Climathon: behind the scenes

The first Heidelberg Climathon happened on the weekend of October 25-27 at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. Check out #HeidelbergClimathon twitter feed.

Climathon is a global movement dedicated to solving local climate challenges and supported by the European Institute of Innovation & Technology. Every year on the same day, climate hackathons held all over the world in which developers, engineers, scientists, and innovators gather together to tackle local climate challenges.

Heidelberg Climathon was supported by Theresia Bauer, the Minister for Science, Research and Art of Baden-Württemberg and sponsored by Carl Zeiss Foundation.

Opening speech by Theresia Bauer

Theodore Alexandrov and I have been working on organizing this 24-hour event for more than half a year on a volunteer basis and a natural question we ask ourselves is if it was all worth it.

First, let me show you some statistics. In total, 81 participant registered for the event. On the first Climathon day, around 50 of them actually came. As an expert said, we probably lost about 10 people to the unusually good weather on that weekend. 47 participants worked through the weekend and 39 of them were presenting their solutions on Sunday.

After the award ceremony

We asked the participants to fill out a pre-event survey about their expertise and preferences given 5 challenges we have offered. 41 participant filled out the survey.

Answers to the question “You expertise relevant for Climathon”
Answers to the question “Climathon challenges you are interested in”

The participants have worked on 7 projects and received 3 awards sponsored by Carl Zeiss Foundation and presented by Matthias Stolzenburg.

Winners of 2.500 Euro award selected by the jury:

Winner of 1.000 Euro award selected by the participants:

  • Touch Climate – interactive graphical user-friendly application for exploring climate data and learning about local effects of climate change in the region. [Github repo] [Solution description]

Other projects:

  • Climactiv – a platform for organizations and companies for engaging employees and citizens into sustainable behaviour using a system of rewards and a gamification component. This team was supported by Martina Vetrovcova from the Heidelberg University. [Github repo] [Solution description]
  • Climate Inc – a climate data based online game on global joined climate action to tackle climate change. [Github repo]
  • POLL PLAN ACT – a concept for creating a sustainability master plan for the University of Heidelberg through collecting and analysing already existing grassroots initiatives and using them for influencing university policymaking. This team was supported by Martina Vetrovcova from the Heidelberg University.
  • Multi-location conference – a concept for designing a conference taking place in different locations at the same time, so that the participants wouldn’t need to travel between sites, which would result in less travel-caused emissions. This team was supported by Assol Rustamova, Nathalie Sneider, Elisabeth Wintersteller from EMBL.

The developed prototype solutions are available at Heidelberg Climathon github repository and described at the webpage (scroll down).

We very much appreciate the amount of work, energy, and creativity the participants put into developing the solutions. The next task for me is to make sure that those teams that are interested to follow up on their developments, have an opportunity to do so.

The participants were supported by 6 hackathon expert coaches coordinated by Raoul Haschke from Heidelberg Startup Partners. 4 speakers gave talks at the pre-Climathon workshop on October 25. 8 jury members were deciding about the awards. The detailed information about the coaches, experts, speakers and jury members can be found at Heidelberg Climathon website (scroll down).

Apart from Theodore and me, two more EMBL’ers were involved into the local organization: Toby Hodges and Malvika Sharan. During the Climathon weekend, we also got help from the local volunteers: Samantha Seah, Sandra Correia, Alberto Bailoni, and Denny Gombalova.

Heidelberg Climathon organizers and volunteers: Theodore, Samantha, Sandra, Katja, Alberto, and Denny+1

In total, apart from the participants, 22 people were directly involved into the Climathon event on a volunteer basis and we are very grateful to all of them. Without them, Heidelberg Climathon wouldn’t be possible. We would also like say a hearty thank you to the Carl Zeiss Foundation. In addition to sponsoring the awards for the participants, the foundation covered our organizational expenses, which mostly included food, since everything else was arranged by volunteers. And of course many thanks to EMBL letting us use the amazing ATC venue and providing all kinds of support.

This was our first try organizing a Climathon and we have learned a lot from it. I have to admit that there were times when Theodore and I felt quite desperate and regretted that we got ourselves into it. But after seeing the solution presentations and hearing the feedback from the participants, we are convinced that all the time and nerves we put into it were worth it. Together, we managed to create a unique companionship of people sharing values and willing to invest their free time and energy to do something for our planet and the region. If we manage to follow up on the developed projects, this will have even more value. But even just sharing this experience turned out to be extremely educational and thought provoking and will hopefully inspire all of us for more constructive optimism and action.

Why am I going to Antarctica?

A year ago I joined the Homeward Bound program. The first post in this blog describes my motivation and what the program is about. It has been an intense year. Discussions, reading, reflections, work with coaches and mentors. But most of all – the projects I started being inspired the program. For example, interactive workshops on climate change, implicit bias, and ally skills. Climathon – a climate-focused hackathon that just happened last weekend and will be a topic for a separate post. And now the time has come for the Antarctica journey.

