Innovating Sustainability Solutions with Dr. Ana Pinheiro Privette

October 18, 2022

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Dr. Ana Pinheiro Privette is the Head of Sustainability for AWS Impact Computing, and the Global Lead for ASDI. Prior to joining Amazon, she led projects for the White House climate portfolio, including the Obama Climate Data Initiative (CDI) and the Partnership for Resilience and Preparedness (PREP), and worked as a scientist at NASA and NOAA.

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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I’m John Shegerian. We’re so lucky to have with us today Dr. Ana Pinheiro Privette. Welcome to the Impact Podcast, Dr. Privette, Ana.

Dr. Ana Pinheiro Privette: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

John: Of course. You are the Head of Sustainability for AWS Impact Computing and the Global Lead for ASDI. Before we get talking about your important role at Amazon and what you’re doing there, let’s first talk about Ana and your background. Where did you grow up, and how did you even get here?

Ana: Sure. Okay. So it starts on the other side of the Atlantic. I grew up in Portugal…

John: Wow.

Ana: …on the North Coast, and moved to Lisbon for college, and then eventually made it to the U.S. for graduate school. The plan was not to stay. I’d planned to go back, but here I am. I’m one of those cases. I’ve been around for 25 years in the U.S.

John: There’s a common thread in your life when I’ve read your biography in terms of working in and around the White House climate portfolio and other things. You’ve been working in sustainability for most of your career. Can you share with our listeners and viewers what have you been doing during most of your career before you made it over to be the Global Lead for ASDI?

Ana: Yes. I spent a big chunk of my career as a researcher. I went through graduate school, Ph.D., and then end up spending a lot of time at NASA, and then later at NOAA doing work… My work was focused on how to use satellites to measure the temperature of the earth and end up doing a lot of fieldwork in Africa to validate the NASA satellites and other efforts. But my interest has always been in how data and knowledge can help us make decisions. So although I learned a lot when I was more in the theoretical space, my goal has been… All my life, I’m trying to come to the side of the applied side of data and the applied side of science. That’s eventually how I got to the White House and very focused on their portfolio, their climate portfolio, to open access to the federal data to support climate action. Now, Amazon for the last 5 years, trying to take that step further in the democratization of data.

John: Wow. All right. Well, let’s get talking about what you’re doing actually at ASDI. ASDI, for our listeners and viewers, is Amazon Sustainability Data Initiative. What is going on it? What does that mean? What’s your real mission there?

Ana: Yes, so what we see across the space of sustainability, and also really honestly, very based on my experience as the researcher, is that anything we’re trying to do in the space of sustainability… And we talk about sustainability very broadly, like thinking of the Sustainable Development Goals from the United Nations which is anything from food security, water availability, and climate action. Think of the entire space, everything we do in this space requires data and it’s just critical. Because we need to understand where are we now. What’s the baseline? But also how well are we doing, progressing towards our goals? The decreasing temperature of the planet or having more water available. Things like that. So, there is a core and we have more data than ever before. We went from having little data in the old days and now we have more satellites in space than ever before. Models generate higher, larger amounts of data and so… But that’s not necessarily translating into an easier way for people to make decisions because suddenly you have all this data dispersed everywhere. It is gigantic, so large that some of the data sets we work with in the climate space are terabytes and petabytes in size. Maybe that doesn’t mean much for people but just imagine 500,000 movies kind of thing. And so if you are trying to access the data and extract knowledge from it, what we see is that in practice only a few around the world can do that, only those that have access to the storage for the data. And then the computer on top of the data can extract the knowledge. And there’s an issue of democratization here. So what we’re trying to do with ASDI is to understand how the cloud can play a role in this process of really opening access to this data to anybody in the world independent of where they are and the resources that they have right now.

John: Did this exist before you and Amazon created it? Or are you following another paradigm? Or is this white space in front of you and you’re the first to democratize this amount of data?

Ana: We started, we launched the program almost 5 years ago. I came to join Amazon just 5 years ago to start this process and it was very much focused on, one, the fact that the federal agencies and the work I’ve been doing before were focused on, “Let’s even identify what’s available. Let’s go across all the federal agencies that are touching anything related to climate…

John: Right.

