As monikers go, Subak may seem an odd choice for a new organisation that aims to accelerate hi-tech efforts to combat the climate crisis. The name is Indonesian, it transpires, and refers to an ancient agricultural system that allows farmers to co-ordinate their efforts when irrigating and growing crops.
“Subak allows farmers to carefully synchronise their use of water and so maximise rice production,” said Bryony Worthington, founder and board member of the new, not-for-profit climate action group. “And that is exactly what we are going to do – with data. By sharing and channelling data, we can maximise our efforts to combat carbon emissions and global warming. Data is going to be the new water, in other words.”
Subak will be officially launched on Monday and will select and fund non-profit groups, working around the world, to combat the climate crisis. Early start-ups already helped by Subak include one group that is assisting UK local authorities to boost electric car use, while another is using accurate weather forecasts to make best use of solar power across Britain and limit fossil fuel burning to generate electricity.
These efforts are being launched after a week of headlines that have highlighted how perilous life on Earth is becoming as global heating grips the planet. Floods in Germany and Belgium left more than 150 dead; scientists revealed that the Brazilian rainforest now emits more carbon dioxide than it absorbs; and fires devastated vast tracts of Californian forests. In each case, scientists warned that rising temperatures – triggered by increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – are likely to have played a key role in bringing about these catastrophes.
Urgent action is clearly needed, says Lady Worthington, a noted climate activist and lead author of the team which drafted the UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act, legislation that required the UK to reduce its carbon emissions by at least 80% of their 1990 levels. At the time, Worthington was working with Friends of the Earth but was seconded to government to help design the legislation. For her efforts, she was made a peer in 2010.
Since then, Worthington has continued in the battle against the climate crisis, and in 2019 she read Harvard academic Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism ,which focuses – disapprovingly – on hi-tech companies’ growing use of personal data to make money.
“It woke me up to the fact a whole new world of digital tools was being deployed to generate profits,” says Worthington. “I realised it would be better if those tools could be used to save the planet – to protect the global commons – and not merely to boost share value.”
Worthington contacted Gi Fernando, a tech entrepreneur, and the pair hatched the idea of Subak, which has since been given funding by the Quadrature Climate Foundation (QCF) that was recently set up by the London investment management company, Quadrature Capital. Its aim is to provide initial funding to help groups establish themselves but also to give expert guidance over legal, management and other issues.
“When you start up a company or group, you are quite alone,” says Fernando. “So if you have a community around you that can offer help – HR, finance, tools – that is incredibly helpful. And then, once that group gets on their feet, they can then start to help other startup entrepreneurs wanting to open new avenues in order to help fight climate change.”
Fernando’s words are echoed by several of the groups that Subak has already helped to set up, such as Open Climate Fix. This aims to reduce carbon emissions by improving weather forecasts to make the best use of solar power plants – whose effectiveness is reduced when the weather is cloudy.
“If we get very good data about forthcoming cloud cover, we will know exactly how much solar-generated electricity can be provided in the UK on a given day,” said Open Climate Fix’s co-founder, Jack Kelly. “That will mean we will not need to generate unnecessary electricity from other sources – in particular fossil fuel sources such as gas – because we have underestimated the solar power we will get that day. That will help to reduce carbon emissions.”
Subak’s provision of engineers and software experts who have turned weather satellite images into cloud cover forecasts was a critical piece of assistance, added Kelly.
A similar tale is told by Richard Allan of New AutoMotive, which is monitoring how electric cars are being taken up in communities across the UK. Factors include vehicle use, sales patterns and favourite types of cars and trucks. That data can be fed to local authorities to ensure charging stations, battery replacement services and other resources are provided to maximise take-up of electric cars.
“Replacing petrol and diesel vehicles with electric versions as quickly as possible is going to be extremely important in reducing carbon emissions,” says Allan. “And data about take-up rates in communities will be vital in achieving that goal.”
This view is endorsed by Worthington. “Just as a major corporation has lots of different companies under its control, Subak is going to help set up lots of new outfits, each aimed at boosting efforts to control climate change.
“We are going to be the Diageo of climate protection, though we will not be co-ordinating drink production. We will be generating precious data about the climate.”
Climate crisis in numbers
415: The number of parts per million of carbon dioxide that make up the atmosphere. Before the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1700s, the global average amount of carbon dioxide was about 280ppm. Burning fossil fuels has since added a further 135ppm and if global energy demand continues to grow and is met mostly with fossil fuels, that figure could exceed 900ppm by 2100.
3.6mm: The estimated increase each year in sea level, according to measurements of tide gauges and satellite data. This is a result of human-induced warming of the planet. It is projected that the sea level will rise a further 40 to 80cm by 2100, although future ice sheet melt could make these values considerably higher.
43.1 billion: In 2019 that was the number of tons of carbon dioxide from human activities that were emitted into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that absorbs heat and release it gradually over time, like bricks in a fireplace after the fire goes out. Current increases in greenhouse gases have tipped the Earth’s energy budget out of balance, trapping additional heat and raising Earth’s average temperature.
28 trillion: The estimated numbers of tons of ice that our planet has lost between 1994 and 2017. Global warming has a particularly severe impact at higher latitudes and this has been most noticeable in the Arctic. Scientists worry that as ice melts, less solar radiation will be reflected back into space and temperatures will rise even faster. Ice loss will become increasingly severe as a result.
