Folks. Folks. Folks. Folks…. I built an Android app!

Again, I’m designing for simplicity and for a focus on user experience, as well as trying to solve the problems that people in the industry are concerned about. This translates to 1) something that communicates at a glance 2) time-of-use prices for electricity consumption in Ontario (how expensive your electricity is now). So, I created an Android widget that sits on your homescreen and shows time-of-use through stop light colours. Red, Yellow, Green. Doesn’t take up much room. It’s that simple. It will end up looking like this:

Yup, just that tiny little lighting bolt.

I’d love it if you would consider testing it. Let me know how it goes:

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I’ve thought a lot about where the environmental movement is stalling the most, and where I can help. Toronto has a good number of hard-working and earnest environmental charities and NGOs. But I’ve noticed that their messages are often communicated in similar ways that don’t necessarily draw people in the way they need to. So, I’m going to start writing a little on existing communications and marketing campaigns and websites of Toronto environmental NGOs and charities.

Why do I want to do this? Because these organizations work so hard, and when they decide to tell everyone about that hard work so that they can get more support (in the form of donations, petition signatures, etc) they do it in a way that doesn’t necessarily increase their reach and pull with people because they aren’t using best practices.

This is not their fault. There is a reason why these organizations usually have communications positions, because the way something is said is as important as what is said. Communications has a lot of best practices pulling from behavioural psych, environmental psych, marketing, and modern specialties like user experience, among others. It’s a lot to juggle, but absolutely worth it. Expect posts soon.

I’ve been developing a couple apps that work with Ontario’s new Green Button API roll out, which will consist of multiple utilities across the province securely allowing third party software to interact with a homeowner’s residential electricity consumption data. What it means to the average person is soon you will have a lot of fancy apps available to you that will visualize and explain your own electricity consumption. Neat!

Of course, I want to see the most possible people and groups make use of this fancy new tool. So, I made the code I wrote to connect with the API available for free at [ https://github.com/bianca/ontariogreenbuttonincodeigniter ]. This code is an extension for PHP’s Codeigniter framework. If you are trying to develop a tool yourself (in any language) and you’d like help, let me know!

So, I competed in the MaRS Energy Hackathon over the weekend. I was fortunate enough to form a team with Lucy Lin and Erich Welz, and we were fortunate enough to be awarded the Pivot Design Group UX Award!

Our project came out of some really great preliminary discussions Lucy, Erich, and I had about communicating sustainability to the public. The product, Energy Tipper, simplified Green Button data to the average person by engaging people with humor and not bombarding them with numbers and figures. I loved this project because we made some very concrete contributions on strategies to reach people who are tired of hearing about energy efficiency and climate change. Communicating sustainability to the public requires new ideas that really account for the way people work, and I think we came up with a great idea.

Energy Tipper is a mobile application that 1) tells the homeowner whether this is a bad time or good time to use electricity based on utility electricity prices 2) gives them a mischievous tip as part of a meme graphic based on the previous day’s energy consumption for their house. Some example screenshots and tips:


Of course, we will not be using poor Steve in the actual app, as he does not belong to us. Look out for a release to the public on iPhone, hopefully some time in December!

Check out the other projects that came out of event (which all were pretty great) here.

I’m doing the MARS Energy Hackathon this weekend, and to get a good idea of what is already out there, I reviewed some web and mobile applications already using green button data in the USA:

Wotz [ http://wotz.ps.uci.edu/ ]

Wotz focuses on translating kilowatts into a more meaningful metrics for homeowners. Discussing the “kilowatts” consumed doesn’t create as big of an understanding as 6 hours of macbook use, for instance. Wotz also has a challenge component that lets the user make informed decisions on how to cut down their use and a play component (that is a bit of a mystery to me, honestly).  Extra points for building in test data so that people can easily test drive the app! I think the focus on translating kilowatt hours into something understandable by the average human is really compelling, and I kind of wish they had gone further with it.

EcoDog Green Button Tool [ http://greenbutton.ecodoginc.com/GBCApp/ ]

Unfortunately, Ecodog doesn’t seem to be working these days…

Energy Insight [ http://greenbuttonconnect.com/apps/energyinsight/ ]
Oi, Energy Insight’s registration is busted. Someone, fix this!