Ana: …and make an inventory and make that public. So people can go and find the data. Although that was very foundational, one of the things that were not fully helping the democratization is that once you find where the data is, like, for instance, that NOAA or a NASA data server, you still have to get the data and bring it somewhere to work with it, right?

John: Right.

Ana: So that effort is being repeated over and over again. So what we call an AWS, is the undifferentiated heavy lifting, which means everybody is going, finding the data, acquiring it, storing it, cleaning it, and only after that, they produce knowledge. And that’s accounted for about 80% of the effort. It means that we’re all doing 80% of the effort that is redundant, and only after that, we are creating knowledge. So it seems logical, stepping back from all of that, that we remove that layer of work that we’re all doing. Do it once or twice or whatever many times as needed, and then allow people to come and build on top of it. So that’s what we thought with this program, and with the fact that we have this amazing tool, the cloud, which is virtually accessible from anywhere that you have access to the internet. You don’t have to have all that computing and all the storage. Amazon is doing that, and then you just come and build on top of it. So, yeah.

John: So you’re getting rid of that 80% waste of time and redundancy, so people could go back to the real learning part, the real creation[?] part.

Ana: So that’s I hope that– And we hope that that will catalyze innovation because we are removing all those barriers and make it much cheaper and easier for people to experiment because now they don’t have to go through all that process. They can easily go on top of the data experiment and create new solutions and new products and new knowledge.

John: Is that what you mean by the recent announcement of the AWS Data Exchange? What’s the whole purpose of the data exchange?

Ana: So the data exchange, that’s an additional layer that we created to help customers. So the AWS Data Exchange is just really a marketplace for data, and traditionally, it’s been very focused on data, that is license data. Like if you are a company, you created a product that is relevant to sustainability, you want to sell it, you can sell it through that marketplace. But if you wanted to go and get the free data, like the open data that we expose through ASDI, you would have to go to a different place. And so when we looked at it, we thought, “Oh, that doesn’t make sense for the customer to have to know where to go to get data and go to two different places. So let’s integrate those two catalogs.” So now, the open free data is discoverable in the same catalog as the license pay data. So you can find everything in the same space.

John: Wow, God. Can you give a couple of use cases of how really what you’re doing is making the world a better and more sustainable place?

Ana: Yes, and honestly, that’s the part that is exciting for us, at least for me, and because we talk about democratizing data and it’s great. And you open all this data. But then really what’s relevant is the impact that this is creating. What we see is that, as I was saying before, you remove this barrier and it makes it so much easier for people to work on top of the data and create new products and solutions, that they are building this ecosystem for sustainability. And we work across the entire space. So we work as much with NGOs and governments as we do with Academia and nonprofits. One thing that I forgot to mention before that is important here is that we believe that once you put the data in the cloud, that’s the first step, but now we have all this data there. But if you want to extract knowledge, you need to compute. You need to analyze the data. There’s a cost associated with that. AWS is a free tier, but if you want to do heavy computation or build a product, you would need some computes. And we want to offset that cost. So we have a cloud-run program that ASDI runs where anybody, really literally anybody, can apply. There’s an ongoing call for proposals, so you can apply any time for a grant to work for free in the cloud for one year, and there’s no cap. So as long as you can justify it and we accept you into the program, we subsidize for you to work in the cloud for one year, and we have subsidized- basically, sponsor startups and groups all over the space. That’s the exciting part to see, is when you put the data and the computer together. We have tons of startups that are doing work in improving precision agriculture in Africa, in India, and all over the world, or works that are creating products for the solar industry, like forecasts for solar radiation, or… I can go through the list, we have a huge amount of groups doing different work.

John: So let’s go back. So you talk about great federal agencies such as NOAA and NASA being users of your data, scientists, federal governments, and local governments. What about big business? Am I missing something? Does the big business have the same access? Or how is big business treated about your democratized data set?

