on actually, which is the story about using DIMPACT. So DIMPACT. Or maybe you can help, how to pronounce this.


Andri Johnston: I think we just say DIMPACT, but yeah, it's digital impact, so it can be either, but yeah, DIMPACT.

Chris Adams: All right. Okay, so this is using DIMPACT to calculate the carbon impact of digital publishing at Cambridge University Press and Assessment. This is a story about the use of DIMPACT, which is a model that was developed by a consortium of different organizations, largely to understand the environmental impact of basically digital services and Andri just before we started the call, you were telling me a little bit about some of the origin stories of this and how some of this came about, and this is some of the work that you've been involved with, right.

Andri Johnston: Yeah. Yeah. DIMPACT was created by a consultancy company called Cornerstone based in London, in conjunction with the University of Bristol and their computer engineering department. And it basically, the first kind of version of it came from the BBC wanting to understand what the carbon footprint was of their online advertising.

And from there, the tool is built with each different company using different model, and for example, there's a digital publishing module, which we use, but there's also a video streaming module, which Netflix, for example, used last year, Netflix and the Carbon Trust with Cornerstone published a white paper on video streaming, and it was really interesting debunking a lot of the myths around video streaming and where the majority of the carbon emissions lie.

But the whole tool is based on the same kind of methodology. It's just different workflows depending on what type of business you're in. Advertising, streaming, or publishing like us. Yeah.

Chris Adams: I see, and you spoke about this idea that there's maybe one model that's been published that, that we can, we're gonna link to, this is open for people to look at, but the idea was that get based on the use case, you might want to use a model slightly differently. So streaming might use a digital infrastructure in a different way to publishing, for example, because there's maybe a different environmental impact from watching something or streaming some files compared to dynamically generating a page every single time or something like that.

Andri Johnston: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And I think what's fascinating and what I find really good about the tool is the granularity it can go into. So on a publishing side we publish the majority of our content online, so all of our customers access our books, our journals, our textbooks online, but there's also a content production kind of side to it, and that's what I find really useful about the tool.

It doesn't just look at the hosting and the accessing of your webpage. It also looks at your entire workflow of your content production and storage, which I think is quite unique. And that's why we started using it because it allowed us as publishers to look at our complete workflow from the start of producing your content for book, for example, all the way through, let's see, someone accessing it online.

So yeah, that it gives you a very good overview of your complete carbon footprint.

Chris Adams: Oh wow. So that's quite a large boundary. So rather than just saying, I'm just gonna look at the website you're talking about, okay, if there's maybe another batch job, or there's another whole edit editing subsystem, you're keeping that inside your kind of boundaries at where, right. Okay.

Andri Johnston: Exactly.

Chris Adams: All right. Okay.

What we'll do, we'll share some links to some of the underlying assumptions and ideas behind how these models work, but there's one thing I also wanted to actually talk about, cuz there's another link inside. This was this idea of using some of these related tools to understand the environmental impact of virtual conferences as well as the publishing part.

Andri Johnston: Yeah. Yeah, because we'd partnered with DIMPACT to do the publishing side when I was doing the article that the will link to it was a pilot project that we did in the academic division for at CUP&A and in the academic publishing world conferences are huge and we had a lot of people coming back and saying, no, we should go back to in-person conferences.

But at the same time, a lot of pushback and saying, no, we should do it online for environmental reasons. So we actually really wanted to understand what the impact was of a virtual conference. So we partnered with DIMPACT again and they. We're developing a module for virtual conferences. They're similar to the publishing and advertising module.

They developed this module for virtual conferences and we took a two day online conference with about a hundred participants per session. We had eight different sessions and we had people from all over the world joining us. We had about 500 participants in total over the whole time. So it was quite big.

Um, and we actually found that. Over the two days, the conference emitted between 15 and 20 kilograms of CO2. For the entire conference. We would've had at least 70 to a hundred people fly in from the US to the conference. It was just really fascinating to do that calculation and to see what the impact was and was never to say.

In-person events are bad. It's just so you have the tools and you have the knowledge to be able to say, this is what the impact is of our online conference for this specific conference. We made the choice to do it because of this. So yeah, I think it's great to have that knowledge.

Chris Adams: Okay, so in this scenario, Streaming is not the new flying. Flying is still the new flying.

Andri Johnston: Flying is still the new flying. Yeah.