Homeward Bound culminates in 3 weeks in Antarctica, on board a ship. We will visit 6 research stations (Esperanza, Palmer, Vernadsky, Gonzalez Videla, Frei, Great Wall), learn more about how climate change in Antarctica affects our planet, intensively collaborate on developing climate-focused interdisciplinary projects. The schedule is tight, it’s definitely not going to be a vacation.

But why exactly is it necessary? Why do participants of a climate change program have to travel to Antarctica and thus cause carbon emissions? To answer this question, let me come back to the objectives of the program.

The main goal of Homeward Bound is to create a network of 1000 women in STEMM that care about the future of our planet and are willing to step up and influence the academic community and human behaviour as well as policy and decision making with respect to climate change. To equip the participants with the necessary skills, the program offers a year of online training, master classes, reflection homework, sessions with coaches etc. However, knowledge and training might not be enough to empower participants to act as agents of change on a long-term basis.

In addition to the scientific collaborations and training, the Antarctica journey is meant to create an emotional experience. Polar regions are most affected by climate change and witnessing it first hand has a powerful and motivating effect. In Antarctica, one is surrounded by pristine breathtaking landscapes full of wildlife, while knowing that the biodiversity and life on our planet are under a serious threat. We humans can be infinitely creative and committed to a purpose, but only if there is a true motivation coming from inside. A logical understanding of an issue is important, but an emotional connection can strengthen the motivation and make it personal.

Sharing this experience in an isolated environment with almost no interaction with the default world creates a bond between the participants which goes far beyond collaboration or like-mindedness. I’m in the fourth cohort of the program and from the previous cohorts I learned that it was not the year of training but the 3 weeks in Antarctica that made a unique companionship with unconditional support possible. The current disastrous situation requires changes on all levels: global, national, organizations, personal. To enable these changes we need to act together. Having an interdisciplinary global network of scientists whom I trust, who shared the same powerful experience with me and are willing to work together towards a common goal, is not something easily found and can make a huge difference.

But what about the carbon footprint of the Antarctica journey? Although the program offsets the travel-related emissions and follows strict environmental regulations and rules of travelling in the polar regions, it is still an issue of course.

From my point of view, even a bigger problem is that the trip to Antarctica makes participation in the program so expensive. The participants have to fundraise or pay by themselves more than 15.000 Euro, which is a huge amount of money for people like me and an impossible amount for many other people (if you want to support me, here is my fundraising page). While Homeward Bound provides a limited amount of scholarships for people from the developing countries, it is definitely not enough to call the program truly accessible and inclusive.

These are the issues that seriously concern many participants including myself and there probably will be discussions about the future improvements of the program on board of the ship. Initially, I joined Homeward Bound not because but rather despite the Antarctica trip. But over the past year I learned to trust in the process and now I’m looking forward to figuring out where our ship will bring me.

Climate Science and Action workshop

My previous post in this blog was on the idea to design teaching materials for viral climate education. I’m happy to report that this project turned out to be successful! The key to success was teaming up with the right people. I was lucky to have met Jan-Marcus Nasse, an environmental physicist and science communicator, who was independently thinking about a similar idea. Together we explored the topic of climate change science, politics and action and created 2.5 – 3 hours workshop materials including a 1.5 hours lecture with a discussion session as well as an hour long interactive role game World Climate developed by Climate Interactive. I dare to say that our materials are not only comprehensive and backed up by solid science, but also visually appealing, due to the contribution of Alberto Bailoni, who made our initially messy slides beautiful. Finally, we received feedback from our friends and colleagues, which helped us to further improve and clarify the content.

Here is the result:

This is the content of our workshop:


So far, we ran this workshop 3 times: at EMBL, University of Heidelberg, and LCOY conference and made a video of our lecture. We hope that anyone who is passionate about the topic and would like to educate their colleagues, neighbours, friends and family members can use our materials to do so.

A couple of concluding remarks concerning future work. First, from the discussion session we have learned that our lecture did not cover an important aspect people were interested in: economical consequences of climate change. This is an area where we have no expertise and would be happy to team up with a professional to extend the materials.

The second remark is related to the audience. Although we had fruitful and deep discussions and got lots of positive feedback from the audience, there is still one aspect where we failed. Initially we aimed at attracting sceptical people having doubts about climate change and its anthropogenic origins, so that we could answer their questions and evoke an open debate in a safe and comfortable space. Unfortunately, we did not succeed in it. There were almost no provocative or disagreeing comments/questions from the audience, which means that sceptics either did not attend the workshop or did not feel comfortable to speak up. The first option seems to be more likely.