EnergyAi [ http://www.energyai.com/ ]
EnergyAi seems to be focused on non-residential markets, allowing someone to upload their green button data and buy reports. The “report buying” strategy seems a bit old and inflexible (and grossly un-interactive), but might appeal to a certain audience. However, it means dropping $20 each time a user wants a report, whereas the trend tends to be moving toward an app that can focus on different time periods, etc.

People Power [ http://www.peoplepowerco.com/apps/ ]
People Power looks like a decent app that helps users set up energy budgets and provide suggestions for energy efficiency projects. I find the mobile app route a little odd, since it can be difficult to fit a lot of information into a tiny screen. The trade off is that the app is accessible all the time, but does People Power expect users to be constantly checking their budget? I will try it out for a longer term.

PlotWatt [ https://plotwatt.com/ ]
PlotWatt has a bit of a huge downside, it requires that you first purchase an “Energy Monitor” in order to participate. I’d love to know whether PlotWatt’s web application would work just as well by importing green button data… hmm… But the web app itself looks fairly compelling, using extrapolative algorithms to make assumptions on user appliance use and providing targeted suggestions for managing their energy use. PlotWatt seems to have also focused on a particular market (aside from residential) in restaurants, due to their high appliance use (and, therefore, high potential for savings). Again, would have loved to be able to test drive it with some sample data. It would be neat if the PlotWatt people allowed potential users to try the app out on PlotWatt employee data…

Simple Energy [ https://www.simpleenergy.com/ ]

Simple Energy seems like it is heading in the right direction, using sensible behavioural psychology inspired strategies dealing with motivation and overly-complex data presentation. They provide tools that adapt to user motivation and use modern reward systems. This system seems super keen…  Alas, they don’t have a demo, so I’m stuck imagining what the system of apps might be like. *sigh*

 

Does anyone have any other Green Button based software applications to recommend?

 

 

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It seems that every year or so we’re informed of gross labour and safety issues that lead back to the stuff we buy and where we buy it. The responses by retailers thus far have been, for the most part, one of ignorance. They often had (or claim to have had) little or no idea of the risks in their supply chains. Why?

 

Risky Information

These days, a company’s typical response to a CSR issue is “we didn’t know”, whether that referred to the problems in the facility or the knowledge that the facility was part of their supply chain at all. Walmart’s response to their involvement in the 2012 factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh was to state that they were unaware of having a relationship with that factory at all (their contractor had used an unauthorized sub-contractor). [1]
 

In order to anticipate CSR issues, a company must undertake a methodical audit of their supply chains to pinpoint the issues. However, even knowing what your own CSR issues are dangerous. That knowledge becomes incriminating if the crisis occurs before a company has made an effort to deal with it. In terms of PR, it is better to be able to say “we didn’t know” instead of “we knew, but we didn’t do anything”.

 

Currently, companies exist in a grey area of voluntary responsibility; once a company shows interest in collecting CSR data, they will be expected (to varying degrees) to act upon that information, taking voluntary responsibility for something that they could have legally and financially ignored. The other half of Walmart’s story in the Dhaka factory fire is that Walmart had received information on fire safety issues across multiple supply chains and had rejected a proposal to fund the improvement of fire safety in related facilities. [2] Would you rather say to the public “we didn’t know” or “we knew, but we actively decided it wasn’t worth addressing”?

 

 

Corporate Motivators and CSR – Why Isn’t CSR a Priority?

First, CSR is not a compliance issue. Compliance issues have direct financial repercussions if they are not met, and therefore are usually addressed by companies. Regulations and mandatory industry agreements usually apply to the facilities, labour, and materials controlled directly by the company in a region, not those along the supply chain and outside the regulating body. So, most of these CSR issues are not addressed through compliance because they are happening in 1) a separate entity from the company that has the influence, has the responsibility, and is subject to robust regulations 2) a separate region with their own weaker regulations and 3) a region where regulations may not be adhered to strictly.

 

Second, CSR is not a significant risk issue. Risk analysis is a common practice in most companies to effectively prepare for possible changes in the market. CSR issues, while a risk, aren’t usually addressed along with the rest, Risk is often judged on two things 1) the likelihood of the crisis happening and 2) the expected impact. CSR issues have an added element; a CSR crisis with a large negative impact may not affect a company’s bottom line at all. So, CSR crises are so unlikely to influence companies significantly they rank at the bottom in terms of risk priorities.

