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Impact and potential of open source on climate technology

Eirini Malliaraki and Tobias Augspurger · January 17, 2022

A rapid transition to a net-zero world requires an open ecosystem of data, software, and digital infrastructure that help us decarbonise various industries and protect environmental systems. The reasons for this are manifold and can be supported by social and technological arguments. Applications range from open hardware such as wind turbines and PVs to open data and software packages that are publicly available for modification and redistribution. Using open source technologies is critical to deliver cross-system sustainability goals as they offer:

  • Trust. Open practices ensure transparency and trust in the deployment of various technologies and keep governments and other actors accountable to their climate pledges.
  • Localisation and customisation. Open, sustainable innovations allow for customisation of individual and cultural needs throughout the product development process.
  • Climate Justice. Open access to knowledge, data and technologies can help reduce the power imbalance. When we centre climate action around those who bear the burden of environmental injustice, we can discover new empowering uses for open technology.
  • Resource efficiency. Multiple actors are investing in data products, algorithms, and software, leading to duplication, incoherent outcomes, and inefficient use of resources. Open source means each problem only has to be solved once.
  • Collaboration. To address complex challenges related to climate change, cross-functional collaboration between different sectors is necessary. The complexity of planetary sustainability cannot be met by solutions based on a single discipline, state, or enterprise.

The health and vibrancy of open sustainable technologies

Developing and maintaining open-source software relies on an integration of the technical (e.g. how open-source code is engineered and maintained); the social (e.g. the communities around particular open source projects and their values); and the organisational (e.g. formal open source institutions and cross-cutting regulations, financing, and governance).

While we see a broader trend toward open source technology projects, there is no evidence on which projects can be considered critical digital infrastructure for climate change mitigation and where significant funding and resourcing gaps exist. To our knowledge, there has been no systematic study of these intricacies and dynamics of the open source landscape with a focus on sustainability applications.

After a year of intensive mapping of the open source software landscape for climate action on, we will analyse the health and vibrancy of this emerging ecosystem. The selection of projects was based on simple rules from the Contribution Guide. We want to discover: areas where this digital infrastructure is mature; where tools or processes exist that funders should support instead of forging a new path; new possibilities to connect various projects; and general concerns and hurdles that have limited the development of best practice.

We expect that triangulating these dynamics would shed light on important economic and governance issues that lead us towards a more diverse and well-funded ecosystem for critical digital infrastructure for planetary sustainability.

Our approach

We have collected, crowdsourced and curated ~1000 actively developed open source projects. Using this database as a starting point and the GitHub API we will analyse the interrelations & dependencies between key projects as well as the number of contributors, project growth, and key topics and organisations among other metrics. This analysis will highlight thematic gaps and provide a better understanding of the criticality of specific projects. We are using a variety of the CHAOSS Metrics to measure the state of a project. We acknowledge that solely using Github for our quantitative analysis is a limitation of our approach and plan to add more platforms soon.

In addition, beginning in January 2022, we will conduct a series of interviews with project developers and contributors to learn about their challenges, incentives, and needs; the financial viability of these projects; and the barriers that have hampered the development of best practice and more equitable developer communities. Finally, beginning in spring 2022, we plan to strengthen the interconnectivity of different developer and user groups through a series of community workshops.

Preliminary findings

In our preliminary analysis we discovered that many projects exist in the solar and wind turbine sectors, as well as data-rich domains like energy system modelling and climate science. Unfortunately, other areas, such as energy storage, emissions monitoring, and sustainable financing, are still underserved or underdeveloped. If we use the number of stars as a measure of popularity, we quickly notice that even the most successful projects in the field are very unpopular compared to other areas such as open source robotics.

Our research also revealed that many of these initiatives are still hard to find and difficult for programmers and scientists to build upon. Some projects use self-hosted GitLab instances, and as a result, only be identified by searching package manager indexes or scientific publications. The following findings provide a first glimpse into the datasets used in our research.

Total number of stars within sectors

Used Open Source Licenses across topics:

Programming languages used across themes

Projects ranked by number of contributors

The most starred projects

Key organisations behind the most starred projects

Join us

Now more than ever, free and open source projects allow citizens, scientists, developers, civil society, industry, and government to mitigate climate change. Funders also have an opportunity to play an active role in furthering a larger, more systemic shift towards open, community-owned and operated infrastructure at the institutional level.

Although this project has received support from various organizations and individuals, it is a purely private and independent initiative. To ensure this for the future we are looking for you. We want to hear from you:

  • If you have experience developing, supporting or systematically using open source software for sustainability applications; We aim to publish the findings of this research by summer 2022.
  • If you want to contribute to by identifying new and missing projects.
  • If you have experience visualizing or processing data with Python and know how to integrate such data into a new website.
  • If you are a funder and want to support these developer communities via open infrastructure funds, consortia-based support or other collaborative models across institutions and regions.

Email Eirini, Tobi and follow us on twitter

This work is partially supported by Subak, the world’s first climate not-for-profit impact accelerator.