Bret Victor asks “What Can a Technologist Do About Climate Change”

created Nov. 24, 2015

I checked Hacker News this morning and was surprised to see a post entitled “What Can a Technologist Do About Climate Change” in the #2 spot. The author, Brett Victor, is well known in tech circles for his visionary work in programming and user interfaces. He’s quite a craftsman and his thoughtfulness and empathy are evident in his work as well as his writing.

The article that made it to Hacker News today is a thorough piece on how techies can become involved in the most critical challenge of our time. It’s a call to action, really. “I urge you to talk to many scientists and engineers involved in climate analysis and energy, and see for yourself what the needs are and how you can contribute.”

As you read the article and feel inspired, take a moment to notice Bret’s strategy for visual communication: it’s like a hybrid of Ed Tufte meets WIRED…strong and simple graphs and layouts that support the main text. Then on top of that there’s an exciting “meta” look similar to what WIRED could get sometimes (although perhaps they’ve lost a bit of this recently) and before that, the Whole Earth Catalog.

I particularly like how he makes data become part of the story, as in the alluvial diagram on energy consumption coupled with his commentary on it, rather than just tossing up multi-colored chart junk like some fairground fireworks.

Bret Victor Diagram

The post is important because it calls for techies to lend their skills. To be sure. But I’m calling out the visual design because visual design is essential to the success of any software or hardware project, even hard-core engineering ones. Often government labs researching these issues and cranking out power tools on GitHub get caught up in the engineering side of the (good) work they’re doing, and end up giving UI and UX little thought. “Who cares about the UI as long as all those complicated algorithms are accurate?” The end-user, that’s who, and the more attention given to UI and UX the better adoption rates will be.

Therefore the visual side of the post is almost as important as the technical side, as design (UI, UX and educational) has a big role to play in generating interest, empowering users and smoothing out learning curves. So UI and UX designers, Bret’s looking at you too.

On the programming side, Bret makes the claim that Julia is a language worth investing in if you like programming and want to help those doing scientific research:

Here’s an opinion you might not hear much — I feel that one effective approach to addressing climate change is contributing to the development of Julia. Julia is a modern technical language, intended to replace Matlab, R, SciPy, and C++ on the scientific workbench. It’s immature right now, but it has beautiful foundations, enthusiastic users, and a lot of potential.

He also mentions languages suited for modeling and simulation like Mathmatica, Simulink and Modelica. I know that Michael Wetter over at LBNL is doing a lot of work building a toolkit in Modelica for building energy and control systems modeling.

Head over to Bret’s site today and give yourself 30 minutes to read. Well worth it.