Category Archives: technology

The Power of Information: Unleashing Energy Consumption Data

community_mapEncouraging energy efficiency among residents and businesses is hard work, not least because of the absence of accessible and easily understandable information about energy consumption. Most people don’t understand everything on their energy bills, don’t know if they’re using more energy than they should, and have no way to compare their energy use to that of their neighbors. This information is often guarded closely by utilities, presenting energy efficiency advocates with a formidable barrier.

In her thesis, Alexis Howland (MCP ’13) sketches the possibilities afforded by better energy consumption data. She surveyed efforts across the country to share energy efficiency data. Alexis focuses on incorporating these data into mapping applications—which could lay bare the differences in energy consumption among homes and add valuable information to the housing market. These efforts could be combined to allow no-touch energy assessments that offer actionable suggestions for homeowners who want to improve their energy efficiency.

In a survey of five previous attempts at energy mapping, Alexis notes a common theme: the developer’s inability to access or make public energy consumption data at the household level. This, Alexis explains, is due to privacy concerns that have so far prevented such data from being used to its full potential.

Alexis explores ways of unleashing these data. Several cities—including Boston—have recently passed ordinances that require the disclosure of energy consumption data, and the federal government has offered a framework for voluntary energy data disclosure through the Green Button Initiative. While these efforts must overcome serious privacy concerns, they have the potential to make public vital information about the way people and buildings nationwide use energy. Read more about Alexis’ survey of the opportunities for and barriers to energy mapping projects in her thesis.

So what is a “smart city”, anyway?

ImageThe planning and tech worlds alike have taken up the mandate to build “smarter” cities. However, there seems to be a wide array of definitions regarding what makes a city smart. When we talk about smarter cities, what are we talking about?

In his thesis, Tuan-Yee Ching (MCP ’13) provides a framework to consider the different ways that cities view themselves—and their initiatives—as “smart.” In a six-city study that includes interviews with officials in Boston, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Singapore, and Rio de Janeiro, Tuan-Yee discovered four different ways that cities consider themselves to be smart.

A city may call itself smart because it adopts new technologies and adapts itself to their use, as with Rio’s deployment of a suite of advanced weather sensors to better track and respond to local weather impacts. A city may also be smart for adopting new collaborative processes to work with stakeholder communities in innovative new areas, like San Francisco’s “Unhackathon” that crowd-sourced ideas to optimize taxi service with technological improvements. Cities may be smart because of a commitment to learning and adaption informed by lessons from other cities and the use of performance metrics, as in Boston’s participation in the G7 network of American cities that offers a forum for idea-sharing between municipal Chief Information Officers. Or cities may call themselves smart because they make investments in the technology sector that promise future returns, as with Singapore’s “Living Lab” fund, which offers public sector support for ventures in clean energy, urban mobility, IT, and public safety.

Tuan discusses the implications for these four very different notions of what a smart city really is, and he provides a series of recommendations for policymakers to keep in mind as they try to make their cities smarter—whatever that means to them. Read more in his thesis.

Carbon Capture and Storage: Coal Industry Myth or Clean Energy Solution?

Sunset Over the Fisk Coal Fired Plant (Photo Credit: vxla, Creative Commons license, http://www.flickr.com/photos/vxla/5506703846/)Coal is the backbone of the American electric sector. It fuels half of the country’s electricity generation and it is cheap and readily available in places like Wyoming and West Virginia. Coal also accounts for approximately 40% of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions.

In the hope of perpetuating the use of a cheap and secure fuel, fossil fuel interests and their allies have urged the development of subterranean CO2 sequestration using a technology called Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). The coal industry has branded CCS as a “clean coal technology” and has depicted it as a solution to climate change that will allow the country to continue to burn coal without emitting CO2. Utilities, industry and the government have pledged billions of dollars for clean coal projects. 

Support for “clean coal” went all the way to the top: President Barack Obama advocated for it during his first presidential campaign, saying, “This is America, we figured out how to put a man on the moon in ten years. You can’t tell me we can’t figure out how to burn coal that we mine right here in the United States of America, and make it work.” Even some environmental advocacy organizations, such as National Resources Defense Council, have supported CCS.

In her thesis, Rachel Henschel (MCP ’09) investigated the impacts of Carbon Capture and Storage and the reasons behind the support is has received from politicians and environmental groups, and concluded that CCS does not make sense. First, the technology cannot be built and scaled in time to mitigate climate change. Additionally, CCS will be so expensive that utilities have not been willing to invest in it. It also poses serious environmental and health risks such as water source contamination, earthquakes, and death by asphyxiation. Read more about Rachel’s conclusions in her thesis here, and share your opinion on EPP’s Facebook group.

How is Technology Being Used to Improve Disaster Management in U.S. Cities?

The rapid development of modern technology has increased access to and reliance on sophisticated communication and real time technology. These technologies, which have become embedded within everyday life, have significant implications for government agencies – particularly within the field of disaster management. How are cities currently using technology in their disaster management? In understanding what cities are using, what are the most important factors in adopting new technology? Can future technology developments help address the needs of emergency managers?

Damage from April 2011 tornado that ripped through Raleigh, NC.
(Photo credit: Alex Ford)

To answer these questions, this thesis draws on the evolution of disaster research, the history of disaster management in the US, literature on emerging uses of social media technology, and interviews from 24 emergency management offices throughout the US. The analysis reveals several conclusions. First, cities are using a variety of communication, data management, and simulation technologies, primarily within the preparedness and response phases of the disaster cycle. Although many cities are operating on web-based platforms and using social media, this use is generally as a one-way broadcasting system rather than as a bi-directional exchange allowing the gathering of crowdsourced information.

Cities are also facing a variety of challenges for adopting new technology, including funding, political support, and legal constraints. When combined with general interoperability challenges, shifting government-public relations and increasingly mobile populations, it is clear that future technology developments and legislation must work to address these issues. Through the use of open standards and strengthened data integration, cities may be able to both focus on and better leverage both existing and new forms of communication to build the level of trust needed to both reduce vulnerability and increase resilience.

You can learn more about this topic by reading the full thesis,“Evolving Technologies for Disaster Management in U.S. Cities,” written by Vanessa Ng.