 

For instance, many Canadian mining companies have been accused of involvement with violence against the population residing near mining sites. [3][4] This registers with the average person immediately as a huge CSR issue: illegal and a violation of human rights. In direct relation to a company, this kind of event likely alienates a company and makes it difficult for them to continue conducting business in the area. However, these accusations haven’t visibly influenced these businesses or caused them to change. Often, an event doesn’t result in the exclusion the company from being a supplier; it doesn’t sufficiently alienate customers; it doesn’t change the conditions of agreements that they may have with financial institutions; it doesn’t alienate investors; and it doesn’t result in fines through regulations.

 

A sufficiently large CSR issue can contribute directly to the disruption of supply chains, but a sufficiently diverse company with diverse suppliers may not be significantly affected by the disruption. For instance, while George Weston Limited’s Joe Fresh brand had a supply chain that was completely disrupted as a result of the Rana Plaza building collapse, but it contributed so little to the company’s overall business that supply chain disruption wasn’t a compelling risk for them. Moreover, the financial strain of a disrupted supply chain was insignificant to the company. It was the jeopardizing of the company’s reputation on the Joe Fresh brand and its sister brands (such as Loblaws), as well as a moral impetus, that caused them to respond with proposals for change.

 

Stages

We could look to the stages in evolution in corporate sustainability to see if it can suggest to us how CSR might evolve. However, compliance and risk were two major drivers of the evolution of corporate sustainability. Because they aren’t big motivators in CSR its not entirely practical to look to the evolution in corporate sustainability to predict the evolution in corporate social responsibility. The elimination of risks to regulatory fines motivated the push to compliance in the earliest instances of corporate sustainability. The potential savings and reduced supply chain risk motivated the later movement toward proactive pollution prevention beyond regulatory requirements. CSR doesn’t have any of these motivators.

 

The current stage of CSR could be likened to an even later stage of corporate sustainability, product stewardship. Companies in this stage track their products across their life cycles to find out their impacts. This is a huge undertaking; most sustainable companies have only made some headway in getting a clear picture of their products’ complete impact. Its a similar process in CSR, requiring the systematic auditing of a whole supply chain to be aware of all the risks and social issues across the supply chain. The slow progress in this stage in corporate sustainability give us some indication of how difficult this undertaking is and the progress we might expect in similar CSR undertakings.

 

However, one thing we can learn from the stage of pollution prevention is the utility of anticipating and preparing for impending legislation. While there are no current significant risks, a company can be caught unprepared when new legislation requires a significant change in the way they must do business. Currently, Gap Inc. is the biggest major hold out for signing the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Code. [5] The question is, how long will this strategy help Gap? If there are future international agreements and possible legislation, Gap’s competitors will be better prepared and Gap will have to catch up on possibly years of progress. Given the difficulties of supply chain mapping, this doesn’t seem to be a feasible strategy.

 

 

Current Mechanisms

CSR spans companies and countries, making it difficult to create any sort of mechanism for CSR progress. There are a few current strategies that have met with varying levels of adoption and success.

 

1. Voluntary International Industry Agreements

Voluntary International Agreements are often made in an industry to commit a significant amount of players to the added costs and effort of making changes not mandated by law. This is especially important given that the international aspect of supply chains make them almost impossible to regulate, and an industry agreement is one of the few mechanisms that can span multiple countries and companies. However, voluntary agreements usually do not have incentives to deliver on commitments, nor enforceable penalties to assure commitments. This means that these agreements can end up being quite ineffectual. However, the commitment to these agreements indicates a certain amount of acceptance of responsibility and eliminates a company’s to outright deny responsibility.

 

2. Binding International Industry Agreements

Binding industry-wide agreements are still voluntary, but once a commitment has been made, there are penalties for not adhering to commitments. This is a less common strategy, as an industry will not likely come together to develop an agreement that could impose fines or reduce their own competitiveness. However, the severity of an issue may induce an industry to do so, as many companies have done with the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord, which has penalties for non-adherence.

 

3. Preferred Trade Agreements

There is a precedent for countries use preferential trade agreements to allow other countries to safety raise their quality of life standards through regulation. These agreements are supposed to allow countries to impose more rigorous workers rights legislation by giving the country preferential treatment, increased quotas, and lower tariffs on manufactured goods like textiles. This approach requires rigorous auditing, like the implementation of the Better Factories Cambodia system for the U.S.- Cambodian Textile Agreement. However, the trade agreement must provide the sector with sufficiently large quotas and prices in order to both pay for the increased costs and to support the majority of the sector. If such an agreement expires (as it did the US-Cambodian agreement in 2005) the factories may be suddenly severely uncompetitive in a free market without their former protected market.

