How Green is my Videoconference?


Eh? Surely all videoconferencing is green? Well it seems one video conference can be greener than another. Geoff Constable, Welsh Video Network Support Officer working on the How Green Was My Videoconference? JISC Project, tells us more.

Geoff can be followed on Twitter at gardeninggeoff.

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I have been working in supporting and researching videoconferencing for about fifteen years now. Since 2001 I have been working for the Welsh Video Network. With its main base in Swansea, South Wales, and additional workers at Aberystwyth (Mid-Wales) and Bangor (North Wales) the WVN installs and supports much of the public sector videoconferencing in Wales. As well as installing equipment, replacing and fixing any broken parts, and looking after the networking side of things; the WVN also has a ‘Learning and Teaching’ section of four part-time workers who give users training, put on events and generally raise awareness of videoconferencing.

Over the last couple of years my role has evolved so that I have done a lot of work for the Video Technologies Advisory Service. This is a loose group of experts who offer support to videoconferencers everywhere ( – my spellchecker is telling me there is no such thing, but I know otherwise!) by publishing independent evaluations of equipment and offering tailored advice to individuals and organisations having equipment and/or network problems. Both organisations offer independent and unbiased advice which is more difficult to come by where there is a financial interest.

I have noticed in recent years that videoconferencing equipment makers have been keen to extol the green credentials of videoconferencing, and in general, the technology has been promoted as being planet-friendly. But many of the ‘measurements’ of just how planet-friendly out there are examples from manufacturers and resellers themselves. There seemed to be an absence of empirical, academic evidence for the trumpeting of videoconferencing as a green solution.

This is how the project that I am currently working on: How Green Was My Videoconference? came to be. Sponsored by the JISC’s Greening ICT Programme, the project is looking at the carbon footprint of videoconferencing, including the lifecycle impact of the equipment itself, as well as the power consumed by the equipment, to try to arrive at a carbon cost of a videoconference. It is looking closely at particular videoconferences, and analysing the savings that have been made in time, money and emissions by not travelling.

The project has a close relationship with a JANET-UK/Suste-IT project: Good Campus, which is trying to raise the usage of videoconferencing and looking at the barriers to videoconferencing, and what makes people persist in travelling. The two projects are jointly staging events for travel managers at colleges and universities – and the next one will be in Wales on the 2nd February 2011.

I am also working with professional groups and projects in Wales to try to hand-hold them through a process of moving away from travel and using videoconferencing more frequently. Some of this is documented on the project web site and also on the YouTube channel.

Conference Suite

One group that I have been working with recently is the Women’s Universities Mentoring Scheme. This group “aims to promote and facilitate professional development for women working in Welsh universities by setting up inter-university mentoring partnerships. The WUMS has been funded by HEFCW to help support women working in HEIs in Wales into more senior academic and managerial positions. Under this all-Wales scheme, mentees receive encouragement, support and advice from a more experienced colleague to help realise potential and fulfil career aspirations.”

Until quite recently the Steering Group met up physically at a location somewhere in Wales, everybody drove to that location, taking the best part of a day out of their working lives. People who had family commitments might have held back from committing to involvement in the Steering Group because of childcare issues. If you have a two hour drive at the start and end of the day as well as a lengthy meeting in the middle of the two drives, you might not want to commit to this if there is the added stress of arranging child-care or being back in time to pick the kids up from school. Traditionally (whether rightly or wrongly), even in two parent families, a lot of childcare arrangements fall to the woman, and I hadn’t previously thought of videoconferencing being an enabler of equality in the workplace. But when you replace that two hour drive at the top and bottom of the day with a five minute, fifty yard stroll to the videoconferencing room, suddenly the stresses of family commitments are no longer there, which frees people up to commit to more meetings and activities that would previously eaten into family time..

Apart from the Steering Group, the mentors and mentees either travelled to or from mentoring sessions around Wales (and by the way, a return trip from Aberystwyth to Cardiff takes two hours and releases 76kg of CO2 into the atmosphere, given a 1.4 litre car!). They also used the telephone which obviously saves time and travel and – again, obviously, but most importantly – does not allow you to see your colleague, or in this case, mentor/mentee. Visual communication is a very important part of how we communicate and my personal opinion after years of using the medium is that it allows for more informality and playfulness than a telephone does. Because you can’t see the other person a telephone (like text communication) is more open to misinterpretation and hence formality and occasionally awkwardness as it takes longer to get to know people and relax with them.

I asked one of the mentees in the scheme to put down some thoughts on being mentored over videoconference and her reply makes for interesting reading:

I really have found video conferencing as part of WUMS beneficial to me. I am a busy Careers Adviser and working mum and I really value time and don’t like to travel if I can help it, so knowing that I can just book it and pop downstairs to our VC suite 10 minutes before the arranged start is a real time-saving element to the programme. It’s also saving our department money in travel fees at a time when budgets are being squeezed.

When my mentor suggested it I was initially apprehensive, but only from the point of view of the question ‘what happens if something goes wrong/ it breaks down mid-conference?’, as I have experienced this before but not while I have been on my own. However, then I thought about it logically and pre-programmed our technician’s number into my phone, and my mentor has my mobile number too! I’ve done video conferencing before in a previous job and it’s a great way of sharing information and discussing issues without having the hassle of travel. The one thing I’d say is that you quickly have to get over feeling ‘self-conscious’ if seeing yourself on a screen bothers you.

The conferencing I’ve done with my mentor has been really positive. We’ve been able to get to know each other, discuss things and share experiences of working and management almost as if we’re having a face-to-face conversation. I’d certainly recommend it for others to give it a go.

…So the How green was my videoconference? project continues and seems to encompass these subjective and revealing moments, right though to objective measurement in a lab with electrical measuring equipment (I have learnt a lot about watts and amps during the last year!). Which reminds me, I must get back to seeing how much CO2 the monitor I am testing has used while I’ve been typing this…

I hope you have found this interesting, if so, check out project progress at the addresses above – and remember videoconferencing saves greenhouse gas emissions, time and money – and it makes you more efficient and your kids happier!

5 thoughts on “How Green is my Videoconference?

  1. Pingback: Guest blog spot « How Green Was My Videoconference?

  2. My company uses a dedicated system for video conferencing. Won’t name any names but it costs a fortune and isn’t really that good. I wanted to use a cheap desktop system for some activities I’m carrying out external to work. Do you have any recommendations? Can you bolt a load of add-ons together and get something up and running? I’m also interested in which is the greenest.
    Chris

  3. Chris – you may want to check out VeaMea. It offers the quality of a “costs a fortune” system with the flexibility and ease of use of a software-based system.

  4. Hi Geoff,
    Very interesting post. I had never really thought about videoconferencing in the context of gender equality either – it’s great to hear about how the women’s mentoring group is benefitting. I think that videoconferencing can also be a huge leveller in other respects too. I like the idea of wide collaboration across the educational sectors (e.g. http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2009/10/spacefish-and-primary-crowdsource.html) and of course transnational projects, like this one http://www.iearn.org/country/iearn-iraq
    Closer to home I hope (and expect) that you will find that the Welsh videoconference network is reducing carbon emissions significantly. From where I live to anywhere roughly central to Wales, takes around three hours in a car. I am doing this less and less these days, I am glad to say, thanks to videoconferencing and Skype.
    I am looking forward to seeing the energy use measurements.
    cheers
    Paul

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