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!

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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There’s been a lot of talk lately about the powerful psychology at work behind gaming:

  • Seth Priebatsch discusses his interpretation of the “game layer” over the world, a set of fun motivators and rewards already at work in society.
  • Jane McGonigle proposes in her book “Reality is Broken” that gaming can be utilized for greater ends to get people to problem solve or simply work to a social or environmental end.
  • FoldIt is a great example. They re-framed the open academic problem of figuring out how proteins fold into a game. They’ve received plenty of participation from gaming communities, with some gamers even helping to solve these problems and receiving co-authorship in subsequent academic publications.
  • My friend Brent was telling me about Ultima, this older MMORPG that had fundamentally different motivators at work. While common gameplays often involve fighting and culminate in the defeat of a final “boss”, the goal in Ultima is to commit good deeds in order to eventually “ascend” into a better being.

Coincidentally, one of the biggest problems in the field of sustainability is motivation. A significant chunk of the public reel away from environmental issues, expecting proselytizing, inducement of guilt, and requirements of sacrifice. Coupled with that, people are generally not motivated to educate themselves about environmental issues or change their own behaviours. It becomes even more complicated when you realize that even the part of the population that are willing to educate themselves and change often make mistakes and lose their motivation to continue.

So, what I’m wondering is, can what we are learning about motivation in gaming be used to recontextualize environmental education and eco-friendly behaviour?

This doesn’t have to manifest itself literally as a game. But it can mean that instead of constantly trying to placate a hostile public, environmental advocates can engage them in a fun, self-sustaining, adventurous way. This has to be done carefully, especially since educational games or games with a mission can forget to be fun and sincerely engaging.

Now, who would like to take me on as a Ph.D. student so I can have a deeper look at this? ;)

Here is some of the introductory material I’ve been having a look at:

Chatfield, Tom. “7 ways games reward the brain.” TED Global 2010 [Conference]. Oxford, UK. Jul 2010.

Covert, Adrian. (Dec 28, 2010) Nissan Has Turned Real-Life Driving Into an Environmentally-Friendly Game. Gizmodo.

Priebatsch, Seth. “The Game Layer on Top of the World.” TEDxBoston [Conference]. Boston, MA. Jul 2010.

Timmer, John. Gamers beat algorithms at finding protein structures. Ars Technica. (2010)

Zyga, Lisa. (9, Dec 2010) What makes gamers keep gaming? Physorg.com. Retrieved December 20, 2010 from http://www.physorg.com/news/2010-12-gamers-gaming.html

 

There’s so little room to experiment in most of the US, no new frontier. As we’re all collecting in the economic centres we’re competing more. We’re competing for real estate as more people are migrating to downtown cores. We’re also competing for control, over our ideas, local politics and culture.

But as we migrate to economic meccas like NYC and LA, we’re leaving behind a new type of new frontier. Its got buildings and artefacts of an infrastructure gone by, but its open, empty and cheap. Detroit, Philadelphia, Buffalo and the whole Rust Belt are abandoned, empty, and waiting to be reclaimed.

I’ve been pining to start my own green neighbourhood. But in places like Toronto where you’ll shell out $600,000 for a house and millions for a small apartment complex, a project like that requires a start-up strategy with seed money. Eh, lame. Not to mention you’d have to find a little spot with enough interested neighbours, or buy them out, or wait for them to leave. Starting from scratch with bare land would be just as pricey. You may spend more time dealing with local politics, neighbourhood resistance, and by-laws than you’d care to. And, damnit, the project is ambitious enough, we don’t need extra complications. I suspect that many a project has been felled by some straw that broke the camel’s back.

On the other hand…

You can buy a house in Detroit for 5K. You can probably buy the house to the right of it for a similar price. Likewise the left. Woo. That leaves plenty of money over for retrofits, community development, etc. There’s a certain practical ethic to it, about using what is already here and not letting it go to rot. And I’m not the only one pondering this. There have been a handful of people that have already doing this, having the advantage of telecommuting for work.

So, another issue for me is location. The prices are right, but I don’t think the US is going to let me (a Canadian) stroll on in and settle down. I was talking with my cousin Jani about this and realized Canada has plenty of places to resettle. Northern Ontario’s mass exodus is leaving plenty of lumber mill and mining ghost towns. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have cheap housing prices and wide open spaces. Jani had an even better option; the areas around Windsor, Ontario (right across the bridge from Detroit) have their own residential exodus, its warm (Windsor is part of the small tip of Ontario that gives us stone fruits and vineyards) and its not too far away from the busy, bustling GTA+ cluster.

Of course, the missing piece of this equation is the local economy, the very thing that drove everyone out in the first place. If we’re going to move out there, and if we’re going to ask others come along, how are we going to pay the bills? Even if we manage to shrink them (with zero-energy houses, microscopic mortgages, etc), we’ll still have them; so, some income is needed. And when I figure that out, we’re golden. Either way, a chance to experiment in an new old frontier it too exciting of an idea to pass up.

 
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