Ana: Anybody, so really literally anybody. That’s part of this belief that we have, that it takes everybody at the table to solve these huge problems, and everybody will contribute differently. So if you are a corporation and you find value in the data that we’re making available, you can go and use it, and you can even monetize on top of it. It’s completely open. And the model of the data- So we don’t touch the data ourselves, just to make that clear, and that’s part of our process as well. If we identify a data set that is relevant for this space, for instance, let’s say there’s a data set from NOAA, we would go to NOAA and say, “NOAA, we would like to ask you to host that data set in the cloud or the customers or the community asking for that.” So, we’re going to cover all the costs for the data to be stored in the cloud and all the egress costs. So if people want to take it out and download it, we cover all those costs. You don’t even need to have an AWS account to be able to access the data and take it. But you need to commit that if we pay for all of this you need to make it publicly available and distribute it to anybody in the world. And so that’s part of that process of democratization. What this ensures is that the data from NOAA that is served on AWS is NOAA data. NOAA owns the bucket. NOAA distributes the data; they maintain it. We are an enabling platform to distribute it. And so we have all these data sets from what we call authoritative data providers around the world that own those different data sets. We are just making it, creating the conditions for that to become public.

John: How fast is that group growing, the known data set group?

Ana: We have now terabytes and petabytes. I think we have over 100, we have 149, 150 data sets right now, and many, many petabytes of data. They are all open and open licenses so people can… Some of them have some… not restrictions, but they would have recommendations if you want to-1 your kit[?], use it commercially because they might not be. They might be more experimental, something like that, but that’s

all very clear and transparent in each data set.

John: But what I really would be interested in hearing is…

Ana: Oh.

John: No, that’s fascinating, but do you have people underneath you doing outreach to continue to grow that? Or is the incoming outreach to join it much larger? Or it is both two ways?

Ana: It goes both ways. So we are open, always open to our customers to tell us and the community what they need. And when we hear that, we would go and say, “Hey, is–” Data provider. We really would like to have this data set, and at the same time we have data providers come to us, and say, “We would love to make this data set more available.” Because it helps them. It diminishes the requirements on their servers and system. It creates more visibility to the data set and it creates more impact. So it’s good for everybody.

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John: How about the application process for those who want to use it and get your one-year scholarship? How big is that group growing? How do people find out about ASDI?

Ana: So, it’s all on our web page. If you go to… At the bottom of the page, there’s a clear link if you want to apply for– we call it Promotional Credit. And that’s a growing number as well, but what we’ve done is that to scale, we have this ongoing call for proposals, but we also create collaborations with different groups around the world that we name as boundary organizations, like, for instance, the group on Earth Observations. It’s an intergovernmental group seated in Geneva under the World Meteorological Organization. They have hundreds of member countries, a lot of them from developing countries. And so, for instance, we created a collaboration with them where we said, “We’ll commit 1.5 million dollars in credits, you go and ask from your developing countries which ones would like to work in the clouds for 3 years in climate-related problems. And we’ll fund and we’ll work collaboratively and support you in that process.” So that way we also have people that are like, “You didn’t find the right people for us to fund and support and the right issues.”

John: Got it, got it. So now you’ve been there for 5 years in ASDI. Sounds like it’s gone to a very good place so far. How do you take it to the next level? What’s your vision for the next 5 years?

Ana: Yes. Okay. So, there’s the glamorous part and the not-glamorous part.

John: Like everything else in life, by the way.

Ana: Because one of the things that we’ve learned through these 5 years of experience and working with the customers and the communities is that to fully democratize the data, you need to go beyond opening it. So one thing is to say, “Here’s all the data is open, come and use it, take it.” Another thing is to allow people to use it effectively and that process involves, in some cases, doing things like changing the format of the data. Because, for instance, if you have a TAR file, that is compressed and you put it in the cloud, to use it you have to take it out of the cloud. So these are the things that are not glamorous, but that we need to put a lot of investment and time into working with the community and the data providers to ensure that when the data makes it to the cloud, is in a way that it’s easily consumable in a cloud environment. So that’s a lot of the less glamorous but foundational works that we need to do to make the data even more usable, especially by those people that are not power users. The ones that are not as comfortable using the cloud.

John: Right.

Ana: And then we’re always looking for opportunities to extend the space and the impact, and one of the areas we’ve been focusing very strongly recently is building capacities in those less– the underserved communities that have less traditional access to compute and resources. So we are doing a lot of work in bringing climate models to the cloud, showing that this can be a way to democratize the climate science’s[?] space as well. I’m very excited about that. And some collaborations we have with NCAR and Silver Lining and other groups out there.

