Computer Scientists use their knowledge to fight climate change
If a journalist does not know the basic context and facts regarding climate, they will only inform whether Greta Thunberg ate from a plastic box. However this will not lead to a constructive discussion about the Earth's climate and the solution of its problems.
They are studying for a doctorate at the Faculty of Informatics at MU and in their free time they are participating in a project that helps to improve discussion on climate change in the Czech Republic. In an interview about the project Climate facts, Kristína Zákopčanová and Martin Ukrop explain how computer scientists can play a key role in addressing climate issues in society.
Why the Climate Facts project?
Martin: We have noticed that discussions on climate change in the Czech Republic all too often voice opinions and impressions instead of hard data. Clear, comprehensible, and trustworthy texts presenting the current state of knowledge about the climate crisis in Czech language are practically non-existent! Then one day our friend Ondráš Přibyla from the Faculty of Science of MU came up with the idea on how to create such a resource. We quickly agreed. It made sense and joined forces.
Kristi: That's right (laughs). But Ondráš originally thought that we could create the resource during a one-day hackathon. It turned out that working on this topic was much more complex and in order for our work to have a real impact, it was necessary to work on more topics and in various forms — not only infographics, but also excerpts from scientific studies, data access, explanation of concepts. And so the one-off event became a long-running project, on which we have been working for almost a year and a half now and are solving the strategy for the next years.
Who does the materials you create serve?
Kristi: The materials can be useful for anyone who wants to learn more about climate change. However, we mainly target journalists, politicians and teachers, generally professions that typically pass information to larger groups of people. If a journalist does not know the basic context and facts regarding climate, they will only inform whether Greta Thunberg ate from a plastic box. However this will not lead to a constructive discussion about the Earth's climate and the solution of its problems.
Martin: It is important for us that our materials present reliable and relevant data. People who want to talk about climate change do not have to base their arguments on impressions or opinions, but can rely on our materials. In fact, we are trying to make the discussion on this topic more constructive.
Why was the project created among computer scientists? Isn't that more of a topic for environmentalists and scientists?
Kristi: Although the topic of climate change is closer to environmentalists and naturalists in terms of professional content, it has implications for the society as a whole. That is why economists, sociologists and engineers must also take part in its solution. I am glad that through our project we can show that even seemingly unrelated professions can put their hand to the work. IT professionals are often close to working with data, which is plentiful in the field of climate change, both in explaining phenomena, understanding the current state of society, and in proposing possible societal responses to climate change, which are too complicated for the public. And computer scientists can process this data into a form digestible for others.
Martin: Of course, the project is not just about computer scientists — scientists, teachers, economists, communication instructors and people from other professions are involved. However, since we mainly invited our friends at the beginning, quite a few volunteers were students and FI MU graduates. After all, the first working hackathon took place on May 31, 2019 directly at the faculty.
What is your role in the project that attracted you to the project personally?
Kristi: I was attracted to the project by the desire to help communicate knowledge and explain complex phenomena in a comprehensible form through data visualization and at the same time a sense of responsibility — the need to somehow contribute to solving the climate crisis. On the project, I take care of the creation of individual infographics. It is a process that involves a lot of discussion with experts, because first I need to understand the topic and, based on that, suggest what information and with what context to pass on to the reader. It is often about finding a balance between simplifying information so that it can be understood by lay people and maintaining such a level of detail that the information is not distorted. I then try to reflect this in the visual representation, which I design so that it is easy for the reader to understand — we use knowledge from the psychology of perception. Of course, the aesthetic aspect of graphics also plays a role, which can significantly help to engage the reader in further study.
Martin: I am in the project primarily as a developer and webmaster. But it's not a strict division at all, we all do a little of everything. We were both attracted to the project by a sense of responsibility to help solve at least the current climate crisis. Neither of us is the type for street demonstrations or political agitation, so we contribute what we do best: Kristi is dedicated to visualization and I am managing IT systems.
Is this work related to your study?
Martin: It may not look like that, but it is. We actually do very similar things at the doctorate — it is necessary to know the data, be able to search for reliable sources, critically read professional texts, or communicate knowledge to other people. The experience of teamwork and live project management is again put back into research work.
Kristi: I agree with Martin. Moreover, in my case, in my work on this project and in my doctoral studies, I deal with the same topic, namely data visualization, I just look at it from a different perspective. While the doctorate is more about research and study of rather general concepts, including visual information processing, on the project I have the opportunity to repeatedly apply these concepts in practice. I feel that thanks to that I can do both jobs a little better.
What are your plans for the future?
Kristi: We definitely want to continue creating, or translating, relevant infographics and studies, because it turns out that there is interest in them. Several of our graphics have already appeared in newspapers and other media, and we are now preparing an edition of the Climate Change Atlas in cooperation with the Lipka Learning Center. We cooperate with journalists, we will establish a non-profit, several of our graphics will appear in the Senate in the autumn. There is a lot of it.
Martin: There are more possibilities than we can handle on our own.
We are open to other people, we are looking for Computer Science,
graphics and people for data processing. If anyone wants to join, just get in touch at
infoq6DVzJb1t@faktaoklimatu0zBxoU71B.cz. We are happy to involve other
collaborators in the project.
In her doctoral studies, Kristína deals with research and creation of data visualizations in the laboratory VisIt lab. As part of his teaching, she also focuses on creative programming and connecting technologies with art.
Martin is doing research on the topic of usable safety in the laboratory CRoCS as part of his doctoral studies. He co-founded the faculty's Spoolek přátel severské zvěře and long-term leads Teaching lab — an initiative to improve teaching at MU.