Information Systems for Environmental Sustainability

IT, Resource Productivity, Environmental Preservation, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution


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Emergent: Community microgrid using existing energy infrastructure and the blockchain

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Brooklyn Microgrid is using the blockchain for smart contracts and currencies in support of “resilient, sustainable and more efficient energy production of the future.” In simple terms, as FastCompany explains:

On one side of President Street, five homes with solar panels generate electricity. On the other side, five homes buy power when the opposite homes don’t need it. In the middle is a blockchain network, managing and recording transactions with little human interaction.”


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HICSS Conference Keynote Speaker: Green IT Innovator Shwetak Patel

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The keynote speaker of the annual HICSS conference, happening now, is Shwetak Patel, director of the Ubicomp lab at UW and Green IT innovator. Shwetak is reviewing many of the problems I’ve talked about in this blog, in particular, poor information on energy and water use in the home. One angle on this is “Single sensors,” which use machine learning to back out which appliances are drawing which currents.


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The choice of Shwetak to address the entire conference in this keynote session underscores the importance of the role of IT in enabling and transforming environmental sustainability, energy reductions, and so forth. The conversation that a few of us began years ago finally appears to be gaining mainstream acceptance. Well done to the conference organizers for making this insightful choice.


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Leverage Information Technology Trajectories to Enhance Sustainable Business

In a working paper that will be presented in a few months at the HICSS conference, I describe how leveraging technology trajectories is one of four principles of Digital Fitness. Digital fitness is how I refer to the digital capabilities and mindsets required of all organizational leaders in order to succeed in today’s chaotic digitally enabled business world.

Leveraging technology trajectories is encapsulated by the moving gears in the illustration below. IT continues to get faster, smaller, and cheaper. This leads to increasing and innovative uses to substitute away from older methods or complement existing ones. This ultimately leads to the data avalanche facing most large companies and the use of analytics and other creative software approaches to convert it into value.

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     Source: Melville, N.P. “Digital Fitness: Four Principles for Successful Development of Digital Initiatives,” paper accepted to HICSS-48, January 5-8, 2015.

 

A good example of leveraging technology trajectories in the environmental sustainability space is provided in a post on SustainableBrands by Paul Bosworth, which summarizes the critical role that data plays in driving sustainability at USPS:

Data, Data, Data

Sustainable business these days requires data, and lots of it. Companies are using sustainability data for a multiplicity of reasons: to inform corporate strategy, comply with regulations, evaluate investments, improve transparency, develop products and processes, manage risk, benchmark themselves against competitors, change organisational culture, and engage with supply chains.

Increasingly, companies that take a well-organised and data-driven approach are more likely to see investments in their sustainability programme pay off. This means using analysis to better inform decision making, leading to methodically prioritised initiatives that get off the ground far more quickly.

Once the data management programme begins to mature and data inputs are integrated that reach across a company’s financial planning databases and other operational information resources, opportunities for cost savings and revenue generation can be routinely identified and acted upon.

Driving Value From Data

My favourite example of an organisation using data to drive sustainable development is the United States Postal Service (USPS). Across 32,000 facilities, their Office of Sustainability designed an employee-led programme to address goals in waste reduction, energy conservation, fleet fuel reduction, consumables spending, recycling, and water use.

To aggregate and display relevant data, USPS developed a Green Initiatives Tracking Tool (GITT). This features dashboards that allow cost efficiencies and performance enhancements to be monitored across the organisation. The GITT system achieves this by providing status updates for core projects, as well as financial information, through direct connection with the accounting system for each facility.

GITT is also designed to be interactive. It includes a start-up list of 41 suggested projects for facilities as well as guidelines and training modules for their completion. Managers can also understand clearly what projects are in place and where via sustainability performance metrics that are triggered upon project implementation. Ready access to GITT information and comparative tables enable comparison between facilities and geographies. Most importantly, USPS can now track progress in real time at a national level and support those facilities that need additional help.

By using data aggregation and analytics, USPS was able to gain visibility into its progress on sustainability and isolate over $52m in savings in 2012 largely due to employee-led initiatives.

 

Unfortunately, as I argue in the article, too many digital initiatives fail to meet expectations. It’s my hypothesis that the lack of digital fitness is one source of these high rates of failure. If this is true, it would be interesting to refine the concept of digital fitness by studying leaders at companies that seem to excel at the intersection of IT and corporate environmental sustainability, including SAP, IBM, Danone, Intel, Nest, OPower, and Ebay. What might we learn?


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New Research on Energy and Carbon Management Systems (ECMS)

Information systems for managing energy and carbon emissions data are critical to corporate environmental sustainability efforts.

Yet there is a lack of research on how these systems are adopted, used, implemented, etc.

To shed some light on this topic, I decided to explore how organizations are implementing and applying ECMS. Together with my colleague Ryan Whisnant, we looked at two different systems in two different organizations to identify patterns of use and make recommendations for practice.

Here’s the abstract and a link to the SSRN paper (a revised version of which is forthcoming at the Journal of Industrial Ecology):

This article examines an important class of information system (IS) that serves as the foundation for corporate energy and greenhouse gas accounting: energy and carbon management systems (ECMS). Investors, regulators, customers, and employees increasingly demand that organizations provide information about their organizational energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. However, there is little transparency about how organizations use ECMS to meet such demands. To shed light on ECMS implementation and application, we collected extensive qualitative interview data from two service-sector organizations: one that uses a spreadsheet-based ECMS and another that implemented an ECMS provided by a third-party vendor. Our analysis of collected data revealed numerous challenges in the areas of business processes, managerial capabilities, data capture and integration, and data quality. Though our results derive from only two organizations and require confirmation in large-sample surveys, we provide several general recommendations for organizations regarding ECMS. We also provide suggestions for future studies to build on our tentative results. Link: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2411879

While this paper represents an important early step in this research stream, much more needs to be done. In particular, one of the most important next steps would be to examine the business value implications of these systems.

Continue reading


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Big (Smart Meter) Data: 1 billion data points per day and counting

According to the Edison Foundation, in the U.S. alone there are over 46 million smart meters installed as of July 2013.

At a read rate of 24 per day, this equals to about 1.1 billion data points per day, or just north of 400 billion per year.

What to do with all this data?

Greentechmedia reports that at the recent Soft Grid 2013 conference, several views were shared:

This is the beginning of a very long evolution that may or may not end in our lifetimes

– Josh Gerber, smart grid manager for San Diego Gas & Electric

You have to reach out to those customers and give them something that interests them

– Scott Young, senior director of software platforms for Silver Spring Networks

Other examples that I quote from the greentechmedia article include:

  • analyze household power usage data to help customers learn where they’re wasting energy, how different appliances are affecting their usage, and the like — in other words, to turn utilities into “trusted energy advisors” to their customers.
  • predict individual customers’ likelihood to want to sign up for load curtailment programs (demand response), or perhaps install solar panels on their property.
  • pairing third-party information of the kind you might get from the retail and customer service bid data world with the usage details … from their meters

This is a new scale of data, and extracting valuable insights will require thoughtful pairing of user needs with technological capabilities to create compelling new services. In other words, turning data into information and knowledge for better decision making. It can’t happen fast enough.