Changing behavior through data visualization

IT design has historically been viewed as a discipline with little to contribute in the realm of sustainability. Energy-hogging machines are simply a necessary evil, the thinking has run, and the problem can only get worse. As once undreamt-of devices become must-haves in the developing as well as the developed world, the tech sector’s energy consumption is expected to grow dramatically — one estimate put its 2020 greenhouse gas emissions at triple 2002 levels if current trends continue.

Recently, however, designers have begun to see IT in a new light. Increasingly, it is considered a unique resource for achieving significant energy savings by doing what it does best: gathering, processing, and sharing data.

Case in point: the Prius miles per gallon (MPG) display. After the Prius became one of the first cars to feature an MPG meter on its dashboard, buzz about how the display was causing drivers to use less energy led other car companies to follow suit. “It has totally changed my driving in that for the first time I’m completely cognizant of how the car works,” one Prius driver told the Washington Post.

Groups around the world are now working to realize the same kinds of results in buildings. The potential savings are huge — experts estimate possible building energy use reductions of more than 20% as a result of making metering data visible and actionable. These large-scale benefits stem from the fact that, as the authors of a 2011 New Buildings Institute white paper put it, “a significant percentage of building energy use is driven directly by operational and occupational habits that are completely independent of building design.”

Experts estimate possible building energy use reductions of more than 20% as a result of making metering data visible and actionable

The energy information field is still relatively young, but all signs point to a coming boom driven by rising costs and new efficiency-driven legislation. (The US Energy Policy Act of 2005, for example, states that “all federal buildings shall, for the purpose of efficient use of energy and reduction in the cost of electricity used in such building, be monitored…to the maximum extent practicable.”) Analysts predict that the field will grow into a $165b-a-year industry within the next two decades.

In Arup’s San Francisco office, we’ve spent the past several years trying to get staff members to consume less energy by providing usage data visualizations. Funded through the firm’s internal research program (at no cost to our clients), the effort has gone through several stages, allowing us to experiment with and help shape new technologies as they have emerged.

Office-level energy metering

Two years ago, the industry was focused primarily on building unit-level energy consumption dashboards to track the entire output of a given office (or home, as the case may be). But although we found the young technology extremely exciting, we weren’t certain enough of its capabilities to recommend it on projects.

In addition, we were aware that its potential reach in the market was limited by the historical disconnect between property developers and building occupiers. In this and many other instances, the developer’s interest in keeping the building’s construction cost as low as possible trumps the long-term benefit of reduced energy consumption. As a result, enhanced metering is typically not included in the initial design. The significant industry shift that will be required for such a change makes it even more imperative to get the technology right. Developers need to feel confident that if they spend the money to install a metering system, it will work.

We therefore decided to install one in our office as a trial. To kick things off, we researched energy visualization system vendors, ultimately selecting local company Lucid. We then conducted a survey of our office floors to determine where existing energy meters provided sufficient data and where extra meters would be required. The next step was installing the meter and energy dashboard, which we located prominently in the reception area, allowing staff members and visitors alike to see real-time data displays.


After the system was up and running, we held a competition to see which of the office’s two floors could cut its energy use more. Doubtless because of the attractiveness of the advertised prize (cupcakes), the results of the competition were quite encouraging: the winning floor reduced its energy consumption by 20% compared to baseline and the runner-up by 12%.

A second contest held a few months later, however, produced less-dramatic results. The novelty having worn off, people seemed less inclined to modify their behavior. However, the data showed a sustained monthly energy reduction of approximately 5%.

The potential impact of the office-wide metering effort was limited by our status as renters in a multi-tenant building. As is the case in most office buildings, our management company splits utilities evenly among all tenants by leased space occupied without regard to who is actually using what due to the technological limitations of current metering systems. As a result, it was not cost effective for us to implement further metering and energy conservation measures, as the cost of doing so far exceeded our potential savings.

Developers need to feel confident that if they spend the money to install a metering system, it will work

Unit-level metering systems are, however, becoming a topic of increasing interest to building owners for precisely this reason. Connecting consumption data to the tenant’s actual use enables each tenant to make informed energy choices and see them reflected in a monthly bill. Furthermore, it incentivizes good energy choices and eliminates disparities which can arise when the tenants who make good choices subsidize the high-demand users. (For example, a tenant with a data center or server room occupying the same space as offices will consume much more energy per square foot.)

Breaking down metering within units to a more granular level, for example on a circuit-by-circuit basis, will enable the tenant to pinpoint high-consumption areas. The progression of this philosophy would be to take the metering down to the individual workspace level and present that data to users in real time.

Individualized energy metering

A few months after our second contest, we received a call from Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment (CBE) asking if we knew anyone who might like to participate in a trial of personal desktop energy meters funded by the California Air Board. We eagerly offered ourselves as a test subject.

In the eight months since, we have worked with the CBE to evaluate the technology options on the market, and will soon install the devices to every desk on our 6th floor to see how they perform. (The Oakland office of the University of California, Berkeley president will serve as a second test site.)

The devices, which look something like a Kindle, will be mounted prominently on each staff member’s workstation. Synchronized with a customized power strip that tracks energy use, it will generate text displays that aim to convince individuals to improve their behavior through peer pressure. In a strategy that utility companies have used on energy bills for some time, the devices will compare staff members’ energy usage to that of their neighbors in an attempt to convince people to cut back.


Improving technology, improving behavior

John Goins, who is leading the CBE research effort, hopes that the project will help identify ways to cultivate more sustainable habits for all kinds of people, not just those who are already interested in conservation. “Everybody likes to be recognized for doing something good, and this is just a particular version of that idea,” he told us.

John is part of a growing movement working to develop best practices for the human side of the energy conservation equation. At Stanford, BJ Fogg’s Persuasive Technology Lab explores ways that computing products from cell phones to Facebook can be harnessed to influence behavior. The annual Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change Conference, now in its eleventh year, brings together academics and industry representatives from around the world to further understanding of the issue. Recently published book Two Degrees, written by three of our Arup colleagues, devotes a chapter to the issue of choice as it relates to design and climate change.

To realize the potential benefits of energy metering and data visualization, it’s critical to get both the psychology and technology right. We still have a long way to go before achieving this goal, but for those of us who are convinced that the effort points the way to a more sustainable future, it’s a very exciting time to be involved.

Print this post
Read More Articles