Sources: Royal Society; US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Scientific American
Several Amazon services – including its website, Prime Video and applications that use Amazon Web Services (AWS) – went down for thousands of users on Tuesday.
Amazon said the outage was probably due to problems related to application programming interface (API), which is a set of protocols for building and integrating application software, Reuters reported.
“We are experiencing API and console issues in the US-East-1 Region,” Amazon said in a report on its service health dashboard, adding that it had identified the cause. By late late afternoon the outage appeared to be partially resolved, with the company saying that it was “working towards full recovery”.
“With the network device issues resolved, we are now working towards recovery of any impaired services,” the company said on the dashboard.
Downdetector showed more than 24,000 incidents of people reporting problems with Amazon. It tracks outages by collating status reports from a number of sources, including user-submitted errors on its platform.
The outage was also affecting delivery operations. Amazon’s warehouse operation use AWS and experienced disruptions, spokesperson Richard Rocha told the Washington Post. A Washington state Amazon driver said his facility had been “at a standstill” since Tuesday morning, CNBC reported.
Other services, including Amazon’s Ring security cameras, mobile banking app Chime and robot vacuum cleaner maker iRobot were also facing difficulties, according to their social media pages.
Ring said it was aware of the issue and working to resolve it. “A major Amazon Web Services (AWS) outage is currently impacting our iRobot Home App,” iRobot said on its website.
Other websites and apps affected include the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), language learning provider Duolingo and dating site Tinder, according to Downdetector.
The outage also affected presale tickets for Adele’s upcoming performances in Las Vegas. “Due to an Amazon Web Services (AWS) outage impacting companies globally, all Adele Verified Fan Presales scheduled for today have been moved to tomorrow to ensure a better experience,” Ticketmaster said on Twitter.
In June, websites including the Guardian, Reddit, Amazon, CNN, PayPal, Spotify, Al Jazeera Media Network and the New York Times were hit by a widespread hour-long outage linked to US-based content delivery network provider Fastly Inc, a smaller rival of AWS.
In July, Amazon experienced a disruption in its online stores service, which lasted for nearly two hours and affected more than 38,000 users.
Users have experienced 27 outages over the past 12 months on Amazon, according to the web tool reviewing website ToolTester.
South Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT has offered Big Tech some advice on how to make their services suitably resilient, and added an obligation to notify users – in Korean – when they fail.
The guidelines apply to Google, Meta (parent company of Facebook), Netflix, Naver, Kakao and Wavve. All have been told to improve their response to faults by beefing up preemptive error detection and verification systems, and create back up storage systems that enable quick content recovery.
The guidelines offer methods Big Tech can use to measure user loads, then plan accordingly to ensure their services remain available. Uptime requirements are not spelled out.
Big techs is already rather good at resilience. Google literally wrote the book on site reliability engineering.
The guidelines refer to legislation colloquially known as the “Netflix law” which requires major service outages be reported to the Ministry.
That law builds on another enacted in 2020 that made online content service providers responsible for the quality of their streaming services. It was put in place after a number of outages, including one where notifications of the problem were made on the offending company’s social media site – but only in English.
The new regulations follow South Korean telcos’ recent attempts to have platforms that guzzle their bandwidth pay for the privilege. Mobile carrier SK Broadband took legal action in October of this year, demanding Netflix pitch in some cash for the amount of bandwidth that streaming shows – such as Squid Game – consume.
In response, Netflix pointed at its own free content delivery network, Open Connect, which helps carriers to reduce traffic. Netflix then accused SK Broadband of trying to double up on profits by collecting fees from consumers and content providers at the same time.
For the record, Naver and Kakao pay carriers, while Apple TV+ and Disney+ have at the very least given lip service to the idea.
Korea isn’t the only place where telcos have noticed Big Tech taking up more than its fair share of bandwidth. The European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO) published a letter from ten telco CEOs asking that larger platforms “contribute fairly to network costs”. ®
As part of the acquisition, Quill will be shutting down at the end of the week as its team joins the social media company.
Twitter has acquired the messaging platform Quill, seen as a potential competitor to Slack, in order to improve its messaging tools and services.
Quill announced that it will be shutting down at the end of the week as its team joins the social media company to continue its original goal “to make online communication more thoughtful, and more effective, for everyone”.
The purchase of Quill could be linked to Twitter’s new strategy to reduce its reliance on ad revenue and attract paying subscribers.
Twitter’s general manager for core tech, Nick Caldwell, described Quill as a “fresher, more deliberate way to communicate. We’re bringing their experience and creativity to Twitter as we work to make messaging tools like DMs a more useful and expressive way people can have conversations on the service”.
Users of Quill have until 11 December to export their team message history before the servers are fully shut down at 1pm PST (9pm Irish time). The announcement has instructions for users who wish to import their chat history into Slack and states that all active teams will be issued full refunds.
The team thanked its users and said: “We can’t wait to show you what we’ll be working on next.”
Quill was launched in February with the goal to remove the overwhelming aspects of other messaging services and give users a more deliberate and focused form of online chat.
In an online post, Quill creator Ludwig Pettersson said: “We started Quill to increase the quality of human communication. Excited to keep doing just that, at Twitter.”
The company became a potential competitor for Slack, which was bought by Salesforce at the end of 2020 for $27.7bn. The goal of that acquisition was to combine Salesforce’s CRM platform with Slack’s communications tools to create a unified service tailored to digital-led teams around the world.