Responding to the Climate Crisis — some practical thoughts from the Sector Tech strand of The Catalyst

Chris Thorpe
Sep 20, 2019 · 5 min read
An XR Boat outside the Royal Courts of Justice, Summer 2019.
An XR Boat outside the Royal Courts of Justice, Summer 2019.
An XR Boat outside the Royal Courts of Justice, Summer 2019. There are numerous ways charities can act to slow warming.

If we think that the aims and goals of The Catalyst are urgent, I’m sure we’ll agree that doing all we can to reduce the effect of the Climate Crisis are even more urgent. It’s easy to feel that any action we take will be too late; however that’s not the case, and we feel there are at least three things we can do urgently as part of The Catalyst to help the sector get into a better place. There are many things we could do, some of them longer term, but I wanted to focus on things we can do in the next week or few.

1. Facilitating knowledge transfer and reuse

First of all, we want to help the environmental campaigning organisations. We need to support them right now in any way we can. Many are small and hyperlocal with constrained budget, doing an amazing job with very little. Some need help around what digital tools are available to help them in their work. Many organisations are doing brilliant work in this space and we want to help facilitate knowledge transfer and reuse in the sector.

We want to build a very fast Minimum Viable Product (MVP) around the service needs and problem statements of this sector and the tools used to meet those needs. What we’re thinking of as an MVP for this is something like reusing the wonderful Local Government Service Patterns from FutureGov.

A screenshot of the FutureGov “Local Government Patterns” service
A screenshot of the FutureGov “Local Government Patterns” service

2. Consuming less by doing less, but better

Secondly we would encourage all of the charities and organisations we work with to review their digital estate. Hosting a website takes up resources — the power to run the servers, network switches and air conditioning and other services of a data centre. If you’ve wondered what a modern data centre looks like, there’s a picture of one below. They’re optimised to consume as little resource as possible in so many wonderful and complex ways, but the best way to consume less is to only do what is necessary. Retirement and decommissioning of websites and digital services is a key part of the product lifecycle, but it’s one that is seldom talked about.

A Google engineer replacing a server in a Google Data Center
A Google engineer replacing a server in a Google Data Center
A Google engineer replacing a server in a Google Data Center (image source Google)

If you have a website which is rarely used by end users, now may be a good day to plan its retirement so that it is no longer consuming resources. Servers within data centers can be reused/recycled or just migrated to different users and workloads. In some cases, especially on multi client servers run by a digital agency, the server is often kept alive because of historic websites hosted on it which are no longer needed or used. The content of those pages , if needed by some users, should be migrated to other services you run and the appropriate redirection performed so that user’s bookmarks still work. We will be providing guides on how to redirect and an application which can simply perform the redirections in the next few weeks. To use a phrase from the wonderful industrial designer Dieter Rams which originated in his desire to make environmentally sustainable products Less, but Better.

A portrait of Dieter Rams, the industrial designer at Braun, whose “10 Principles of Good Design” can inform our practice
A portrait of Dieter Rams, the industrial designer at Braun, whose “10 Principles of Good Design” can inform our practice
A portrait of Dieter Rams, the industrial designer at Braun, whose “10 Principles of Good Design” can inform our practice and were born out of a desire to make more environmentally friendly, long lasting products (image source Wikipedia)

If you have a website which is used regularly, but never updated, or updated infrequently you could consider moving it to being a static site. Most modern websites are driven by a Content Management System and an underlying database. These can be expensive in terms of the computational power required to generate a webpage from a request, often requiring many, sometimes tens of database queries. Each of these has to be run each time a user accesses a particular page. Using some form of caching can improve this dramatically, however if the website is rarely updated, moving to a static site, generated on change will dramatically reduce the computational power needed and thus reduce the resources (power and metals/minerals needed to produce the servers) required. It will also be significantly cheaper to host.

3. Greener ways to host and serve digital services

Finally we want to help organisations to host their digital tools and services in a way that is better for the environment. There are many green hosting firms who only use renewable energy to power their servers and data centers.

Solar farm owned by Amazon in Virginia which powers an AWS data center
Solar farm owned by Amazon in Virginia which powers an AWS data center
Solar farm owned by Amazon in Virginia which powers an AWS data center

Services like Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure are large consumers of renewable power. Google Cloud’s data centers are powered by 100% renewable power , AWS is just over 50% , Microsoft Azure is on track for 60%. If you want to know how environmentally friendly your website hosting is, The Green Web Foundation have a quick check tool .

As described in a fabulous article from Chris Adams there are new and incredibly energy efficient ways to serve digital services and websites which are all grouped under the slightly confusing title of “serverless”. There are obviously servers involved, however your requests, along with those of others, will be responded to in secure isolated processes from the same physical servers. You don’t own/rent your servers/shares of servers, you merely pay when people request your service. It is totally demand based and is incredibly cost effective, especially for services which have very irregular usage. It’s also incredibly scalable as when you have a large number of requests for your service, the system will spin up copies of the processes to respond to those requests. We’ll be talking about “serverless” computing soon and where possible all of the tools which CAST produce for The Catalyst will use “serverless” practices. You may hear these talked about as Lambda Functions (AWS), Cloud Functions/AppEngine/Cloud Run (Google Cloud) and Azure Functions (Microsoft Azure). More and more of the software stack within these cloud platforms is moving to an on-demand or “serverless” model, so expect to hear more of it.

In conclusion, if we’re talking about building a greener way of delivering digital services to end users, the very simple maxim is “The best servers are as few servers as possible*”.

*With apologies to Dieter Rams for reusing his “Good Design is as Little Design as Possible”

p.s. another very simple way of reducing the environmental impact of services is by reducing any unnecessary complexity, compressing static resources (images, CSS and JavaScript) and making products use less processing power on the user’s device, but we’ll save that for another blog post.

The Catalyst

UK collaborative to bring a social purpose to the digital revolution. From CAST, City Bridge Trust, Comic Relief, DCMS, Esmée Fairbairn, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and The National Lottery Community Fund.

Chris Thorpe

Written by

Technologist. Not sure what to put here; likes making things, often powered by tea. Father, husband, art lover.

The Catalyst

UK collaborative to bring a social purpose to the digital revolution. From CAST, City Bridge Trust, Comic Relief, DCMS, Esmée Fairbairn, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and The National Lottery Community Fund.

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