There was a very different situation at the implicit bias workshop last year, where the discussion was quite heated and some of the audience reactions were clearly negative. My hypothesis is that the topic of gender bias and equality, quotas etc. bothers people much more, because it is now on the agenda of most of the research institutions, which implies certain policies concerning everyone. At the same time, despite the recent progress in public awareness, the topic of climate change remains rather marginal in our everyday life. If someone does not believe in it, then they have little motivation to explore and discuss it further. This situation might however quickly change, if institutions start introducing offsetting policies and other regulations.

In any case, a better strategy to invite climate sceptics to the debate is needed.

Viral climate education

When attending the Climate Neighbourhoods conference, I noticed that one of the most discussed questions was: How to raise awareness about climate change and motivate people to do climate action outside of the bubble of those already immersed into the topic? I hear the same question over and over again from my friends and colleagues.

There exist numerous educational videos on climate change and related issues, and these efforts are very valuable. However, only an already motivated person will spend time on watching the videos and educating themselves on climate science, climate action, politics around climate etc. But how to we reach people who are not yet engaged or sceptical about the issue?

There exist trainings for climate activists like, for example, the Climate Reality Project. However, such trainings require a serious committent and are aimed at people who plan to be actively involved in climate action on a long term.

How can we make it simple for people caring about environmental issues to share the climate facts with their colleagues, neighbours, family members? My suggestion is viral climate education. In every workspace and community, there is at least one person well informed and passionate about climate change. If we can equip this person with educational materials, they will be able to run a workshop or a discussion on climate issues.

This idea came to me after I learned about Valerie Aurora’s workshops on diversity and inclusion. Valerie has prepared brilliant teaching materials on the topic and freely shared them with the community, which allowed people to run similar workshops by themselves in their workspaces. My colleagues and I have had positive experience running it at our institution.

It’s crucial that such workshop provides a space for every participant to speak out, ask questions and express any kind of scepticism. Ideally, the workshop should be interactive and allow participants to work in groups, discuss, and actively engage themselves into exploring the topic.

I would include the following topics into a climate workshop: 1) climate science facts and forecasts, 2) impact of climate change on humans, 3) action for tackling climate change (on the levels of countries, institutions, and individuals), 4) climate action success stories.

Climate change games could be a perfect interactive component. For example, the role game World Climate Simulation looks like a good option. There are also online games focusing on climate change, e.g. Biodiversity and ecosystems or Drift. Developing a fun educational climate change game might be a good challenge for the Climathon we are organizing this year.

I’d be grateful for any feedback on this idea. Would you participate in creating education materials? Would you run such workshop if provided with the materials? Would you attend such workshop?

UPDATE: Climate Science and Action workshop materials

Climathon 2019 in Heidelberg

This year, I’m co-organizing a Climathon in Heidelberg. Climathon is a global movement dedicated to solving local climate challenges and supported by the European Institute of Innovation & Technology. On October 25th, 2019, there will be 24-hour climate hackathons held all over the world in which developers, engineers, scientists, and innovators will gather together to tackle local climate challenges.

Climathon 2018 map

In preparation to a Climathon, cities identify their climate challenges. The main idea is that realistic and effective solutions developed by the Climathon participants are later implemented by the local partner organizations. Here are some success stories:

  • London: mobile air pollution sensor enabling better coverage over the city area (link)
  • Washington: picking up durable goods (e.g. furniture) and reselling for lower price (link)
  • Zurich:  an app for offering unwanted food to your neighbours (link)
  • Cork: a transport app that awards citizens discounts in local stores based on the carbon savings they make (link)
  • Manchester: sustainable drainage systems and community parkland architectural planning (link)

To set up climate challenges, we are currently communicating with local organizations including the Heidelberg Office of Environmental Protection, Trade Supervision and Energy, the Heidelberg Center for the Environment at the Heidelberg University, the Carbon Neutral group at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, GIScience at the Heidelberg University, Heidelberg Startup Partners, Ökostadt Rhein-Neckar e. V., as well as other organizations and companies interested in the climate-related issues.

Climate challenge ideas we started discussing so far:

  • solutions for multiple-location conferences, with the goal of reducing flight CO2 emissions; run the same conference simultaneously at different locations
  • factors for finding attractive cycling routes
  • connecting tree bloom to local microclimate and climate change dynamics
  • a sustainable behaviour campaign on the local campuses

I’ve already learned so much from these discussions. For example, that growing CO2 emissions in Heidelberg are mainly caused by overseas tourism. And which streets in Heidelberg are most dangerous for cyclists. And that there are repair cafés in the area. And what are the issues with the university campus traffic. And how waste separation is organized at EMBL. This list goes on and on and I’m looking forward to learning more.

