For Green Tech Businesses is Data-Visualization the Next Big Thing?

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For years scientists have been arguing that the rest of us do not see what they see when we look at data about climate change. While the documentary An Inconvenient Truth provided a compelling narrative, few feel that awareness of these issues has led to wide scale behavior change. 

Energy Hub Dashboard

Energy Hub Dashboard

It seems that it is natural human behavior to forget about rising CO2 levels and warming glaciers when we make the critical decisions that negatively affect the environmental. Despite all of the increased data and knowledge about global warming, do you know which decisions impact the earth the most?

Enter the power of data visualization to attempt to connect the dots between data,personal decisions about energy use, and behavior change. Several large companiesand startups have taken on the challenge to build feedback loops for us to use to see the impact of our actions, and give us a construct for us to understand how we change our behavior.

This article attempts to provide an overview of early stage and even established data services that take a different stance on the right point of intervention, in the right time, place and context:

Personal energy use

You can start by attempting to measure your personal energy use on the various footprint calculators on the Web. A simple quiz-style footprint calculator like the one provided at Nature.org will tell you how your household stacks up against the US and World averages, or the Android app ecorio.

Car energy use

Toyota was one of the first companies to demonstrate how data visualization in the vehicle could affect eco-efficient driving with their Prius dashboard, showing the electric-gas engine at work in response to the driver’s pedal use. Since other car companies have launched their low emissions vehicles they have attempted different ideas for giving feedback. The Ford SmartGuage dashboard turns smart driving into a video game that rewards you with a growing vine as your efficiency climbs. The Nissan Leaf uses remote monitoring systems to report remaining batter life and location of charging stations. The Chevy Volt, prior to the car’s launch, already has aniPhone app that enables battery monitoring, and shows energy data over time.

Home energy consumption

PG&EGE, Google, and Cisco have all created energy-monitoring smart meters for homes, along with several venture funded start-ups such as Energy HubTendril andGreen Energy Options. These firms are in a race to compete for their share of the emerging energy feedback market. The vision is that when these feedback systems are connected to a smart, clean energy grid, we will be able to modify our energy use in response to cost and environmental feedback about the use of energy intensive appliances.

Everything energy consumption

There are two companies attempting to provide a framework for measuring the impact of all things. The HP CeNSE system promises to become a “central nervous system for the earth.” Project Team Leader Peter Hartwell envisions billions of small, cheap, sensitive detectors that react to motion and vibration, for the purpose of measuring weather conditions, traffic, and structural strains on buildings, all centrally controlled by major infrastructure providers. Meanwhile, Pachube provides an open source platform for monitoring “the Internet of things” with environmental data sensors attached to devices and buildings. Pachube is a website to which users can submit sensor data from environmental sensor networks retrieve the data through Pachube’sservers in a consumer-accessible way, and that you can begin playing with today.

All of these businesses, large and small, are taking a leap of faith that data visualization of environmental feedback will change the way we make decisions about energy usage. Which company or idea do you think will be the most successful?

Green Brands: Do Intentions Matter in Ultimate Success?

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Two roads diverge

Two roads diverge

Let’s imagine two business leaders, both entrepreneurs, both looking to create an environmentally friendly and efficiently produced sunscreen.

Entrepreneur One is a green purist. Inspired to start a business after failing to findeffective non-toxic sunscreens for her first baby, and she decided to create thehealthiest, most environmentally friendly sunscreen in the marketplace. She has done a comprehensive analysis of how to how to reduce environmental impact across all stages of the lifecycle, and impacts beyond just carbon emissions. She realizes the product manufacturing will be more expensive, so she is looking to distribute her product through Web sales, word-of- mouth and eventuallyspecialty retail stores that cater to a hyper-aware, green consumer parent.

Now imagine Entrepreneur Two, a self-admitted and proud green opportunist. Aserial entrepreneur who has successfully supplied products to Walmart and otherbig box retailers, Entrepreneur Two was inspired by the Walmart SustainabilityIndex effort. The first phase of Walmart’s effort focused on their suppliers, providing a set of questions and conversations with current and future vendors to suggest a preference environmentally efficient products. Entrepreneur Two is convinced of the market potential for a “clean sunscreen,” and is working furiously to create a cost-effective solution that might compromise with a few ingredients to achieve the right price for the business model. She is looking for her environmental gains to help her sell her product and get a distribution deal with Walmart, and then plans to dominate the category of sunscreens at the mass-market level.

