Green I/O
#1 - Fershad Irani - Using website performance to green the web
March 3, 2022
For the first episode of Green I/O, I interviewed Fershad Irani a web performance expert and restless advocate for a low carbon web in his newsletter "Optimized". He helps environmentally conscious companies ensure their websites are fast, optimised for performance, and have a low carbon impact. Based in Taipei after graduating in Sydney, Fershad also contributes to open-source projects like OpenSpaceData and is an active member of the climateaction.tech community, where I discovered his work. He has recently launched 'Are my third parties green?' a much-needed tool to give some visibility to the sustainability of third-party requests on the web.

 Fershad's links 




Transcript


Gaël
Hello everyone. Welcome to Green I/O, a podcast for doers making our digital word greener one bite at a time. Whether you work in Tech, Product, Data, Design, Marketing, you name it :), you will find inspiration with us for your next actions in Web Sustainability and Green IT. In this first episode, I had the pleasure to speak with Fershad Irani, the web performance expert who audited the Cop 26 website. He is a restless advocate for low carbon web in his newsletter Optimized. He helps environmentally conscious companies ensure their websites are fast and have a low carbon impact. Based in Taipei after graduating in Sydney, Fershad also contributes to open source projects like Open Space Data, and he is an active member of the ClimateAction.tech community where I discovered his work. Welcome Fershad, thanks a lot for joining Green I/O today.

Fershad
Hi Gaël. Thanks for the intro, mate.

Gaël
First of all, talking about the intro, what did I forget to mention about you?

Fershad
You covered most of it I think. On the personal side of things, I enjoy rugby, so you'll probably find me on the weekends and nights watching a bit of rugby League or rugby Union on a live stream. I also play touch football so I represented Taiwan at the Touch World Cup a couple of years ago and I helped organize a bit of touch football over here. And just a recent thing that I've been getting into more and more, kind of work side project, has been looking at the environmental impact of third parties as well. So I recently launched a project around that which has been quite interesting. Learn quite a bit in that process as well.

Gaël
Are you talking about "Are my third parties Green"?

Fershad
Yeah, I'm talking about that one, mate.

Gaël
Okay, great. I think we will come back to this later. First, how did you become interested in the sustainability of our digital sector in the first place?

Fershad
I think like a lot of people, a lot of people that have picked up, especially in the last few years, it kind of goes back to Jerry McGovern and his book Worldwide Waste. I can't remember, time is a blur now these last few years…. I can't remember where I became aware of that book and I don't know how it ended up on my radar, but I started reading it and just going through it chapter by chapter. He starts with the topic and you find yourself thinking, yeah, I kind of understand. I kind of know a bit about whatever. And then by the end of the chapter you find that your mind has just been completely blown by the environmental impact of whatever it's been talking about. And so definitely it started there. You knew about it but you didn't realize it. And then suddenly you're like, you've got this kind of wow effect.

Gaël
I think pretty much everyone who read it had it.

Fershad
Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of people would share that feeling about this book. And for me personally, as someone that works in the web, I kind of found myself for a little while afterwards thinking like, okay, he's talked a lot about the impact of the internet and the impact of video and media and different parts of the ecosystem, but what can I do? And I was wrestling with that for a short while after that. And then I think I heard something from Tom Greenwood when he was talking about how Wholegrain Digital approaches projects with clients and how they kind of just build websites. And those websites that they build just happen to be green. Some of their clients don't even come to them asking for green websites, but they just built them that way. And that kind of clicked with me that I enjoy web performance and I enjoy making websites fast. And then a lot of the stuff that we do to make websites faster would also make websites greener just by default. So that was kind of the whole starting process for me down this journey. And it's one where you're always learning. Web performance on its own is like a field that's just constantly developing. There's so much to learn in that area just alone, and then web sustainability on top of that. It's a young area of study, and new research is coming out every month about it. So there's always a lot to learn there as well.

Gaël
Absolutely. That makes it absolutely fascinating I guess. Talking about performance and web sustainability Green I/O is about sharing hands-on experiences on how to make the Web and Tech more sustainable. And you mentioned your mission at Readle, and the founder himself seemed very happy about the outcome. Could you tell us a bit more about it?

