Search this blog

Monday, March 26, 2012

Schools without Wifi

Versión en castellano
Versió en català

Past 29th of  February, the association Escuelas sin Wifi (Schools without Wifi) announced it was petitioning the president of the Spanish government, Mariano Rajoy, to legislate the ban of Wifi connections in Schools. Even though they have been working for a long time to convince people electromagnetic radiations are harmful, resolution 1815 of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly de la Asamblea Parlamentaria del Consejo de Europa urging member States to take actions in order to "protect people's health" from electromagnetic emissions has given them more renewed strengths.

Resolution 1815 is based on the decision of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), depending on the World Health Organization, to include electromagnetic radiations in Group 2B, that is, as "Possibly carcinogenic to humans". The Wikipedia offers a list of agents in this group. The different groups used by IARC are:
  • 1: carcinogenic to humans
  • 2A: probably carcinogenic to humans
  • 2B: possibly carcinogenic to humans
  • 3: not classifiable
  • 4: probably no carcinogenic
Other associations and groups of interest similar to Escuelas sin Wifi can be found in the United Kingdom (Wifi In Schools), Canada (School Radiation) or France (Robin des Toits).

Also recently, the Turin's public prosecutor has started the first official investigation to determine whether intensive use of mobile phones is the cause of a brain cancer detected to a citizen. The medical report received from a local hospital stated so.

The question of electromagnetic waves being harmful for health or not is alive from a long time ago. Thousands of studies have been made with many different conclusions. Those stating there is no danger or there is no clear link between exposure to such waves and cancer have been accused of being financed by carriers or telephone makers, interested in hiding any evidence of health harm produced by their activities. TV documentaries can be found in favour of the latter theory and against it.

It is not a simple issue. Most of us don't have the knowledge to determine whether electromagnetic radiations are harmful for our health or not. The best would be to do that a complete, consistent and robust study, conducted by independent scientists having the consensus of all the stakeholders. But I'm afraid this is not possible and it seems to me the technologies we use are so young that there isn't enough data to reach a definite conclusion.

I'd like to consideration anyway. Both from a business and personal point of view, it isn't wise to get carried away by our convictions and despise other beliefs. The existence of Escuelas sin Wifi shows that even if electromagnetic waves are proven harmless there is a group of people sensitive about their presence in products or services. So special care must be taken when deploying or using this technologies in areas considered of most importance by this groups. A business betting exclusively on wireless architectures can be easily accused of underestimating people's health. And, in this case, children's health.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Your Cloud bill (taxes and energy not included)

Versión en castellano
Versió en català

Last 1st of December Gartner published their predictions for IT organizations and users for 2012 and beyond. I couldn't help being suprised by the one that tells that by 2015, 80% of cloud providers will charge the cost of energy as a separate item, as if it was a tax. They also predict that many industries that settled in China will come back to the US because of the hidden costs of offshore outsourcing and because of the rise of oil prices.

In another article I already commented that energy price rises will change the way we use and we understand ICT. And the big actors on the field are making moves that make me think they understand it in the same way. For example, even though it has recently announced that it will abandon their investment in research projects aiming at reducing the price of photovoltaic energy, Google is a big investor in wind farms (onshore and offshore) and solar roofs. This investments are not only to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases. I think Google knows that energy availability is essential for its business, so assuring a source of electricity independent of oil prices' fluctuations is strategic for them.

Another big company clearly betting on a new paradigm in the use of energy is IBM. Big Blue is strongly investing to be the leader in management technologies for the new electricity transport networks, also called the Smart Grid. These new networks will be able to tell your washing machine "start up. We'll have plenty of wind for half an hour and the electricity produced will be very cheap". And the technology developed by IBM has already come out from the laboratory. Last August the company tested its Smart Meters in 1,000 households of a small town of the US and is also involved in projects in Brasil and South Korea to improve and convert their networks.

In Spain some companies are beginning to move. At the end of last October the association EnerTIC was officially presented. Formed by several IT and energy enterprises, EnerTIC seeks to develop and promote Information Technologies to save energy. Telecommute, Smart Grid or Smart Cities are some of its target fields. A part from IBM, companies like BT, Ericsson, Enterasys, Intel, Fujitsu, Siemens or Salicru are also members of the association.

Many other businesses are simply starting to measure and control their energy bill and the greenhouse gas emissions associated. It's a first step to know their dependency on energy which will allow afterwards to make changes to reduce it. The market is plenty of solutions from start-ups and big actors wanting to take the leadership in this field.

Many voices are alerting from a long time ago that we'll have a big problem with energy availability. If we take a look at the big names of the IT sector and the meaning of the steps they're making we can realise it's time to take it seriously. And if we're not still convinced, perhaps the last announce of the rise of electricity prices in Spain will push us.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

An iPhone thrown away every 15 seconds

Versió en català
Versión en español

The new iPhone 4S has sold over 4 million units in just its first weekend. Many of these new top trend devices will substitute older iPhones. According to CloudBlue, a electronics waste recycler, some of their partners can receive one old iPhone every 15 seconds. This means tens of thousands of units in a few weeks. Fortunately, many of them will be resold and only a part will be disposed.