These two stories post other questions for those starting business with a sense ofpurpose and opportunity. Do original intentions matter to you, as an entrepreneuror as a consumer?  Do you think consumers care about the individuals and ideals behind a brand? If you were purchasing sunscreen for your baby, which productwould you buy?

These two stories also provide us a framework to understand how we measure value in our society – cultural value, economic value, and environmental value. Looking through these three lenses of measurement, which entrepreneur will achieve  the most business success, and which will achieve the greater good?

How to Tally Green Jobs: Do Bikes and Biodiesel Count?

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The recent weak news on the unemployment front leaves some of us wondering: Where are all of the green jobs? 

The U.S. Department of Commerce made an attempt to answer this very question and set a benchmark to measure the size of the emerging green economy by the number of green jobs it has created. The answer in the report, “Measuring the Green Economy,” depends on how green you want your green economy to be.

The report found that green products and services made up between 1 and 2 percent of the US economy in 2007, the last year that business census data is available. That translates to somewhere between 1.8 and 2.4 million private sector jobs.

Why such a gap in measurement? The Commerce department is solving a classification challenge that has plagued previous efforts to set benchmarks and counting green industry and job creation. This is because not everyone can agree on the definition of a green job.

For example, for solar energy panel installation or recycling of paper products there is little debate – these are green jobs, reducing reliance on fossil fuels, and conserving resources.

However, the installation and management of nuclear power plants cause endless debate in environmental circles. On the one hand, nuclear power plants do not depend on fossil fuels and result in limited carbon dioxide emissions. But on the other hand, the mining of uranium is an energy intensive process, nuclear waste is radioactive and toxic, and Chernobyl and Three Mile Island disasters remind us that nuclear energy is not without risk.

Biodiesel is another product that pits clean energy investors against deep green environmentalists. Yes, biodiesel reduces the need for fossil fuel, but the agricultural and refinement process to make certain types of biodiesel are considered to be highly resource-intensive and emissions-producing.

Other, less controversial products like bikes and used books and clothing are often not included in economic reports tabulating the value of the clean energy industry. Yet the use of bikes and the reuse of books and clothing can contribute to reduced reliance on energy and materials.

The Commerce department’s categorizations – with a “narrow” and “broad” definitions of green, is curious. The lower estimate of 1% fits the sector of the economy that generates little debate regarding their greenness, while the larger estimate of 2% is based on the broader definition.

By allowing for flexibility in its measurement and analysis, the report is able to effectively benchmark the state of the emerging green economy – modest, slow growing, but growing nonetheless.

 

 

5 Social Apps for Social Good that Make Foursquare Seem Silly

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Think that mobile social apps are a waste of time and energy? What if you could use them to make the world a better place?  Inhabitat took a look at mobile-based applications and systems designed to promote positive social good. Here are five rising social impact apps to watch. 

Project Noah

Project Noah

The Extraordinaries 

Unable to fit volunteering into your jam-packed schedule, but you still want to contribute towards a cause? The Extraordinaries launched an app that breaks large scale volunteering efforts down into micro-tasks that you can complete, right on your smart phone, and now online. The app has a huge breadth of micro-volunteering opportunities. Anything from Big Cat Rescue – helping to catalogue animal rights abuses to The Sierra Club – helping to map trails in California. As one user expressed, “I love this app! When I feel like fiddling with my iPod I can make my playtime helpful to someone. No more wasted time! It’s a stellar example of using technology for social good.”

Causeworld

Karma points donations are starting to show up in Twitter feeds and Facebook streams everywhere, and is a favorite of marketing guru Joe Jaffe. The free app works like any location-based social game, but instead of earning virtual badges or winning prizes, members earn karma points donations and get to choose which charity receives their donation, and then broadcast their good works to their peers. Sponsored by brands like Kraft and Citi, Causeworld is looking to connect shopping and buying with location-based, real-time cause marketing, turning us all into mini-philanthropists.

