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From renewable energy grid monitors to smart recycling bins, smart use of data and software offers up solutions to sustainability challenges.
Hackathons – in which software enthusiasts gather in one place to delve into data and develop social, environmental and public health solutions – are now more popular than ever. Around 1,000 sustainability professionals attended the recent BSR Sustainability Hackathon in San Francisco, for example, to hear the ideas pitched by competing teams. These events benefit from the increasing amount of data now available. For instance, the European Commission recently announced that it will provide open access to environmental data collected by Copernicus, Europe’s Earth Observation System. Such data can provide the impetus, not only for sustainable solutions, but also for enterprise. As one judge at a Chicago Hackathon stated, “Hackathons are a good reminder that mining public data can lead to great businesses.”
Here are five of the top solutions to come out of hackathons in 2013:
Windshed is a programme created by WattTime that monitors the amount of wind energy being fed into the electric grid at any moment, using data from regional grid operators (currently only in the US). It also highlights when ‘wind energy traffic jams’ are occurring and clean energy is being wasted. This information allows progressive consumers to base their energy use around the level of supply from renewable sources, and shift their consumption away from fossil fuels. The programme is already up and running with the help of $3,500 prize money from the San Francisco BSR hackathon, which took place in November; the Windshed website shows the current clean electricity supply in 18 US states. WattTime also plans to encourage wind farms to pay for smart thermostats to be installed in local homes, so that they can benefit from ‘rush hour’ wind energy that might otherwise be wasted.
CrowdComfort, the world’s first crowdsourced thermostat to be developed into an app is now freely available on iTunes. It allows building residents, workers or visitors to report real-time, site-specific comfort levels (temperature wise), and the data collected can be used to identify where energy is being wasted. Co-founder Galen Nelson describes the app as “a gateway drug to hook people on energy consumption awareness.” Though it didn’t win any prize money at the Boston Cleanweb Hackathon in May, CrowdComfort was awarded the judges’ ‘Most polished pick’ award. EnerNOC, who hosted the event, also invited CrowdComfort to share their offices, and are now using their data to reduce the energy usage of buildings. In addition, CrowdComfort joined the cleantech incubator company North Shore InnoVentures (NSIV) in October, meaning it will benefit from the $60,000 grant NSIV recently received from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Centre.
BikeMe, created during the Great Beijing Cleanweb Hackathon held last July, uses data recently released by Datatang (a Beijing online data sharing platform) to identify well-used long distance commuting routes, and suggest new bus routes. Equally, it can also identify short distance routes that could be improved for walkers and cyclists with additional infrastructure. The potential goes further than this, however. For example, the data could be sold to transport companies, ensuring that they build bike sheds in the right locations. The team plans to expand on their work by developing an app which recognises people’s form of transport and offers rewards for cycling, thereby encouraging greener travel. When the app arrives, users will also be able to ask it to ‘bikeme’ to the nearest café/shop offering discounts for cyclists.
Recycling Monster is a recycling bin with a twist. A hidden microphone allows it to listen to the sounds items make as they are dropped into the receptacle, and alerts people when they have deposited something which is not recyclable. The Recyclebots team said during a presentation on the device that their the aim is to “slightly embarrass the user, but all in good fun, to educate them on the right habits.” The idea was awarded SGD 1,000 for coming in first place at the Singapore Clean & Green Hackathon in November, and a further SGD 5,000 for winning the Starhub challenge, which grants the team the Samsung mentorship and development package. At present the project is still in its infancy, but, thanks to the funding it has now received it should become a marketable product within the next year. Recyclebots are also working on an accompanying website which will offer further recycling tips.
EV Ping is an app for electric vehicle (EV) drivers, which allows them to easily communicate with other EV owners using Quick Response (QR) codes on their dashboards, which can be scanned by smart phones. This should make the lives of electric motorists less stressful by letting them determine whether they should wait in the queue or find another station. It also removes the need to constantly check station availability, asking owners charging their cars to ‘Text me when done’ or tell other EV drivers how long they’re going to be. This allows the app to create a queuing system and suggest other nearby charging points if users don’t want to wait. The hack won the $1,000 first prize at the Hacker League Sustainability Hackathon, which took place in California last April, and the resulting app has now gone live. The business is also expanding thanks to its ‘launch, grow, mature’ business model, although at present the app is only available in the US. – Alex Fenton
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