Fershad
Yeah, sure. So just before we dive into a full disclosure, the founder and myself, Christian and I, we worked together in a previous company, so we have some history going back. It wasn't like a fresh project that someone I don't know just came to me with. But yeah, he was working on Readle, which is a language learning app for folks that want to learn German. The approach with the app is a bit different from other language apps, where it's very story focused, and you get a story to read, which is in German, and you also get the audio for that story, which you can then listen along as you're reading. So that helps you kind of with a bit of the learning there. When Christian first approached me for some performance work on Readle, it was based around a desire to be faster as an app in some key markets that they were targeting. There was no real talk of sustainability in the initial project scope, and so we just set about doing what we needed to do to make the app faster in the areas where they wanted it to be. A few of the things we did. Again, this goes back to how we do in web performance. Kind of flows through to making the web more sustainable. As a result, a lot of the stuff we did was just reducing data that was being requested when the app was launched. So we managed to save around 200 KB off the initial app launch. So when you look at that from a sustainability perspective, if you want it's slightly under or around, sorry, 0.1 gram of CO2 at scale, the more users that are launching the app, obviously that impact becomes larger. But from a pure performance point of view, we were able to get back around 1.5 seconds off the app load time, which was fantastic considering that we didn't actually do anything overly complicated. It's just a bit more critical about what data we're sending over the wire. And then from there, that was like a combination of removing some json requests or trimming down a few json requests and also image optimization. And again, this is like all stuff that if you start poking around with, how can I optimize my website? You'll find all that type of stuff coming up as well. And in doing that, we were able to kind of get the app to where they were happy with it in the regions that they needed it to be performing well in. And then subsequently, as it happens with businesses and stuff, they had other priorities which they had to focus on. But we've been in touch during that period. And I think later this year we do have plans to do a bit of work around their website and other online assets and hopefully we can touch on the app again as well. And I think that's the evolution for a lot of businesses or that will be the evolution for a lot of businesses in that, Unfortunately, I don't have people coming to me knocking down my door saying, please, we want our website to be greener. I got people coming to me saying I want my website to be faster, but I just want it to be green no. But I think once we show the performance results and once we start a conversation around, hey, by the way, did you know that we've also just reduced CO2 emissions by this much or we've had this positive impact on the environmental performance of the app? Once we start those conversations, it kind of triggers a curiosity in people and they can start to see results from it. So the next load of work that we plan to do around Readle that does have a sustainability aspect to it, and they have actually asked for that, which is positive.

Gaël
That's now an expected benefit from your second mission, which was absolutely not the case for the first one.

Fershad
Absolutely. And to see that from the customer side, rather than being like, hey, by the way, did you know we did this to hear the customer coming saying, I want my web assets to be faster, but I also want them to look at what I can do to make them greener. That's fantastic. And I think a lot of businesses will have that two step kind of evolution as they look at how they can green their digital assets.

Gaël
And during this first mission, how did you manage the human side of the project? Because I guess not everyone was fully aligned on the need for more performance, et cetera. You sometimes get some tension regarding the arbitrage. You mentioned JavaScript and image size, and they are, I would say, pretty emotional topics for designers and developers. So what did you do to bring all these people together and did it work?

Fershad
I think it did work. As I mentioned, Christian and I, we've known each other prior to the project, so he knows how I am and I know how he is. But then he did have a developer who I was meeting for the first time on that project, and it was not just around kind of educating, like not saying hey, this is wrong, this is garbage, whatever, like not being dogmatic about things but just educating that if we can make these reductions in the amount of data being transferred when the app loads, we will see performance gains regardless, and then just taking it out a step further and using a CDN for cashing some resources or optimizing some resources even that'll give us an even bigger gain. And in terms of communicating with Christian, I think it's just at a human level communicating the value of having a greener product, having a greener app and app that is more low carbon and as a result is faster as well.

Gaël
What tools did you use to achieve those results?

Fershad
I'll mention one thing that we didn't implement in that project, but I think we might look to implement coming up this year, which is around the audio improvements. So I was recently made aware of a post from Bjarne Oldrup and he wrote a post about reducing I think it was reducing the bit rate of audio files and seeing the same quality audio, but at a much smaller file size. And that's something that we didn't really look at in the first project. But now that I'm aware of that, I think it's something that I will bring up with those guys for future work because not only will it help with audio playback time, so that's a big part of the app is the user engaging with the audio to learn words and stuff, but also it will help them in terms of their operating costs. I think where smaller file sizes mean reduced cost of storage, reduced cost of accessing the data and downloading it, I think there's overall benefits that can be gained by that. And I think it's a long winded way of saying the community is the resource, like Bjarne someone that I have never met in my life, but I connected with him on Twitter and LinkedIn, I think, around the COP26 article that you mentioned in the intro. And I've learned so much from just his post. I've learned so much from other people in the community. And then you can take those things and apply them to your own use cases in their own projects that you're working on. And that's where I get a lot of my information and learning from, because it is really impossible to keep up with everything that's going on just by yourself.