Chris Adams: Okay. And what, you said 15 to 20 kilos of co2? Right. Okay. So if we assume, typically this is a kind of common factor that I've seen shared, and we'll share a link to. Typically if you have a cappuccino or a cup of coffee, you're looking at maybe between two to 400 grams of co2 just for that cup of coffee here.

So basically the coffee break for a hundred people was roughly the same carbon footprint as the entire virtual conference, just for the assumptions are more or less in the same ballpark here. Okay. All right. That's a useful thing to bear in mind when we're looking at some of this then. Wow. Okay. Also, there's one thing I might share related to this, now that you've actually just spoke about this.

There's a chap on mastodon.energy, David Hsu. He's done, he's actually been sharing some really interesting work about that's been happening at MIT about their approach with flying and basically academic. The whole kind of idea of, okay, if I'm an academic or I'm doing a bunch of, I'm involved in lots of conferences, where is the environmental impact?

We'll share a link to that deck as well. Cause it's really fascinating and it shows a bunch of the ideas that are being used in MIT to basically get handle on the environmental impact from the whole life cycle of creating what we might refer to as knowledge products like this. And you talk about lots of measures, like say, applying an internal carbon levy the way Microsoft does, but they also talk about things like, say literally just public tracking of this stuff. So you get a rough idea of, okay, at a team level, these are the miles flown for this kind of work and things like that to basically make these things more visible so you can create, uh, an awareness of social proof around this stuff. Okay. Thank you, Andri. That was great.

Andri Johnston: it sounds fascinating. Yeah.

Chris Adams: All right.

Should we look at the next story? Okay, so this is Holly Cummins at Devoxx UK. How would you or the business benefit from your greener Java application? So we spoke about a talk by Holly Cummins at Red Hat about greener Java applications. And this is a talk that Holly was speaking about and this is where this notion of LightSwitchOps has come up.

I think she's also Holly's on a bit of a roll, cause she's mentioned she's come up with a bunch of really quite memorable terms like cloud zombies and things like that here. Is there anything that kind of caught your eye when you were reading this stuff?

Andri Johnston: I think I really liked the idea of making colleagues more aware of greener Java and greener coat because, so taking it back a little bit to the work we did with the DIMPACT tool, as we know in the majority of digital products at the majority of our carbon emissions lie with our end users, and there's still a little bit of a back and forth whether we should be reporting on that, whether we shouldn't, is that part of scope three?

But what we realize is that's the one place you can actually start making a difference in the way that you. Build your software and that, and especially the way that you are creating the content and these pages that people access. And I think this is a kind of thing that you need to provide to your teams as a tool to say, we can make a difference in how we're building our website.

So for me that was a really easy way to say, here's a tip, here's a small thing that we can do as digital product people to make our websites more energy efficient at the end of the day. So for me that was really good. It's that, found it really interesting. I was like, I definitely wanna share this article with my teams.


Chris Adams: So I have a question here about borders, cuz I just, before this, Cost. I did a bit of research on the model, and there are various ways of modeling the environmental impact of a digital service. And the actual end user part is often one of the things which is can seen as a kind of stickler. Like for example, Mozilla, when they report on their emissions, 98% of their scope three, their supply chain carbon footprint came from the device of end users of this.

And basically, this is an organization which reported their carbon footprint of around 800,000 tons. Where 98% of it came from end users, whereas large other organizations like say Google and Netflix, they haven't included these numbers themselves for some of this, and Digital Impact does, but it includes the usage, not the kind of embodied emissions that went into making the

Andri Johnston: Yes, that's correct. Yeah. Yeah. But I think something that we need to take into consideration and why, I think for us it's important to report and to calculate those emissions is because, and Holly points to the carbon emissions of different regions for data centers, which is very true. But also carbon emissions are different for different end users depending on where they're based in the world.

So we know that over 50% of all our customers are not based in the global south and don't have access to grids that are gonna greenify anytime soon. It's really important to understand that if that's where the majority of our carbon emissions lie, we have no control over what device people are using or what energy grid they're using.

But we do have control over how we're building our software and making it as energy efficient as possible. And in my experience, the moment we were able to show that those numbers to board execs and that kind of level, it was like, oh, okay, so we actually can do something. So yeah, I think it's just important to keep that in mind and not just say, we're not gonna report on it because it's not our problem.

Because I do think in some ways it's our responsibility too, to still work on it.

