02 February 2019
This thread floats the idea of a bridge between the open energy modeling community and energy and climate NGOs. The discussion here looks at Europe but the themes presented should be applicable anywhere.
To date, there has been next to no contact between these two camps. But I believe that should change to mutual advantage. The open energy modelers are now sufficiently advanced and organized to engage in substantial outreach. And the NGOs, as I will argue, should begin to involve, trust, and work more closely with their supporters.
The tools and practices for doing so no longer constitute barriers. Indeed, many of the methods on offer came from collaborative open source software (abbreviated here FOSS) development.
It is worthwhile stressing at the outset that public and open are different concepts. Code, data, and documents can all be made public without being open. The latter requires that suitable open licenses be added that permit downstream users to use, modify, and share the material. In short, the freedom to reuse.
To the best of my knowledge, established energy and climate NGOs have, for their policy analysis, relied solely upon:
- closed source models
- non‑open data
- copyrighted reports
These NGOs often commission external consultants to undertake complex analysis, although simpler tasks are sometimes conducted in‑house using spreadsheets. These models are not made public and remain, in all practical terms, impenetrable.
Datasets, when published, which is a rarity, normally implicitly remain under full copyright and also European database protection (for instance Moore et al 2018). Reports are also not published under usable open access provisions either (refer to the Berlin Declaration 2003) (for instance Matthes et al 2018).
The one exception to the preceding comments is the Western Australian NGO Sustainable Energy Now (SEN) and their SIREN model (Rose 2016, Sustainable Energy Now 2017). It is also worth noting that the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) runs a fork of the US government NEMS model which is public domain only within the United States and hence not technically open source (refer to the 2007 Open Source Definition).
Modern environmental NGOs date back about four or five decades (McNeill 2001), while FOSS development began in earnest about three decades ago. These two phenomena have remained completely separate in their parallel worlds The environmental NGOs pushed political transparency and engagement but most did little to involve or trust their memberships.
In contrast, the FOSS projects stressed openness at every turn — legal, technical, and social — and built an ethos of contribution, merit, and consensus and more recently inclusion, civil conduct and conflict resolution. A central theme throughout this evolution was the lack of a need to seek permission and hence also the freedom to fork a project and head elsewhere.
Similar conventions were later developed for authoring online encyclopedias and collecting citizen‑generated data (Lämmerhirt et al 2018). Wikipedia, for example, encourages participation by stressing “be bold”.
In late‑November 2018, I began contacting NGOs in Europe — off my own bat using the no need to seek permission doctrine just described — to float the idea of a bridge meeting in Berlin in early to mid‑2019 to discuss opportunities for collaboration.
I won’t list the individual organizations here but I can say that several attempts were required to make useful contact with the incumbent NGOs.
A newly formed environmental group however, Extinction Rebellion (XR), launched on 31 October 2018 in the United Kingdom (Green and Scott Cato 2018) and which, four weeks later, had established nascent branches throughout Germany, France, and elsewhere, was much more receptive. I duly made contact via their generic email address in early‑December and received an enthusiastic response (the only one in fact). XR are diametrically opposite to an incumbent environmental NGO in almost every regard and indeed exhibit many characteristics of a FOSS project. So it is no surprise to me that XR saw opportunities where established environmental NGOs could not.
A Danish research project had also earlier created a website to encourage third parties to submit future energy system scenarios. But, despite prompting, no environmental NGOs engaged.
There are various ways that established NGOs could interact with the open energy modeling community. These might include:
directly commissioned research (I am completely unaligned here)
associate with or even endorse modeling projects and prompt analytical directions (rather than specifying scenarios in detail)
develop online satellite communities for formulating scenarios and undertaking analysis and interpretation
I personally favor the third option — online satellite communities — having seen what FOSS development can accomplish. These satellite communities would not design the models, write the core code, or collect and curate primary data — the open energy modeling community is instead actively engaged in those tasks. Rather the satellite communities would formulate research questions, select modeling projects, develop scenarios, populate and run the models, and collate and analyze the results. A tight integration between the model developers, the data portals, the satellite communities, and the host NGOs would no doubt result.
These satellite communities are tentatively forming in other modeling domains. For instance, Extinction Rebellion, barely ten weeks old, has begun discussing building its own sustainability modeling capacity (XR‑DE community). Other domains, such as agriculture and economics, could also follow a similar route (although I am not aware of any activity aside from data assembly).
It is worth noting that the OSeMOSYS project is undertaking something similar, but with a focus on government agencies in developing countries (that’s the only project I am going to mention here). Their processes are also more formal than I envisage initially and their efforts are supported by multilateral institutions.
Stepping back, I believe it time for the incumbent NGOs to learn from and embrace FOSS development methods for their core policy analysis. The current practice of commissioning closed model analysis is a poor fit with their calls for public transparency and engagement. Moreover, it is hard to imagine that single institution closed source energy models will exist for much longer — having been out competed by their open source compatriots.
Possible ways forward
Otherwise the idea of a one‑day bridge meeting in Berlin remains on the table. People can contact me directly if they wish although I am keen to broaden out the organization.
And the dialog can continue below of course. If you provide corrections or observations, I’ll update this posting too. R.
Berlin Declaration (22 October 2003). Berlin Declaration on open access to knowledge in the sciences and humanities. Munich, Germany: Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, München.
Green, Alison and Molly Scott Cato et al (26 October 2018). “Facts about our ecological crisis are incontrovertible: we must take action — Letters”. The Guardian. London, United Kingdom. ISSN 0261-3077.
Lämmerhirt, Danny, Jonathan Gray, Tommaso Venturini, and Axel Meunier (December 2018). Advancing sustainability together? citizen-generated data and the Sustainable Development Goals. Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, Open Knowledge International, Public Data Lab.
Matthes, Felix Chr, Franziska Flachsbarth, Charlotte Loreck, Hauke Hermann, Hanno Falkenberg, and Vanessa Cook (October 2018). Zukunft Stromsystem II: Regionalisierung der erneuerbaren Stromerzeugung : Vom Ziel her denken — Version 1.1 [Future electricity system II: regionalization of renewable electricity generation: thinking on the goal — Version 1.1] (in German). Berlin, Germany: WWF Deutschland. ISBN 978-3-946211-22-8.
McNeill, JR (17 April 2001). Something new under the sun: an environmental history of the twentieth-century world. New York, USA: WW Norton and Company. ISBN 978-0-393-32183-8.
Molitch-Hou, Michael (19 October 2018). “Climate activists occupy Greenpeace UK headquarters — wait, that can’t be right”. Common Dreams.
Moore, Charles, Phil MacDonald, and Dave Jones (10 April 2018). Coal to clean: how the UK phased out coal without a dash for gas. United Kingdom: WWF and Sandbag.
OSI. Open Source Definition — Last modified 2007-03-22. Open Source Initiative (OSI). Palo Alto, California, USA.
Rose, Ben (April 2016). Clean electricity Western Australia 2030: modelling renewable energy scenarios for the South West Integrated System. West Perth, WA, Australia: Sustainable Energy Now.
Sustainable Energy Now (2017). Modelling overview: the SIREN toolkit and more. Perth, Australia: Sustainable Energy Now (SEN).
XR‑DE community (ongoing). Use of IPCC IAM models and similar. Extinction Rebellion Deutschland. Registration required but not approval.