Gaël
Yeah, that's the very purpose of this podcast as well, which is why we will put in the description, all the links to these very valuable resources. Thanks a lot. Now you mention it. Yes, of course, another use case made some noise last year when you decided to audit the Cop 26 website. Why did you do that?

Fershad
I don't know. I was bored. Just a crazy idea on Saturday night. I was just bored and curious, I think, and I get myself into a bit of trouble like that sometimes. It was just like I had to start with COP was coming up and it was everywhere like “COP26 this”, “COP26 that” on the news, on Twitter and everything. And I just thought, what does their website look like? Because that's what I do. I'm not a climate scientist, I'm not an engineer. I don't have a SaaS product around solving climate change, but I do stuff on the web. So I wondered what does their website look like in terms of its sustainability and its environmental footprint? And digging through that, I learnt a lot personally about the web and I think sharing that with the broader community also kind of just gave visibility at a time when it was a hot topic. It gave visibility to digital sustainability and web sustainability as well. And it was really good to see through the reaction from the Gov.uk folks when the article was published. It did take a while because governments and bureaucracy and which team owns what. But we did get there in the end in terms of reducing the size of at least the biggest culprit at the time of my audit, that was a large image in the photo. It was almost like a three megabyte graphic in the footer and we managed to get the size of that down quite considerably and they managed to push that change I think in the first week of COP. Since then they did have like a lot of social media embeds and stuff on their site as well. And since then there's been an article by Michelle Barker on Smashing Magazine's website about that and reducing the impact of social media embeds because it's something I noticed when I looked at their site. But COP’s Twitter feed and everything wasn't as active as it was. It wasn't as active as it was later on in the event so it was still not that big of a contributor. But once you start having videos coming in from social media and stuff, you can really blow out the size of your website. So when I did the audit, I think it was a week before COP26 that I had to look at it. I'm kind of wishing I did it earlier because some of those things that I highlighted in that article could have been fixed, but they needed a redesign of the overall site. Like the social media element of it could have been addressed, but they would have needed to redesign how the home page looks.

Gaël
Very valuable insights and links and documents being shared here. What advice would you give to someone willing to do the same kind of audit as you did for a pro bono or a professional mission?

Fershad
This is not just for audits. I think this is just in general with how we talk about digital sustainability, performance and all those types of things where you're looking at someone's work and giving a bit of a critique. Don't be dogmatic about it, saying in black and white, this is right, this is wrong. That's a surefire way to turn someone off and not get your message across. There's a lot of Gray, there's a lot of edge cases, there's a lot of situations which you might not be aware of that people are dealing with when they're making websites, when they're making apps, especially time pressure is probably the biggest of them. So rather than going at it with a black and white, this is right, this is wrong. What you've done here is so bad, it's heinous. It's a crime against the environment. Go at it with a bit of empathy, go at it with an open mind, and don't be afraid to ask the question of like “why did you do this”?

Gaël
And is measuring helpful as well? I’m thinking about page speed insight, for instance, from Google or other solutions as well. Does put hard numbers on the table, actually helps or scares people?

Fershad
I think it can help, but there can sometimes be too many numbers. And I say this is someone who's really started looking at performance, like in the last couple of years. There are so many acronyms and even in the sustainability space, there's just so much you need to be aware of and you need to understand in order to be able to digest the numbers you're looking at. So I think measuring does help. And something like Website Carbon does this really nicely. The way they present the results, it's not overpowering. It's almost playful. Even when your site is very polluting, it's almost playful the way that they present that to you.

Gaël
And it's just a call for action rather than a judgment.

Fershad
Yes, and I think that's helpful. Like presenting a whole bunch of numbers to a group of marketing executives. You're probably not going to get too much buying from that. But if you're able to pick out selective metrics and measure them against their business impacts, that's where you start to really reaching and be able to communicate better with non-technical folks in companies. It's a bit harder in the sustainability space, though, because the greener website doesn't equate to anything other than if your company is tracking maybe scope three emissions and you're tracking your website as part of that, then okay, it does kind of correlate. But if you can tie performance to sustainability, you can then take that back a step and go, well, for every 100 milliseconds, we improve our performance. We are reducing our carbon footprint by this much. We're also increasing our revenue by this much. I think being able to communicate things in that manner is very impactful and helps you communicate the importance of these things more easily with folks in other business departments.