Chris Adams: Yes. There's also one thing you just mentioned actually just springs to mind how there's actually a paper from, I think the Limits conference a couple of years ago that was, that came up in some of the discussions of the Green Software Foundation. When we're trying to figure out, okay, where should the boundary be for some of this, there are decisions that can be made at publishing level that will basically induce people to upgrade or use one device over another device.

We might know this is premature obsolescence, but a lot of the times you might see it when if you use Slack or tools like that, you might see how. You stopped being able to use certain browsers with Slack, for example, or even if you tried to use a browser, like say, Firefox might be the browser that I use by default.

I can't use Firefox on some tools because they assume the use of Chrome or certain tools like that. And there's a whole thing about, okay, well how far are you gonna actually be supporting a, and what happens as a result of you choosing to support certain devices over another one? All right. Okay. There's also, the other thing that we're gonna talk about with this was this idea of LightSwitchOps.

I really like it. It cuz it feels like it captures, and we've spoken about, there's an idea in tech where people talk about things like serverless, whereas there's an idea of things being switched off that when you stop using them. But the idea that we don't have service is a bit of a kind of, It's a fiction that is cool, but let's be real.

We're not really, we know their service still there. Whereas LightSwitchOps, the idea of switching things off, it makes it feel much, much nicer and it feels easier to say than scale to zero. So once I kind of get your take on LightSwitchOps as a kind of low tech and, but a friendly way to talk about some of this stuff here.

Andri Johnston: I think that's exactly what it is. It's a friendly way to explain to people how we can build our products and how we can make sure that they're energy efficient. So just to give a bit of background, I don't come from a tech background at all. I come from a publishing background and I taught myself all of these things and I got fascinated by it.

And it sometimes gets quite overwhelming when you are talking about, especially things like around cloud hosting and serverless, and it's becomes very techy. But the moment you can simplify it, Then it's almost like you can say, oh, okay, yeah, I can make, I can do this. Anyone can change the way that we're creating our products.

So yes, I think that's exactly what it is. It's simplifying tech for everyone to understand and digital sustainability, because it does still seem very farfetched in, in some ways. If you're not super techy.

Chris Adams: Yeah, I'm with you on this. Are you familiar with the baking forecast, by the way? Andri. Okay. The baking forecast is the way I talk about carbon intensity to people who are not really already really into this stuff. At the baking forecast, you, I think it still is a Twitter account that basically will tell you, when the electricity is gonna be particularly green in the UK, so if you're gonna bake a delicious cake or loaf of bread or anything like that, it'll be a particularly green cake, which means that you'll feel particularly good about yourself.

And as opposed to if it's a really fossil fuel, heavy, heavy moment of the grid, maybe on a wait a little while, probably don't bake today or bake tomorrow, and they just provide little forecast just like we have the shipping forecast, which is a well loved. Institution in the uk you now have the baking forecast to communicate the idea of carbon intensity of electricity.

And that seems to be pretty intuitive to a nation that is a fan of the British, the Great British Bake Off or anything like that. It seems like a really nice way in to talk about something which is gonna become more and more of a kind of staple or a regular constant. Uh, and as we move away from a kind of fossil fuel kind of based grid to something which is more in tune with the natural cycles and rhythms that we see of like sunlight and wind and things like that.

Andri Johnston: Yeah, it feels more natural in any case, isn't it like to live with nature in that way?

Chris Adams: Yeah The approach that I found as well, like when you talk about grids having a kind of cycles, then it's a little bit like really sped up seasonality for food. Uh, that's how I try to explain that to other people as well. Cause once you've. People have some notion like, yeah, okay. Things come into season, there's cycles you can use there.

And if you think about grids and electric, that's like the equivalent for people who work in technology is basically like chefs might have seasonality. We have grid intensity for what we do.

Andri Johnston: Yeah, that's a really good way to see it. Yeah.

Chris Adams: Okay. Thank you. Alright. Should we look at some of the events here to see what we've got coming up?

Andri Johnston: Yeah.

Chris Adams: All right. Okay, so there is an event that's listed below here. This is the Green Infrastructure Meetup by Green Coding Berlin, and it's about, there's a guy, yeah, Arne Tarara. He, he works at the imaginatively titled Green Coding

Berlin. They're basically a a bunch of people in Berlin who really into green coding basically, and they're presenting and running an event that's happening in Berlin on the 31st of May. So that's what's happening there. And there's a, there's some talks that they have, Arne Tarara and his little gang of people, they have a bunch of open source tools, which they make available for everyone to use for free and to basically try using some of this stuff.

