Data, a tool for multidisciplinarity, a challenge for sustainability - Sustainability and Data Science recording now available
The Sustainability and Data Science seminar provided a lively discussion on how technology and information that has been collected about the world – data – can help researchers to understand complicated phenomena. However, users should also remain aware of the environmental effects of data handling and transmission.

The Sustainability and Data Science joint seminar was organized by Helsinki Centre for Data Science (HiDATA) and Helsinki Sustainability Institute (HELSUS) at the Think Corner, as well as online, on September 3rd, 2020. Five speakers working in research and development from the University of Helsinki, the Finnish Innovation Fund SITRA, and Kone, discussed Artificial Intelligence (AI), the environmental impacts of technology and data transmission, and how data can be applied in both science and in practice.

Artificial Intelligence for sustainability

Juha-Matti Kuusinen, Head of People Flow Optimization at Kone Oyj, pointed out how information on the movements of people in buildings combined with AI can assist in building elevators that take into account both the amount and state of lift passengers and conserve energy. Future elevators might let passengers that are having laid-back discussions in elevator lobbies wait a little longer while prioritizing persons who seem busier. As the past year has shown, such flexibility and adaptability is important in e.g. designing apartment buildings, noted Kuusinen.

AI has uses in planning for sustainable cities, too. Professor Laura Ruotsalainen discussed the importance of accurate, up-to-date urban spatial data. This is essential for transportation AI and autonomous traffic, both of which can also be a key for achieving sustainability targets in transportation by reducing accidents and emissions. In addition, knowledge on the movements of people is important. Where and when are people moving? This will help in e.g. designing routing apps that find the fastest way from A to B, but is also useful for transportation AI.

Sustainability and data: challenges and possibilities

Collecting, storing, and transmitting data or manufacturing IT equipment has significant environmental impacts that we need to be mindful of. The sustainability challenges of the ongoing digitalization and related rising energy consumption were discussed by Professor Jussi Kangasharju, who encouraged us to “Think before you Tweet.” According to Kangasharju’s presentation, global total emissions of e-mail, Netflix and Whatsapp together may be higher than the EU emissions from cars or flights. However, things are rarely black-and-white. Utilizing data can create emissions, will but also help in reducing them, noted Eeva Hällström, Senior Lead of Foresight and Strategy at the Finnish Innovation Fund SITRA.

Data science can help in crossing disciplinary boundaries

Data science is an interdisciplinary field, demonstrated Associate Professor Leena Järvi’s presentation. Understanding urban air pollution requires knowledge of chemistry, physics, urban geography, and data on these variables. This information can then be utilized for modelling the actual situation of air pollution in cities.

The importance of combining different types of knowledge and data was also discussed by Eeva Hällström. Combining environmental, societal and economical data should be facilitated, where multidisciplinary hubs like HiDATA and HELSUS can be strong. Also, Hällström discussed continuous situational analysis, where contemporary data technologies, collaborative processes and scientific knowledge are combined. New technologies can help us to discover perspectives and phenomena we could not otherwise perceive or even imagine.

You can find the recording of the event here.