Gaël
Which brings me maybe to the challenging question, I would say. Which is beyond the beautiful scope three world, what about the why? My point is, did you find yourself in situations where making tech greener was not enough? Where you had to question the purpose of some digital services, if not entire companies?

Fershad
I've never found myself in that situation in the work that I've done, but just in everyday life. I mean, you have companies like Facebook, Meta, that have a positive social impact. They've also got quite a substantial negative social impact. And you start to wonder, is digital really being put to its best use in these cases? I find myself a lot of the time more ever increasingly, I find myself feeling like digital is not the only solution. There are times when digital is one of the options, but that sometimes people view it as “we need to digitize this and it's only going to be available 100% through an app”, whereas actually to make it more accessible for everyone, elderly people that don't have a phone, people that have limited access to data or whatever. To make that more accessible, you need to consider other options besides just digital. So I think it's looking at digital as one of the options, one of the solutions for any given problem, but not discounting others, even more traditional ones like a pencil or a paper. Just a recent example here in Taiwan, when Covid was picking up and the government really jumped into the QR code, check in. So when you go to a restaurant or a shop, you check in with your phone, scan a QR code, and your details are captured. But what that did - and beyond that they also made vaccine bookings and everything like that accessible through an online system, and you would get notifications by SMS and whatnot - that excluded a large chunk of the elderly population who then had to rely on relatives or local community members to kind of help them.

Gaël
And they were the more concerned about the epidemic…

Fershad
Yeah. And just like something like that thinking, okay, we got to digitize this. It's going to be more efficient if we do. But let's not forget that we need to keep this as something that should be accessible to everyone.

Gaël
And going back to something you mentioned, one of your most recent nonprofit work, you started to investigate how green are third parties. Could you elaborate a bit more?

Fershad
Yeah. Again, this is one of those kind of I was bored and I was curious kind of situations. So I don't know if your listeners would be familiar with the Web Almanac. It's a set of articles that's put out every year. So it's a part of the http archive and it's been going for three years. It's kind of tracking how the Web is evolving and changing over time. And one of those chapters in that Almanac is about third parties. And I was just as you do on a week night, I was giving that a read and I came across a couple of stats that were mentioned in that, which just blew my mind. Somewhere in the vicinity of 94% of websites load at least one third party script. And third party requests account for 45% of website traffic. So when I read that, my mind straight away went to “I wonder how much of this is actually coming from green service?”. Like, what's the impact? Here are these third party scripts, all of them hosted on green web host, in which case that would be fantastic.

Gaël
It would be.

Fershad
So I tried to figure out how I would be able to understand that a bit better. And that's where “Are my third parties green” was born. So I also kind of wanted to play with some technology, so I wanted to try out StealthKick, which is a framework for building web apps and websites. So I got to do that also scratching my curiosity as well.

Gaël
Yeah. Killing two birds with one stone, which is a terrible expression in regard of the biodiversity crisis that we are in. And today, this third party's audit website, is it focusing only on energy or did you manage to go beyond? Study potentially the Scop three? Do they advertise their carbon footprint, and beyond scope one and scope two?

Fershad
No, not really. Right now, it's still very much a side project that I'm slowly updating with different things that people have kind of requested when I can. The main focus is around green hosting. So I'm looking to see other third party requests hosted on green web hosts. I use the Green Web Foundation API as the source of truth for that. And I do put in a carbon score just as like a rough estimate of the first time this request is made, what would be the carbon impact of it? Because some of them - it's hard with third parties, some of them are really well cached and they have a long life on the browser; others the cache expires within a minute. So if a user comes back to your site two minutes later, they will have to download the fresh one again. So it makes it a bit trickier to give a real accurate carbon estimate. But I do have another project in my head about that, but I'll leave that for another day. So I do have a couple of plans to make some of this data more accessible and visible to people that might be deciding to use third parties on their website. I've got a branch and the code at the moment to create a directory, at least of the known third party. So if you're looking for an advertising provider, you could kind of look through that list and see which ones are hosted on green web hosts. And what would be the CO2 emissions related to that request? It just makes it an easier way for people to kind of compare because at the end of the day, for us to make a difference as individuals, we can speak through our actions. And the more of us that go to third party providers that are hosted on green web hosts, and the more of us that make that known, that was part of our decision. The more we'll see these providers shifting to more sustainable web hosting, optimizing their scripts so that they're lighter and better cached and all that stuff. So, yeah, I do have plans to add to the website with the directory, maybe with a bit of a comparison even inside of the test results. So, yeah, it's definitely a work in progress, but I'm not sure about getting into something more complicated like scope three, scope two emissions.