And the other thing we have is UN World Environment Day. This is on June the fifth as well, actually.

Andri Johnston: That looks really interesting. I was looking at that. I was like, oh wow. Like I really want to attend that one.

Chris Adams: Yeah, and the people speaking here. So we've got Asim Hussain, who's a regular on this podcast. Anne Currie, she of Space Death Rays and data centers in space. There's Tamara Kneese she's actually one of the lead authors on a report about. Basically cryptocurrencies and the environmental impact of grid cryptocurrencies for the Linux Foundation, but she's also doing a bunch of work with the Green Software Foundation on upcoming green software report and Pindy Bhullar, this CTO for ESG at UBS and a PhD researcher.

This is an online event for anyone who's interested on the 5th of June. The other thing they don't have mentioned is the Linux Foundation Energy Summit that's taking place in Paris where it's a two day long conference with a bunch of events that I'm hoping will be shared afterwards because, well, I'll be going there in person to see, and I've seen a bunch of tools and talks coming upcoming, specifically about various kinds of open source tools that you can use to quantify and understand the environmental DIMPACT of the digital services that we use in on a daily basis.

Andri Johnston: Sounds really interesting. I have to say, I'm definitely gonna share the UN one, the online one as well, because I am a bit biased towards online events. So having, coming from South Africa, I always had this feeling that there's not enough opportunities to go to things like this. And one thing that I really love is how there's more and more online events like this for people who can't travel all the way.

Yeah. So I, I think that's really great to have more of these.

Chris Adams: I know what you mean. I'm really with a bit of luck. What I'd love to see as a follow on from some of this stuff, we've seen people understanding the environmental impact of entirely virtual events, and we see a significant amount of information about the impact of in-person events where we see that most of the time, the road to the impact is around 80%.

Basically of flying people to and from an event a lot of the time. But this idea of kinda like hub and spoke or kind of hybrid events, I haven't seen that many published reports or things to help us understand if there is a way to have some kind of interim here. Because there is something to be said for high bandwidth interactions with other people, but there is also a significant environmental impact associated with that.

And, uh, there have to be some alternatives to this. What we'll do, I'll share a link cuz anyone I know about is a piece by Vlad Coraoma. He's shared a paper about this from a couple of years ago, but beyond that though, ah, Andri something we could, it'd be really nice to see. So if few folks are doing that anytime soon or doing any kind of hybrid events, do please let us know and it'd be really lovely to hear about that.

Andri Johnston: Yeah, it's definitely something that we're interested in looking into more, so I'll keep you in the loop.

Chris Adams: Cool. All right, Andri, thank you very much for this. We're just coming to the end of this, which is time for the kind of closing question. I suppose you work for one of the most well known publishers in the UK, and I guess I should ask you about books in that case, where do you tend to get your books? Do you buy 'em secondhand in shops or do you read on Kindle, or is there some particular channel you into?

What would you recommend?

Andri Johnston: I think I am a bit of a book snob. Previously I worked in trade publishing in Penguin, so I'm a little bit of a book snob if I'm just reading something. Quickly, then I get it on my Kobo because I'm also very aware of the actual impact of a physical book on the environment. But when I do buy physical books, I usually go to indie bookstores and buy the hard cover version because I know how much goes into producing it as well.

I don't buy that many books, which seems shocking, but working in publishing, but it's just because I've become very mindful of what I do buy. So if it's a quick read, I read it on my Kobo, but if it's, it's like a book I really want in paper, I'll go to a very indie niche little bookstore and support that way.

That being said, secondhand, old secondhand book stores that are very dusty are definitely one of my favorite places in the world. So yeah, I'm definitely a little bit of a book snob, but that's to be expected.

Chris Adams: That's so good. The problem, I think that's fair. If you work with books all day long, then you get to have opinions about books. All right, Andri, thank you so much for coming on for this little session today and uh, yeah, I've really enjoyed this chat, so thank you for coming on for this week in Green Software and hopefully we'll have you on again sometime soon.

Andri Johnston: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. It's really great and thank you for the great podcast. I really enjoyed and I always learn a lot, so thank you so much.

Chris Adams: Cool, thanks Andri Andri. See you around. Bye.

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