Frontline SMS

Frontline SMS is a service created to allow citizen activists to monitor and track post election violence in Kenya (Frontline SMS and the web portal Ushahidi finds additional use in disaster recovery). The service has been used by non-governmental organizations in both Haiti and Chile to track down urgent messages in order to coordinate disaster relief. Volunteers as disparate as a Swiss graduate student in Boston, an engineer for Haiti’s biggest wireless company, and a social media innovator at the State Department used the service to find survivors, develop a communications protocol, and rapidly rebuild cellular infrastructure. Recent case examples such as the Haiti coordination are best practices for how government, talented volunteers, and citizens can rapidly self-organize to support people in need.

mGive

mGive is responsible for routing more than 90 percent of all funds raised to date through the mobile donations, and works with more than two hundred nonprofit clients, including the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and the United Way. By not limiting the payment system to a specific kind of phone or service, mGive has wider market penetration than a comparable iPhone or Android based app. During the recent fundraising drive to support Haiti, you may have responded to the Red Cross call to text funds using the “90999” SMS short code. The Red Cross raised over $24 MM via mGive to help the Haiti recovery effort.

Project Noah

Project Noah started as a student project at NYU’s ITP school, the free mobile app allows citizens to become scientists. The goal is huge in its mission – to become the common mobile platform for documenting the world’s organisms. Users snap photos of local birds, plants, trees, and other species, and can either identify the organism or leave the classification up to the crowd. Project Noah conducts specific research projects in the form of field missions. Who wouldn’t want to join a mission called “Project Squirrel” – inviting you to contribute squirrel observations, or “The Lost Ladybug Project” – to understand ladybug species distribution. Join a mission today!

Clean Energy Funds for the Developing World Announced

Solar Handhelds

Solar Handhelds

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With all of the climate talks, protests, and stunts during the Copenhagen UN summit on climate change, you may have missed an announcement about funds for clean energy in the developing world. Secretary Steven Chu of the US Department of Energy announced a $350MM from the Major Economies Forum to launch the Climate Renewables and Efficiency Deployment initiative (Climate REDI), focused on four key areas of development:

  1. The Solar and LED Energy Access Program: deploying affordable solar home systems and LED lanterns as an alternative to polluting kerosene.
  2. The Super-efficient Equipment and Appliance Deployment Program:harnessing the market power of major economies to improve incentives for buying and using energy-efficient appliances.
  3. The Clean Energy Information Platform: establishing an online platform for major economies countries to share best practices of technical resources, policy experience and infrastructure for clean energy technologies.
  4. The Scaling-up Renewable Energy Program: providing policy support and technical assistance to low-income countries under the World Bank’s Strategic Climate Fund.

It appears that the program will operate through NGOs and government-backed organizations like Lighting AfricaLighting a Billion Lives, and the Lumina Project, and other efforts that focus on solving energy issues at a large scale. Existing government-focused organizations like the International Partnership for Energy Efficiency Cooperation, the Collaborative Labeling and Standards Program, EPA’s Energy Star program and the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate will focus on the efficient appliances initiative. Meanwhile, the Clean Energy Information Platform will operate through theClimate investment Funds, managed by the World Bank.

The Major Economies Forum is long on the idea that technology is a potential accelerator to solve for climate change, with a focus on rapid deployment and scale. Yet several social entrepreneurs, NGO workers, and scientists have spoken of the need to not replicate a developed world model of technology based on rapid obsolescence, cheap component parts, and scale for scale’s sake. In the wake of complicated discussions in Copenhagen, what do you think about a technology-led initiative from larger economies?

What’s Your Foodprint?

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NYC Foodshed

NYC Foodshed

Take a look at your meal.  I’m looking at mushroom ravioli, parsley, olive oil, Italian bread, and parmesan cheese. But I can’t accurately tell you where these tasty food items come from, how far or wide reaching their impact. I do not know my meal’s “foodprint,” a concept discussed at last weekend’s NYC Food and Climate Summit.

What is a foodprint? A foodprint is our food system’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change, according to Jacquie Berger, Executive Director of Just Food, one of the conference’s organizers. The impact of your food may be far greater than those incandescent light bulbs you replaced with fluorescents, or even your hybrid or gasoline-powered car. It is estimated that one-third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions globally derive from our food system, the way we cultivate, process, package, transport, and dispose of our food.

San Francisco residents have a longer history and deeper connection to the land that surrounds them. Order a steak at one of San Francisco’s foodie establishments and you will be told a story about how the cow was raised, the farm where it lived, and what combination of grasses was fed to your cow for optimum health and happiness. Even SF’s recent composting initiativefocuses on fertilizing farms within a known radius of the city, “to make the food taste better.”

