Thursday, May 26, 2011

#ALGORITHMS: "Smarter Conservation from Analytics and Cloud Computing"

The Water Pilot Study displayed analytics about each household’s usage patterns, comparing them to average usage and to other engaged members of the program. (Source: IBM, City of Dubuque)

Ecological conservation of precious natural resources, such as clean water, can be made smarter by using cloud computing to track usage patterns and software analytics to encourage voluntary conservation efforts.

Anecdotal evidence has long suggested that consumers will voluntarily change their usage patterns to foster conservation when given clear choices about how to do so. Now the city of Dubuque, Iowa, together with IBM, has used cloud computing and analytics to determine just how much might be saved voluntarily—measuring a reduction in water utilization by 6.6 percent and an eightfold improvement in leak detection and response time.

As a part of its Smarter Sustainable Dubuque research initiative, the city of Dubuque—a community of over 60,000 residents—sponsored the Water Pilot Study, which instrumented 151 homes with smart meters for nine weeks. During that time, the city supplied the owners with a real-time readout of their current consumption rate. Households were also supplied with analysis as to how they could improve their consumption patterns and social networking tools with which they could compete for conservation awards. (An additional 152 control homes were instrumented too, but without providing those households with a readout of consumption.)

The smart meters constantly updated water usage and communicated it to the IBM Research Cloud every 15 minutes. Each household's data set was then analyzed for anomalies, which were then reported back to the households to help them understand their consumption. One surprising finding was that 8 percent of the households—12 out of 151—had water leaks that they were unaware of until their house was instrumented and its data analyzed.

Data was collected and analyzed anonymously, but the consumption patterns, trends and anomalies were shared with both city officials and other community members without revealing individuals' names or addresses. Using a Web portal, community members signed on to view both their own personal household usage patterns as well as comparisons with others and overall averages. Online games and competitions were also sponsored to promote sustainable consumption habits as well as to help consumers perceive the communitywide impact of their efforts, in terms of a reduced water bills, fewer gallons consumed and a reduction in household's carbon footprint.

In total, 89,090 gallons were saved by the 151 households over nine weeks, which would amount to more than 514,740 gallons when extrapolated to a year, or about 3,409 gallons per household annually. If the program were extended to the entire city of Dubuque, which consists of 23,000 households, the smart meters and displayed analytics would have saved households a total of over $190,930 a year.

Surveys of household members also revealed that 77 percent thought the Web portal increased their understanding of water conservation, 70 percent said they understood better the community impact of the choices they make, and 61 percent reported that they had made personal changes in the ways they used water, such as taking shorter showers, fixing leaks, purchasing more water-efficient appliances or altering their yard watering time of day.
Further Reading