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Free software and climate change

by Georgia Young Contributions Published on Nov 30, 2017 04:40 PM
The Free Software Foundation is focused on threats to your freedom, both as computer users and as people living in a world where software touches nearly every aspect of our lives. I want to talk about the increased risk of environmental disasters relating to climate change, and look at several projects that have used free software's philosophy of transparency, sharing, and experimentation to create software that can easily adapt to a community's needs.

As I write, Puerto Rico is without electricity, and desperately in need of food and water, following Hurricane Maria. Forest fires ravaged the Canary Islands, as well as California and the Pacific Northwest here in the United States, and earthquakes in Mexico killed hundreds. Flooding has devastated India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, and Hurricane Harvey dumped fifty inches of rain on Houston, Texas in one week. These are only a few environmental disasters we have faced in recent months, and with thousands of deaths and mass destruction of buildings and infrastructure, recovery from these events will likely take years.

Documenting a site via PublicLab

There are quite a few free software projects that aim to help people study and respond to environmental threats. Here are three:

Apache Open Climate Workbench

Climate models let us study current systems and project future outcomes. The Workbench performs climate model evaluation using outputs from a variety of sources, including the Earth System Grid Federation, the Coordinated Regional Climate Downscaling Experiment, and temporal/spatial scales with remote sensing data from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and others. It is licensed under the Apache License 2.0, and welcomes more contributors.

Missing Maps

Missing Maps maps areas where humanitarian groups are working with vulnerable people to plan disaster response activities and other efforts, so they are prepared when disasters occur. Volunteers anywhere in the world can “trace satellite imagery” into OpenStreetMap, and then volunteers in the community being mapped can fill in the details based on local knowledge. The Missing Maps blog details some uses of the project, including mapping a typhoon recovery area in the Philippines, and a huge swath of West Africa that was affected by Ebola in 2014 and 2015.

Public Lab

Public Lab is “a community where you can learn how to investigate environmental concerns.” Public Lab creates affordable tools and accessible techniques for people to monitor their environment. Their goal is to help people participate in decisions being made about their communities, particularly when faced with environmental hazards.

You can buy hardware from Public Lab at reasonable prices, or use their designs and source code to make your own, from a spectrometer for environmental monitoring, to an infrared camera to help monitor plant health, to balloon and kite kits for aerial mapping. They use a mix of free licenses, including Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported and the GNU General Public License v3.

These projects offer heartening confirmation that the FSF and its members are doing things right. As we advocate for free software and its ideals, we enable free software to be used for very sensitive – even lifesaving – applications. If you know of other environment, climate, and public health-related free software projects that we should tell people about, please email us at

Photo by Stevie at Public Lab, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License, from, 2017.

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