How will New Yorkers, the largest, most populated, and densest city in the US, ever conceive of a sustainable food system? Professors, chefs, nutritionists, students, gardeners, community organizers, farmers, designers, and sustainability activists are collaborating locally to envision a prosperous and healthy regional food system. Local politician Scott Stringer, the Manhattan Borough President, launched a The NYC Sustainable Food Charter in advance of the  summit. Christine Quinn, NY City’s Council Speaker has followed suit with a program called “FoodWorks New York,” turning NYC’s Department of Education and its immense buying power (over 860,000 meals a day, second largest to the US Military) into an opportunity to  create fresher, healthier meals, and jobs along the way. Lettuce would be bought in New York state, shipped and packed to the city to a retrofitted industrial space used as a fresher processing facility.

Meanwhile grassroots projects are being prototyped by creative, curious, and concerned citizens: projects like urban windowfarmsrooftop farms,vertical farms, and brownfield reclamation through composting are popping up all over the city as demonstration ideas of a sustainable future. How is your region rethinking the food system?

Comments over at Open Forum.

Entrepreneurs: Have You Foursquared Lately?

The post that made me realize that green business was not what Open Forum’s readers were seeking. My most popular Open Forum story, ever:

Mayor of Foursquare

Mayor of Foursquare

Foursquare is open for business at the right price for mom and pop and larger businesses that want the benefit from a highly localized social network.  For those that haven’t heard of Foursquare, the company describes itself as “50% friend-finder, 30% social cityguide, 20% nightlife game.” The mobile-based social network is currently available on the iPhone and Android handsets, and is known for bestowing badges on people who discover new restaurants, travel to new cities, and frequent their favorite bar or coffee shop.

I had the opportunity to sit down for coffee with Tristan Walker, a man who wears two hats: a full time Stanford MBA student and Foursquare’s business development representative. Tristan has been busy meeting with brands eager to experiment in the fast growth social network, because of Foursquare’s proximity to the action. Foursquare has the opportunity to link virtual social experimenting to real world online “behavior change,” in Walker’s view, such as redeeming an offer or coupon at a local venue, tracking a loyalty system at a retailer, or associating a brand with the overall experience.

At 160,000 total users in several cities, the social network launched at less than two years ago is about to experience explosive growth as it plans for near term upcoming releases. In the coming weeks and months, expect Foursquare to become available on handsets like the Blackberry, synchronize updates on Facebook (not just Twitter), and prepare for moving beyond a fixed city-based experience and launching “everywhere, including Antarctica if you want to,” according to Walker.

So if you have a business with a real world call-to-action, how do you engage with Foursquare? Walker suggests three ways based on the size of the business you are in. Large brands are looking to creating innovative engagement marketing ideas pay an overall fee to Foursquare for programs like the current cause marketing initiative with Pepsi, donating $0.04 to Camp Interactive for each “check in” in exchange for a branded presence on the system. At the mid-level, retailers can suggest smart ways to “drive to retail” either through a loyalty system integration (Foursquare has an open API or Application Program Interface for developers).

The mom and pop opportunity is where smaller scale entrepreneurs should seek out Foursquare as a place to reach the digital influencer crowd that is obsessed with the social network.

Foursquare sees these local venue offers as a value-add for their user base, and restaurants and stores are offering rewards based on the core experience, such as free coffee for each newly crowned mayor, or free WIFI for anyone who checks in. Adding these offers is currently free of charge to local venues for the time being, so learn more about Foursquare and add your venue now, before the big brands find out about this emerging network.

 

UNICEF Innovation: An SMS System That Saves Lives

Rapid SMS

Rapid SMS

Most non-governmental aid organizations like UNICEF rely on hand-written, hand-collected data and forms, sent to country capitols, and entered into national databases. Months pass before information is fully recorded and transmitted back to those who make decisions about critical food distribution, medicine, and other life-supporting help. UNICEF’s innovation team is changing the way governments and aid organizations respond to crisis by utilizing the accelerated adoption of hand-held mobile phones to collect malnutrition data in real time. RapidSMS was developed in partnership with the government of Malawi and Columbia University using basic, mobile phones to collect information from health workers, data such as child weight and arm circumference. The data is then used to generate web-based spreadsheets and graphs to visualize the challenges, providing critical info needed for the government and UNICEF to respond immediately to nutritional crises. RapidSMS is such a significant improvement for UNICEF that similar products have been developed, on an underlying open-source code-base, open to anyone for use to build their own tools. UNICEF supports any aid organization interested in working off of this code base, and continues to collaborate with Columbia University, and with NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program graduate school in a course designed to address UNICEF challenges. Columbia University and UNICEF were awarded the top prize in USAID’s Development 2.0 challenge earlier this year, but the real accolades come from the repeated use of this tool for applications in malawi, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and beyond.