Of course, people substitute many more electronic devices than old iPhones: other phones, tablets, music players, computers, printers, televisions, radios, GPS, ... How many tons of e-waste are thrown away every year? 53 millions of tons in 2009 (between 20 and 50 million in 2006 according to the U.N.). This means that tons of lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, beryllium and many other substances must be treated every year to avoid polluting soils and water. Unfortunately, only a few part of the e-waste is treated. In the U.S. only the 25% of TVs, computer products and cell phones were recycled according to EPA. So, what happens to the rest? They are stocked, waiting to be "rediscovered" or they are exported to other countries sold as second-hand devices or to be treated.

Which are the main countries receiving e-waste for treatment and disposal? China, India, Pakistan, Ghana and Nigeria. Doesn't it sound strange to you that those countries could be experts in high technology recycling? The answer is they aren't. Most of the materials they receive are just thrown away in huge dumps without any control. People "working" there have no safety conditions nor haven't been instructed to recover materials in a safe way. They just burn cables to recover copper or use acid to extract gold from microprocessors in the middle of a landfill.

The city of Guiyu, in China, is believed to be the largest receiver of e-waste in the world. 150,000 people dedicated to treat the 100 trucks they receive everyday since 1995. And the consequences are there: "88% of workers suffer from neurological, respiratory or digestive abnormalities or skin diseases", according to the Wikipedia. "Lead in the blood of Guiyu's children is 54% higher on average than that of children in the nearby town of Chendian". Their environment has been absolutely polluted: "The soil has been saturated with lead, chromium, tin, and other heavy metals. Discarded electronics lie in pools of toxins that leach into the groundwater, making it so polluted that the water is undrinkable". You can see in this photo from Time Magazine the colour of a river in Guiyu:

The whole series of stunning photographs can be seen here. And the whole reference in Wikipedia and Greenpeace. It's terrifying.

Governments in industrialized countries have finally realised there is a big problem with electronic waste and have begun to regulate. In Europe Directive 2002/96/EC promoting the collection and recycling of electrical and electronic equipment (also known as WEEE Directive) is in force since February 2003. In 2008 only one third of e-waste was properly treated and illegal exports were still detected. That led the European Commission to reinforce the existing Directives and set mandatory collection targets equal to 65% of the average weight of electrical and electronic equipment placed on the market over the two previous years, including medical devices. The European Parliament approved the new Directives on February 2011.

There is no Federal rules for recycling electronic equipment in the United States. There are several State mandatory electronics recovery programs though. The oldest of them is California's program, dating of 2003.

A part from laws, there are many private initiatives aiming at properly treat electronic waste. Hardware vendors have developed programs to return old equipments for free, like HP's Consumer Buyback and Planet Partners Recycling Program, Apple's recycling program, Sony Take back recycling program or Nokia's Take-back program. Others, like SAP, have announced applications to help companies treating their electronic waste. But all these initiatives might not be enough.

If you want to get sure your e-waste is responsibly treated and disposed, you should look at recycling companies with an e-Stewards certification. This certification was put on track by the Basel Action Network, a non-profit, charitable organization based in Seattle, aiming at eliminating illegal disposal and exports of e-waste. Certified recycling companies operate mainly in the United States and, recently, in the European Union.

So renewing your mobile phone, laptop or TV with a new fancy gadget has its consequences. Tons of waste are generated every day and most of them aren't treated properly. Some companies are making efforts to recover old assets and you can always find a certified recycler to assure your waste doesn't end up in any landfill in Africa or Asia. What else can you do? Lengthen the life of your devices as much as you can, buy equipment with assured quality (so that it doesn't damage easily) and take your time thinking your needs to buy the fewest number of gadgets and the more appropriate for your needs.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Clouds and Matter

Versión en castellano
Versió en català

Some days ago I fantasized with my work mates about how the devices of the future would be. We'll all bring a kind of mobile phone that will work as a smartphone and laptop at the same time, including a projector so that any wall could be our screen, a projected virtual keyboard to tape over any flat surface, and just the essential power to communicate with the cloud. Of course, everything will be in the cloud.

Then, I could'nt help imaging how everyone reaches de cloud and I saw mobile phone base stations, kilometers of copper and fiber optic cables, thousands of communication devices, thousands of servers plenty of memory and connected to Petabytes of disk anywhere in the world. How much matter to let the Cloud rise!

I want to make a consideration here. I think we're not conscious of the dependence on minerals and chemical substances in the ICT world. We love talking and dreaming about augmented reality, the 2.0 paradigm, the Big Data, semantic search or the Cloud. But underneath there's always copper, iron, silicon and substances difficult to pronounce and remember. We already have some alerts about the availability of these matters.

The danger of scarcity is approaching. From time to time we can read news about copper robberies: from train lines, from utility infrastructures, from greenhouses, and even Telefonica copper cable stocks broke because of continuous robberies in their facilities. Its capacity to be recycled and the great demand by many kind of industries (ICT are big consumers) produces a lack of copper "in the market".