John: Got it, got it. Talk about sustainability as a priority just for AWS overall, AWS and even take it as far as Amazon.

Ana: Yes, so sustainability is a top focus for what we’re doing across Amazon, and you’re probably familiar with the Climate Pledge. I don’t know how many of the listeners will be as well but then…

John: [inaudible] Climate Pledge, it’s important.

Ana: Yes. So, it is in the sense that it… It’s ingrained into everything we’re doing these days inside Amazon. In 2019, Amazon launched, in partnership with Global Optimism, this pledge called the Climate Pledge to go carbon-neutral by 2040, which for a company like Amazon as you can imagine is a major commitment because it means that we have to turn upside down all of our operations and all of our infrastructure to remove carbon from it. That transforms the way we are doing things internally and there’s a lot of innovation that is happening internally, needing a lot of data which also speaks to what we’re trying to do with this process of ASDI, of opening access to data because everybody will need it.

John: Right.

Ana: But because of that, we also recognize that although we’re doing a lot of innovation internally, we can play an enablement role with our cloud to help innovation happening on the outside. And that’s how ASDI fits into this story. We have this cloud, it’s a very powerful tool. How can we make it easier for other people out there to innovate and build this space collectively? And that’s how this all comes together.

John: Got it, got it, got it. So, from AWS’s perspective, what’s next? What’s next for AWS?

Ana: So, AWS is focused on its internal work. How do we make our data centers more sustainable? That means, I know, making our processes more efficient, building new hardware, new processors that [inaudible] everywhere[?] efficiency for the same amount of processing done, using renewables, all of those things internally. But then there’s the other layer which is how we help our customers in their sustainability journey, right?

John: Right.

Ana: And that means things like you can write your code in your workloads in very different ways, and some ways are more energy efficient and have a lower carbon footprint, and others do not. So we have a new pillar in our well-architectured guidelines, focusing on sustainability that will help the customers create solutions that are more sustainable and consume less energy. That’s very exciting actually.

John: When do you do that part of the education? How is that education done with your clients, and how is that part of the interaction happen actually?

Ana: Actually, we incorporate that very strongly in the U.S., yeah. If you apply for a grant and it’s above a certain amount, we say, “Okay, we’ll give you the money but you have to have your plan, and your architecture reviewed by this particular team that is specialized in this kind of expertise. And they need to look at your code and make sure that you are and your workload- and make sure that it is optimized for energy efficiency and the carbon footprint. And so they will recommend changes to your workloads.” And I think, our perspective, everybody wins, the planet wins, and the customer wins. Because once that one year is over, if they want to continue doing the work, they have it optimized. The less energy consumption and fewer cycles, the less money. So I’ve made it [crosstalk] [inaudible] for everybody.

John: That’s fascinating, Ana. I’ve never heard anywhere that the code could be written to be more sustainable. That’s fascinating.

Ana: It’s impactful when we’re trying… talking about, like, for instance, weather and climate modeling which is like a gigantic footprint and amount of work. So we have to do all this work to improve our knowledge of the climate, but at the same time, we are generating cycles and consuming energy, and creating a carbon footprint. So we need to do it the right way to do it.

John: I love it. And again, the website for people to find you and your colleagues is

Ana: The ASDI one would be

John: Oh,

Ana: amazonsdi, so Amazon Sustainability Data Initiative.

John: Okay,

Ana: So, Yes.

John: Okay. Got it, got it, got it. Perfect. Any last things you want to say before we sign off and say goodbye just for today? Are there any last thoughts that you like to share with our listeners and our viewers today, Ana?

Ana: Well, a call to action. If you have amazing data that can benefit the broader world[?] in this space, please reach out and consider hosting your data in the cloud. And if you have an amazing idea of how to use open data and build a solution, they can help build this space. We would love to hear from you as well. And thank you for the opportunity to share the word.

John: Ana, thank you so much for not only what you but Amazon and ASDI are doing, you not only make the world a more sustainable but a better place. The impacts that you’re making are felt every day. And we’re just– thank you for all the great work you’re doing. Thank you again.

Ana: Thank you very much.

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