Gaël
That's a hell of a job to start auditing and just collecting the information when it is made available, which is pretty rare these days.

Fershad
Yeah. If any of the listeners do want to help with that, they can go over to aremythirdpartiesgreen.com and run their website through the tool to see how their website looks. And I've got some ideas about how I might be able to use this data to also contribute back to some of the data sources that I'm using. So I use a library called Third Party Web, which kind of categorizes the third party request. I would love to use data from this tool to then feedback into that library to help make it more complete so that the other people that use that tool as well can benefit from that.

Gaël
Two last questions. The more general question I would say: “Today, what makes you optimistic about a path toward a greener digital world?”

Fershad
… blank …

Gaël
Laughing Spontaneously, not that much. A bit scary.

Fershad
Laughing No, I was just thinking. I think my answer is not just for digital. My answer goes for our path towards a greener, more sustainable world as a whole. The thing that makes me the most positive is just a number of incredibly smart people that are working on the science behind changes that we need, that are working on the engineering, that are working on products to help us get there, that are lobbying for changes to be made at the government level. Just a number of people that are out there helping us move in the right direction. That's what gives me a great sense of optimism. I mean, going beyond the digital space. Another podcast I listen to is called “My Climate Journey” by Jason Jacobs. And he interviews people from all kinds of different industries and like some of them you wouldn't even think of, but you can just see that the scope of not only what's required, but the spaces in which people are operating across a gamut of industries. And that's what we need in the end to move things on a sustainable path. And that trickles down to digital mate. I mean, there are people out there way smarter than I am. Tackling the problem of sustainability across the digital sector and knowing that they're working on it and knowing that they're open to assistance from the community, that kind of gives me hope.

Gaël
Yeah, me too. It's pretty crazy when you start to investigate the level of knowledge. But still - that will be my last question - we still have a lot of newbies when it comes to Web Sustainability. People with great aspiration, willingness to change, but not that much knowledge yet. What would be your recommendations to learn more about Web Sustainability and Web Performance to this audience? Fershad
I think just read or consume as much as you can. You know, there's a lot of content out there on YouTube. ClimateAction.tgech has got their YouTube channel, which is a lot of videos across a lot of different aspects of technology. So maybe you're not a web developer, but you work in machine learning. They've definitely got videos up there about machine learning, AI, cloud computing, data centers. So just consume. There's so much information out there. There's so much knowledge. Obviously subscribe to this podcast because it's going to be a good one.

Gaël
Thanks.

Fershad
Also, I think getting involved in the community is quite important. Like the amount that I've learned since being a member of the ClimateAction.tech community online. Like the people you meet, the things they share, that helps you kind of stay aware of what's going on as well. Because things do change pretty quickly. And having a community around you to kind of help you keep an eye on things that you might not be able to otherwise. That helps you ensure that you're always learning something.

Gaël
Yeah you definitely need those. I remember when I joined the Slack workspace, it can be pretty intimidating. That's just so much information. But at the same time, suddenly you don't feel alone. Like, you feel ten times stronger than you were just a second before because you realized, as you said, that so many great people are contributing. I really do love ClimateAction.tech; not the least because this is where I met you. But thanks a lot for all these very valuable insights. That was awesome. So thanks a lot Fershad for being with us today. Your insights and feedback were just great. I'm sure many of our listeners will find inspiration in it to help green the web and IT. So thanks again and next month we will go to London and meet Sandra Sydow, the founder of “Why Not Now?” and cofounder of the “Climate Pitch”. She is also an active member of the Digital Collage association and she will tell us everything about this great tool to raise awareness about the ecological footprint of the digital sector and … that's it! Thank you all for listening to Green I/O. As you surely have noticed in this episode, Green I/O is a nonprofit podcast so we rely on you to share it and to rate it five stars on your favorite platform. My dear listener, you are our true communication power and you are our scout as well! So feel free to contact me either via LinkedIn or via my website gaelduez.com if you have an interesting story to share or if you know someone who should in order to build a greener digital world, one byte at a time. 

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