HomeCamp: Data, Behaviour Change, Demand Shifting…

I started Saturday morning huddled with an old friend and one of his colleagues in an Imperial College corridor, wondering what I’d let myself in for. I usually spend most of my time in meetings debating the minutiae of corporate security policy, and relatively little doing ‘academic’ thinking, so coming to an event designed to encourage open debate on emerging technologies with a bunch of self-professed geeks was an interesting departure.

I’d come to HomeCamp, an unconference on home automation and energy efficiency. Despite being initially sceptical, I’ve spent much of the weekend mulling over the day, which consisted of a number of sessions that behaved more like one big group discussion.

There were a number of topics that stood out for me.

Data Gathering and Visualisation

The basic assumption of much of the discussion was that people need to understand their consumption, and this is achieved through monitoring devices. Ideally, you’d monitor the usage of every device consuming power in your home (of course minimising the energy used to do so!). Andy Stanford-Clark gave a great talk on his automated, twittering home – with lots about his Current Cost meter, and impressive use of the IBM message brokers that he’s developed, to gather data from everywhere… Even down to his mouse traps!

In reality, I believe the average (non-geek) user needs an easy way to capture this data and see it represented. I had a great chat with Ben from Onzo, who look to be producing some nicely designed hardware and have already done a deal with a major electricity supplier to distribute these to customers. I’m looking forward to finding out more about their products.

I’d hoped that someone from AlertMe might be there too – I’ve followed their security products with interest, and was recently excited to see they’ll be expanding into energy products. A logical step given their network of Zigbee sensors, and low-powered, always-on base station.

Behaviour Change – Demand Shifting, Demand Reduction

Having gathered the data, you need to do things with it. Firstly, smart meters (or better, smart appliances) will allow your utility company to communicate with your devices in order to smooth the demand curve, and operate at cheaper times. This is important given the inefficiencies that result from our varied demand, which results in power stations that have to start up at short notice, or run at less than 50% capacity. Tom Taylor wrote a good overview post on dynamic demand, based on what he learned yesterday.

Real-time national grid data
Real-time national grid data

I’d never really thought too much about “Economy 7″ and how it came about, beyond my grandad running his dishwasher on a timeswitch so it started at 2am to save him money. If this concept were extended into much more advanced variable pricing to encourage us to smooth the power demand curve, electricity could be generated much more efficiently, reducing costs and pollution – but also allowing use of more ‘variable’ renewables, like wind.

In addition to smoothing the curve, there’s clearly an incentive for us to all use less power, full stop. Dan Hill eloquently describes a concept for visualising this sort of data, and this sort of concept was discussed at length at Home Camp.

Of note, there was a debate on how to encourage people to act – between the simple financial savings and leveraging peer pressure to encourage reductions in consumption. There were some great suggestions around something like ‘Xbox Achievement points’ for challenges, or using Facebook, etc., to give context to your consumption. What’s the best way for me to show my friends I pay £50 for electricity a month, and my fridge represents 6% of that, for example? Could we reward people for being the ‘biggest loser’ somehow, for making tangible changes to consumption rather than just advertising cheap CFL lightbulbs and hoping for the best?

I’d love my electricity bill to give me that context. Don’t just tell me I need to pay £50 a month, tell me that other similar-sized houses with a working couple pay £75 a month, and that I could reduce my bill to £40 by getting a smarter fridge that switched itself off whilst the rest of the country made tea after Eastenders.

For businesses, we got to hear about Pachube (pronounced patch-oo-bay, I think), a startup service enabling people to capture real-time data and aggregate/share it. It’s designed for any sort of data from anywhere, but we talked a lot about companies (or even cities) submitting building data (lighting, heating) which can be reused. A fascinating example showed Pachube data being fed into SketchUp for visualisation – not far from Dan Hill’s idea of hovering sparklines of consumption data above buildings.

In summary, then, it was a great day. I learned about a lot of new technologies, and new ways to apply existing ones to help us reduce energy consumption. It was a good start to what will no doubt be a successful series of events in the future. I’ve have had Home Camp thoughts running around my head all weekend – to the point that I think it’s reaffirmed my belief that I’d like to take a career in this field when a suitable opportunity arises, nudged even further by a recent post by a friend. Thanks to Chris Dalby for organising, and I look forward to the next Home Camp in March. Until then, I’m hoping to spend more time thinking about these topics, and ideally writing about them here.

For other people’s perspectives on the day, take a look at the wiki, the Friend Feed, or follow #homecamp or #homecamp08 on Twitter.