Proposal

The Open to Change project, based at the University of Oxford is funded by a £35,935 grant from the JISC Greening ICT programme to run a six month project (March-Aug 2011) in collaboration with staff at the De Montfort University and Lincoln University. The project will work with academic partners and commercial and NGO stakeholders to (a) design compelling representations of electricity meter data, and (b) prototype innovative ways to use the Internet to present these representations to encourage people to reduce their energy consumption. The work will be informed by prior academic research, current state-of-the-art and three workshops. The project will culminate in a conference designed to enhance knowledge and skills in using ICT to support behaviour change initiatives. All project outputs will be actively disseminated with open licences and made available online in perpetuity.

Rationale

Educational organisations will suffer financially and in terms of reputation if they fail to significantly reduce their carbon footprint. At Oxford we estimate that 70-90% of the carbon footprint is due to electricity consumption and 40-55% of electricity use is directly controllable by end users. Supporting behaviour change initiatives is clearly essential if we are to create sustainable institutions. This project aims to support managers charged with delivering environmental targets and the individuals who are already doing their bit by helping to spread their good example. 

To-date the JISC Greening ICT programme has largely focussed on exploring ways to make our existing infrastructure more efficient: powering down idle devices, sharing and rationalising computer components (thin clients and cloud computing), consolidating servers through virtualisation, improving the cooling of data centres and recovery of waste heat, buying low-power devices that had less impact on the environment when they were manufactured, assembled and transported, and using ICT in place of taking a flight, commuting and reading printed materials. All of this is essential work but it may not result in the Greening ICT programme meeting two of its four desired outcomes: (a) reduction of sector carbon footprint and associated energy costs and (b) reduction in waste generated by ICT use. 

William Jevons wrote in The Coal Question in 1865: “It is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.” Dr. Zafar Chaudry noticed something similar to this so-called Jevons Paradox: 

“We have reduced power consumption from the desktop servers by about 80% but I have to raise my hand up and say user demand has gone up by more than 80% simply because with virtualisation technology we are able to bring new servers, new applications online within 8-10 minutes."

If we focus on efficiency alone there is a danger that we will simply build cheaper services that are easier to consume, a trend that is likely to reinforce our unsustainable habits. 

We therefore strongly agree with the first of the four Greening ICT programme objectives - we need to consider "attitudinal and behaviour change embedded across the sector" as a top priority. We are starting to see top-down and bottom-up pressure; government is releasing new environmental legislation and NGOs are leading grass roots campaigns . In theory the two approaches support each other, if enough of us act in the absence of explicit rules we give policy-makers a mandate to announce legislation that obliges everyone to contribute. However progress has been glacial because most of us still feel sceptical, we don’t understand why we should act or what we should do, we don’t trust others will contribute, and whether any contribution we do make will amount to anything more than a gesture. 

The Internet has the potential to evolve into a space where top-down and grass roots action is coupled more tightly. We already have web sites dedicated to helping individuals to lobby and hold policy makers to account. We also have online social networking tools that enable us to update our friends about campaigns we support. It is possible to use the Internet to make change happen more efficiently but in general our day-to-day behaviour is still shaped by the people we interact with in the real world. In other words and bringing the argument back to this call, it is our family, friends and peers that shape how we use electricity, gas, water, travel and ICT in general, rather than any reasoned argument we might learn about online. 

However, we believe it is still possible to use the Internet to affect real change but we need a new ingredient: data represented in compelling forms and presented to us in ways that help us see for instance electricity as a commons that we manage collectively. We need data that can be linked with other information sources and released in as close to real time as possible. We need data to learn how we effect the environment on a day to day basis, and that proves we are using resources efficiently. Data that allows us to compare our efforts with others, shows our effort is not wasted and is meaningful in a real sense. Potentially we have access to electricity, gas and water meters, travel and procurement records, all of which can be linked to information that provides additional context and meaning  such as the number of people in a building, local weather conditions and what electricity is being used for. However these data sets are not typically open or easily accessible and we do not have a good understanding of how to represent or present this information to support behaviour change initiatives. 

Plan

The project team will work together to complete the following work packages (all in 2011):
  • March - April: literature review, define research questions, organise workshops, set up project tools
  • May: Conduct workshops in Oxford, Lincoln and De Montfort
  • June: Analyse workshop data and design/build prototype electricity meter data representations
  • July: Continue to discuss and improve prototypes and build computer model of people interacting with energy and tools
  • August: Write reports and journal article
  • September: Project conference.

Deliverables

  1. Prototype representations of electricity meter readings at Oxford.
  2. Individual/agent-based computer model and construction guide of people interacting with tools.
  3. Three workshop (one at each project partner's institution e.g. Oxford, De Montfort and Lincoln).
  4. End-of-project conference in Oxford.
  5. Peer-reviewed journal article and project reports.
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