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.

Spanning Sync

With a plethora of devices and services, it’s a challenge to keep everything in sync. Since long before having an iPhone, I’ve wanted to keep my calendar and contacts in line across my phone, my laptop and an online service for when I’m at work.

The iPhone is great for keeping my phone in sync – every time I plug it in, it all updates… But adding calendar events with notes, or changing a series of addresses can be a hassle, and I like to have my data backed up online, and also easily accessible on a computer when I’m at work or otherwise away from my laptop.

For quite a while now I’ve been using Spanning Sync. This syncs my calendars and contacts from my Mac to Google. It’s entirely seamless – to the point that I regularly forget it’s even there. I don’t remember ever having problems with it doing bad things to my calendar, which is no mean feat.

If you’ve got a Mac (or more than one), you want to get your calendar/contacts synchronised between them, and don’t want to pay for .MacMobile Me, I can’t recommend it enough. It costs $25 for the first year and $15 thereafter normally, but they also offer a programme called ‘Save 5, Make 5′, where referrals have a $5 discount, and I get $5 for the referal too. Everyone’s a winner!

Home Camp

So, clearly I don’t write many posts here. I get all sorts of good ideas about the topics I’m interested in, and some of them almost form into solid enough arguments that would be worthy of my writing something about them. A couple of reasons prevent me posting them, however. Firstly I’m either too busy/lazy/etc. to actually sit down and write them, and secondly I never really feel it’s worth it given the tiny readership. No doubt the latter is a result of the former, though I’ve never made the effort to investigate what would happen if I actually posted decent content.

Anyway, in an effort to add content about the things I’m interested in, I thought I’d post a note to say I plan on attending Home Camp on 29th November. Home Camp is an ‘unconference’ about using technology to monitor and automate things in your house, with a view to reducing your overall energy consumption – your ‘carbon footprint’ (though I don’t like that phrase).

I’m a great fan of using data as a way to encourage changes in behaviour – there’s a lot of scientific evidence of this sort of feedback working well in medicine, and I think it transfers easily to many other scenarios. People dieting often become obsessive about checking their weight, creating a sort of Pavlovian response – eating cake results in weight gain, which results in guilt. The data provided by the scale encourages you not to eat cake.

People have a general lack of awareness of the amount of energy (or resources in general) that they consume – the average consumer is only aware of their electricity and gas usage when the quarterly bill arrives. This is often exacerbated by a fixed monthly payment, so you almost never notice variations in consumption.

Using devices such as a Wattson are a good start, but I’d ideally like to see the impact of every appliance on my consumption of electricity, gas, and water. When set against the backdrop of the ‘credit crunch’, if there was a cheap and easy way to see how much money one would save by just boiling a mug’s worth of water instead of a kettle-ful, I can imagine that there’d be a huge reduction in energy usage across the country, saving money and the planet in one go. What we really need is a series of cheap, simple, open-standard devices that can provide this data to consumers.

So I’m looking forward to Home Camp – whilst not being a hardcore techie, it appeals to the combination of tech-geekiness and eco-geekiness that I seem increasingly fond of. I’m hoping to learn a lot more about the state of the market for this kind of device, and how to get at this kind of data and do useful things with it.  If you happen to stumble across this post, and you’re a likeminded fellow, sign up and come along!

Oyster broken again

So this morning I went to get on the tube, and there was a ‘network wide system failure’, meaning that all the gates were open. Free travel for all whether you have an Oyster card or not, with warnings not to try and touch in or out in case cards became corrupted… For the second time in two weeks.

I wonder if it has anything to do with this?

Image from Annie Mole

Updated: Turns out it was something a lot more mundane – corrupted files distributed to ticket gates. The London transport commissioner was ‘incandescent with rage‘. I’d quite like to see that.

on identity, privacy, the environment, and other assorted rants.