The Million Baby Crawl: A Brand Takes a Political Stand

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Million Baby Crawl

Million Baby Crawl

“We cannot stand, but we stand for something,” is the rallying cry for Seventh Generation’s latest marketing campaign, an effort to give babies a virtual voice in upcoming legislation about chemicals and kid safety. In a social media marketing effort, the company has partnered with Erin Brockovich and Safer Chemicals to draw attention to the Kid Safe Chemicals Act. Seventh Generation’s message is that, “babies everywhere are crawling to Washington to say no to toxic chemicals found in our homes.” A websitea series of viral videos, and numerous social media efforts are designed to educate parents and to invite them to influence politicians in Washington, D.C.

In an effort borrowing from non profit organizations like the Environmental Working Group and The Ecology Center, Seventh Generation asks its fans to behave as citizens, not just consumers. Advocates of the brand are asked to create virtual baby avatars who then crawl to Capitol Hill, where they will “rattle” legislators for toxic chemical reform. Seventh Generation has everything to gain from the passage of the Kid Safe Chemical Act, since their product line has eliminated potentially toxic substances prevalent in more mainstream household cleaners and products. Seventh Generation has also conducted the necessary research and legwork to comply with the basic premise of the proposed legislation, and would have a head start over competitors who have not yet invested in public-facing communication about product safety. So, are Seventh Generation’s advocates comfortable with the company taking such a stand?

A glance at the Twitterverse reveals that the most passionate Green Mommy Bloggers and anti-toxin crusaders have embraced the campaign.  Whether or not the message moves from extreme greens to more mainstream consumer citizens remains to be seen. Over 10,000 virtual babies have been created on Seventh Generation’s site, leaving 990,000 to go. What do you think? Do companies with a strong environmental or social mission have a place to play in political movements?

 

The Darfur Stove Project

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Darfur Stove Project

Darfur Stove Project

Every day in Darfur refugee camps, women leave to travel on six to seven hour missions to collect fuel wood for their meals, and every day these women increase their risk of violent attack. When Ashok Gadgil, a physicist at Lawerence Berkeley National Laboratory, visited Darfur to observe how families were cooking their meals and foraging for wood, he launched a project with Ken Chow through Engineers Without Borders to contribute to solving this problem. The Darfur stove is a ten pound metal stove which requires only one quarter of the amount of firewood used in a traditional cooking fire, and is also more cost effective than firewood cooking.

The Darfur Stove is considered an appropriate technology, or “approtech,” a technology designed with special consideration to the environmental, ethical, cultural, social and economical aspects of the community for which it is intended. Before designing and engineering the stove, the Darfur Stoves team looked at the cooking styles of the refugees, the pots used, the food cooked, and other parts of the food-making experience. Only then was a prototype built, tested, and modified again. Appro-tech is a method that stands in stark contrast to the more common occurrence of developed world technology implemented to solve developing world issues, without careful understanding of local cultural, ethical, social, and environmental impacts.

The project recently announced an assembly facility in El Fasher, the capital of Darfur, in partnership with Oxfam America and the Sudanese organization Sustainable Action Group. The stoves, designed in California, are manufactured in Mumbai, India, and shipped flat-pack style for assembly in Darfur, Sudan, where the facility provides an income for assembly workers. The facility will go further to solve a large scale problem: over two million people live in camps in western Sudan, supplied with food aid by NGOs and other aid organizations, but not with the fuel to cook their meals.

The Darfur Stoves Project also has implications beyond Darfur, where black carbon smoke from rudimentary cooking fires contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and poor indoor air quality. Over half of the world’s population uses rudimentary cooking stoves that impact their health, and the environment. Aid organizations and social entrepreneurs are learning how similar technology can be applied in other regions around the world.

This holiday season, give the gift of technology – to Darfur Stove’s parent organization, Technology Innovation for Sustainable Societies (TISS), or donate through a partner organization such as The Hunger Site.