Flood Apps Won’t Save The World

Peter Judge

The government backed Tech City’s bid to make helpful flood apps. Peter Judge wants to know – where’s the long-term thinking?

Big problems like climate change and energy supply don’t seem to be getting the input they need. There seems to be a lot of thought going into short-term, small scale answers, while the big questions are left hanging.

The floods in the UK did get a high-tech response: London’s Tech City spent one Sunday making apps. The Government opened up its flood data, and developers from Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft gathered at Google’s London campus to make things that might help flood victim, volunteers and emergency services.

disaster apocalypse, storm wind hurricane city © shutterstock Nejron PhotoShort term thinking

I like Flood Hack for rehabilitating the word “hack” to mean a quick, but effective solution to a problem. And like good hackers, the people that showed up made great things: UKFloodAlerts notifies users of events such as power cuts, while FloodBud uses Twitter to help find people who need help and volunteers to help them.

But it’s all about immediate wants and needs – right up to the Citizen Flood Journalism app, which is all about getting more flood photos on social media. And it has to be pointed out that all this relies on having data centres and comms networks that keep going through the crisis.

The floods have provided a platform (maybe a pontoon) for environmentalists to remind the world about climate change. These floods aren’t a one-off event. They will keep happening, and we need to adapt to higher water levels and more extreme weather.

But there is a worrying undertone to the long-term vision: what if it’s too expensive, too difficult – and too late – to do anything?

Power generation also has lots of good short-term thinking but little long-term vision. Google’s huge investments in solar power are excellent. But there is no-one joining this up into an actual plan. We need to change our centralised fossil-based power grids into ones designed for distributed and fluctuating power sources.

And data centre owners do the short-term stuff very well. They keep getting more efficient, so they actually use less energy per MIPS – though overall the energy demand goes up as the number of servers climbs. In their move to generate more of their own power, they are anticipating the move towards localised generation.

Data centres are also preparing better for events like floods – which does mean that when we are underwater, all those Flood Hack apps may well still work!

The service providers are also doing a good job of trying to keep the business going despite competition and the imposition of taxes and green taxes.

But how can individual businesses help in the big, long-term problems – and more crucially, why should they?

It would be a good thing if all data centres – and all other businesses – paid a price for energy which would support a global shift to better sources of power. But as things stand, any business that tries to do such a thing, or any country which tries to build such a structure, simply makes itself uncompetitive against rivals elsewhere who are burning all the cheap energy they can get their hands on, and hang the consequences.

Google, Facebook and the rest can donate their geeks’ spare time to make stuff. It’s useful, and it looks very good on social media. But really, when it comes to it, it won’t change the world.

A version of this post appeared on Green Data Center News.

Check your renewable energy knowledge!