 

4. Regulatory Compliance

Regulation are not a common mechanism for international CSR issues, but can be implemented by a political body for the most critical issues. For instance, a provision in the 2009 Dodd-Frank Act requires some companies to disclose their consumption of “conflict minerals” coming from ten countries. Disclosure in this case should be enough to induce change; companies will not be allowed to avoid the issue by not auditing their supply chain. Once their relationship is known the issue is enough of a human rights issue that companies will implement change themselves.
 

Forward

Currently, the biggest barrier to good CSR is motivation; companies don’t perceive enough internal or external pressure to address CSR issues themselves. Second, there is a moderate disincentive to undertake the auditing process; it will be costly, difficult, and open up a company to further criticism when initial issues are revealed. However, it should be noted that if companies don’t audit their own supply chains, other interested parties will begin to do it for them. Greenpeace has been known to map supply chains to reveal huge environmental damage in company supply chains. Also, motivated retailers may require their suppliers to disclose their supply chains as a condition of business, as Walmart has done for many of its suppliers. If a company wants the chance to manage its own message on their supply chains, it will have to be proactive and do its own auditing first.

 

[1] http://www.webcitation.org/6CV5W5nFD

[2] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-05/wal-mart-nixed-paying-bangladesh-suppliers-to-fight-fire.html

[3] http://www.miningwatch.ca/news/complaint-asks-ontario-securities-commission-investigate-tahoe-resources-after-wiretap-evidence

[4] http://www.miningwatch.ca/news/barrick-gold-s-porgera-mine-papua-new-guinea-linked-grave-human-rights-abuses-environmental

[5] http://laborrights.org/creating-a-sweatfree-world/news/protesters-call-on-gap-to-sign-bangladesh-safety-accord

I was lucky enough to participate in the Stockholm Green Hackathon on October 19! The event was put together by Jorge Zapico and Hannes Ebner of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

Here is a pretty good read-through of all the projects.I didn’t win, but I was involved in the making of Social Impact of Supply Chains and SourceQuest. I met some really clever, amazing people that are going to do wonders with their sustainability hacks. Everyone’s idea were truly great, and James Smith (from AMEE) has gotten some well-deserved attention for his clever Minecraft hack to include emissions and climate change.

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  • This article points out that tools for behavioural change like smart meters don't really work if people don't understand the metrics involved. While it has been discussed before, this is a good reminder.
  • Recyclebank gives incentives for green pledges. Since I'm interested in how good green incentives work, i'll be keeping an eye on these guys.
  • This article makes a good point that open data may still be bad data, and asks whether we can tell when data is "cooked". This is, in my opinion, a natural step. In many research fields, there is peer review and validation (and verification) to assess accuracy. That is why meta-data like sampling methods are very important; others can then decide for themselves if the process is a reliable one. I guess we must start having a good look at how to adapt these processes to other open data projects. But this issue of "cooked data" shouldn't be considered a set back. To my mind, the open data isn't just about using data, but also about making available data better.
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Elsevier had an “apps for science” contest (at http://appsforscience.com/) with a fancy API (hope they keep that open).  I figured I’d go through the apps and see if there’s anything super-exciting. There’s apps that will read your paper for you, find author info on the semantic web, and rank the relevance of papers in the media. These are the couple apps that I thought could be especially interesting to me:

Wispt Phrases

This app lets you search papers for a particular phrase. I think this would be particularly handy when you’re looking for a specific point; If you can guess the likely phrasing you can find some journal articles (like “importance of visualization in environmental decision-making” or “lack of quality in existing environmental metrics”), you can find papers that back up your point and add new arguments. I could have used this in my masters.

Get Inspired

This tool allows you to post your ideas that arise out of reading a particular journal article. I like this because it also provides a bit of at message board so that academics can communicate to each other about a journal article.

Health Mash

This is a semantic tool for health articles. It’s utility lies in the semantic database behind it that “knows” what you are searching for and can relate a disease to  symptoms, pharmaceutical treatments, and alternative treatment practices.

Keyword Optimizer

This tool helps you pick better keywords for your own paper in order to reach the right audiences and get more citations.

Species+

This is a cute biology tool that gives you a little specie encyclopedia for the species mentioned in a paper. Neato.

 
 
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