If there is a shortage these days, in a not so far future we will face a big dimensions problem: the exhaustion of copper mines. The Hubbert peak theory stands that the extraction of a resource will drop as quickly as it grew when half of the stocks are already extracted. It happened with oil in the US, which reached its peak in 1971, and is happening with oil considering the whole planet. We have probably already passed its peak and that's why it is so expensive now: demand continues to rise, but its production can't grow any more.

Minerals also follow Hubbert's peak theory. A estudy made by the University of Zaragoza has calculated the peaks of some quite common minerals: copper will reach it in 2024, aluminium in 2067 and iron in 2068. So in only 13 years we will see spectacular price rises. Even worse, following generations will have to look for another metal for the same functions after 8.000 years among men. We can always hope that a new material is found, but the feeling of the study is that we're exhausting a great part of the available minerals of the earth crust.

We can put into action several solutions for this problem. The 3 Rs are a great guide: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle materials. A first solution is taking more profit from the hardware we buy, lengthening its useful life. This way we generate less waste and less materials and energy are needed to produce a new equipment in the same period of time. Hardware assemblers and vendors won't be happy with this one, though.

We can also contract our "hardware" in the cloud, transferring our responsibility to the provider. In this case we must assure that our supplier will put into practice this responsibility as we would.

In the case of equipment manufacturers, another solution to consider is making a very good design of products to ease repair and component + material recycling. If we have to buy new equipment, we should choose those manufacturers that bet on good ecodesign. Yet if we contract our hardware in the cloud we must demand the provider using hardware easy to repair and recycle.

Companies are already trying to substitute non recyclable materials and we can buy devices made of biodegradable natural fibers, like Fujitsu's M440 mouse and keyboard. But there's still a long path to walk in this field.

The ICT world is facing a serous problem and we all must help resolving it. The current paradigm of quick hardware substitution is at its limits and we must change it for a resource optimization one. This will force hardware manufacturers changing their produce and marketing model. Perhaps the cloud will be the catalyst of this change. Perhaps we will stop buying hardware and it will only be possible to subscribe it. We'll see it shortly...

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Oil and sustainable ICT

As these days oil prices and saving gasoline are hot topics, I want to highlight how all this will affect the sustainability of ICT. And I don't mean only how ICT will impact the Environment, but also the viability of our profession as it is understood today.

It is known from many years that oil is a finite fossil energy. It will take time to get exhausted, but it will take much less to be unaffordable. The peak oil theory stands that the production of petroleum will drop as quick as it grew when the half of the stocks of the Earth are extracted. International organizations such as the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO), the International Energy Agency, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development or several ecologist NGOs don't agree on the exact date: 2008, 2010, 2015, ... Anyway, if it hasn't happened yet, it will be soon.

What are the effects of the peak oil? End of cheap petroleum and gradual price increases. The price forecasts don't agree either: $150 in 2015, $220 next year if riots in North Africa and Asia continue... Even if oil prices fall after Lybia conflict ends (and I wish it is as little bloody as possible), we are bound to suffer rising oil prices without a ceiling in the mid and long term.

The prices of the rest of energy sources will also rise as oil gets more expensive. The fossil ones will follow Hubbert's theory: natural gas, coal, uranium, ... all of them have their own peak approaching. Renewable energies don't have such peak, but they are still expensive. In this case a security mentality should be applied: nobody thinks today that having an antivirus or a firewall is a waste.

How will affect all these to ICT? A lot, as it will impact the Society as a whole, and it will oblige us to make big changes. First of all, we must optimize as much as possible all of our equipments. Anyone will have to buy the most energy efficent devices, which will extremely fit the planned needs to avoid any waste and virtualization will be extent wherever possible. Provisioning will also change: with transport prices becoming unaffordable, buying new equipments will be much more expensive, as replacement of damaged components. This will be a chanllenge for manufacturers and dealers.

Manufacturing new devices will also be more expensive: the diesel used to extract materials from mines, the kerosene to move them from factory to factory and the uranium of nuclear power plants that feed factories (if after Fukushima they remain in place) will cost much more and they will rebound on component prices. A mentality change will be forced and extending the life of equipments as much as possible will be the rule (it is already justified nowadays as manufacturing a new computer expends more energy than the energy consumed during its whole life).

Habits using technology will also change (as a result of a mentality swap or forced by companies management). We will no longer see screens, computers, servers or switches on when they don't perform any useful work. Every useless waste will be cut. In a second phase working services will be questioned and those remaining will be streamlined. For example, what must be stored and what not will be studied in deep detail. Depending on the soar of energy prices, the on-line model will stagger.

Another foreseeable change is the rise of the importance of software quality and efficiency. As energy costs rise, software development will be relatively cheaper and taking profit of scarce and hardly expandable hardware will be a high priority.

In this dark grey picture, ICT will have a key role in reducing energy consumption. All the so called Green IT 2.0 technologies will be essential: telepresence, telecommuting, energy management, eco-design, ... Any technology that allows saving a few drops of gasoline will have their chance.

Our Society faces a gigantic challenge. ICT professionals, as a part of it, must be prepared the sooner the better. But we must also detect the opportunities to help Society transition in the smoothest way to a world with expensive energy, and we already have some tools available.