UPDATE: Heidelberg Climathon webpage

Ally skills

Last week, Malvika Sharan, Sofya Mikhaleva and Paul Gerald Sanchez invited me to co-organize a session on ally skills as a part of the Women’s Day at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. The concept of the ally skills training was originally developed by Valerie Aurora, a former Linux kernel developer. Valerie has designed extensive and well structured materials offering guidelines for learning and teaching how to step up and use our social advantages to support others in workplaces and communities. Here is Valerie’s talk on the topic.

Let me cite some of the definitions introduced by Valerie.

Privilege: an unearned advantage given to a person or a social group. Oppression: systemic, pervasive inequality present throughout society that benefits people with more privilege and harms those with fewer privileges. Target: someone who suffers from oppression. Ally: a member of a social group who enjoys some privilege and is working to understand their own privilege and end oppression.

Each of us can be a target or an ally depending on the context. For example, in the gender bias context I’m a target, whereas in the LGBTQ or racial context I’m privileged. Valerie is teaching how to recognize oppression and consciously act as an ally.

Most of the diversity and equality initiatives are aimed at changing the behaviour of targets (e.g. special scholarships, programs and mentioning for the under-represented social groups). Valerie points out that it’s efficient to focus on changing the behaviour of privileged people. Privileged people acting as allies have more power and influence as well as more time and energy as compared to targets. Moreover, they are not penalised for “diversity-valuing behaviour” and not accused of jealousy, but are rather seen as altruistic, giving, and kind.

Following these ideas, we set up an 1 hour ally skills session. After an introduction of the basic concepts, terminology, and motivation, we did a short empathy exercise. Everyone was asked to stand up, look around and think of something nice about any 3 people in the room. Then the main part of the session started.

The participants were split into 6 groups from 4 to 6 people each. Each group received two scenarios to discuss. Here’s an example scenario:

A woman you don’t know who is using a wheelchair is near your group at a conference. She is alone and looks like she would rather be talking to people.
What would you as an ally do?

Looks easy, right? Just invite her to join! But if we think deeper about it, questions arise. Does it make a difference that it’s a wheelchair user? Does it make a difference that it’s a woman? Can we even assume that it’s a woman without knowing the person? What is the best way to invite the person to join?

Before starting the discussion, the groups were asked to select a gatekeeper responsible for interrupting people who were speaking too much and asking people who weren’t talking as much if they wanted to speak. Our goal in this session was to simulate an ideal comfortable space for discussing most difficult topics with mutual respect so that every voice was heard. We suggested the participants to pay attention to the dynamics of the conversation and be mindful about it.

It often happens that targets feel uncomfortable speaking publicly. Although it’s totally fine to be an introvert and to have no need to share, nobody can represent people’s interests better than themselves. Therefore it’s important that every person has a chance to speak and be heard when they need it.

Since we had only 1 hour for the whole session, we could afford only 15 minutes for group discussions. This definitely proved to be not enough; the recommended time for an ally workshop is at least 3 hours. After the group discussions were over, each group briefly presented their solutions and we further discussed them all together. During this last part of the session organizers were giving further recommendations and pointing out interesting patterns. For example, in a few cases the groups were assuming that a protagonist of a scenario was a man, although the scenario was introduced in a gender-neutral way.

Overall, the participants were coming up with well thought out solutions and the atmosphere was very positive and productive. We hope that this experience will motivate them to act as allies in their work environments and communities.

Academic punk

Despite common stereotypes, punk subculture has much more to offer than aggressive music, spiked mohawks, and ripped clothing. While punk covers a spectrum of social and political ideologies, one of its cornerstones is non-conformism. Punk challenges social agreements and hierarchies and reminds us that no rule is holy. Rules and agreements have been made by people, are relative, and should be revisited and revised. In this sense, punk goes back to the anarchist philosophy of the 18th and 19th centuries. A proper punk performance is supposed to be illegal and provocative.

In authoritarian countries, punk action art is often used as one of the few available forms of political protest, e.g. the Pussy riot performance at 2018 FIFA World Cup Final. In the countries with more freedom of speech, illegal guerilla art can still be a powerful form of political and social expression, e.g. punk climate activism of Extinction Rebellion or installation of Snowden’s statue.

Following the punk footsteps, my friend Alberto Bailoni and I made a performance focusing on diversity and inclusion in academia. Many of you have probably seen the staff boards hanging in the university hallways. They usually look like this, especially in STEM:

Explicitly hierarchical, mostly white men as professors and group leaders, women as secretaries. The lower you go down the academic hierarchy, the more diversity appears. We believe that the reason for this situation is, among other things, the implicit bias (read my post on this topic).

To draw attention to the issue, Alberto and I entered some of the university buildings in the night and shuffled the pictures on the staff board aiming at introducing diversity in every academic group. We also left a QR code pointing to the implicit bias studies and test. This was the result:

As far as we know, the pictures were rearranged back the next day. But we hope to have caused a few discussions on the topic.