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Visted Malachi Chadwick at the 10:10 offices in Camden

posted Oct 8, 2012, 1:57 PM by Howard Noble

During both the low carbon ICT and open to change projects I was very impressed by the impact the 10:10 organisation had in raising awareness and actually getting people and organisations to act. They achieved this through some clever communication campaigns that focused on short-term and real-world action. They were also complimented very well other groups such as People and Planet

Two or so years ago I noticed 10:10 had made a carbon cutting facebook application. I only used it in Beta and it seemed to have similar functionality to other personal carbon cutting apps. Nevertheless I thought it might be productive to present our research ideas to see if there might be some 'synergies'. 

We had a good discussion and I learnt what 10:10 are doing these days. I am not sure we'd be able to do anything without funding but if there's some money for green ICT in the future it'd be worth linking up. Let's see. I will look for other potential partners in the meantime.

Final report

posted Mar 22, 2012, 11:47 AM by Howard Noble

Finally, and better late than never I have written the final report

Actually I am glad to have more time to reflect on what we did. Open to change has been a different type of project for me. We didn't focus on making something, writing code, or contributing to an interoperability specification etc. This project gave us the chance to step back and think - what needs to be made. While I am a fan of learning while making (it keeps you realistic and focused on the detail) my experience of greening ICT (on the JISC Low Carbon ICT project) made me realise that there really is a lot more to this problem than technology. 

I remember when I started out in this area, back in 2007. After giving presentations on using ICT to reduce electricity consumption, it would not be unusual to get called a communist, or dismissed as a hippy because I didn't believe nuclear power was the panacea. The very idea that electricity should not be seen as a free and invisible public good seemed almost heretical. 

Well here we are in 2012, right in the midst of a economic turmoil, greenhouse gas emissions still rising, climate scientist still unchanged in their view about the risks. I wonder if we now wish we'd taken energy efficiency more seriously back then. Some people are happy we are not of course. I see shale gas and fracking is being touted as the new energy source of choice. Solar subsidies have been cut. 

I hope to meet Elinor Ostrom next week. Maybe there'll even be time to talk about the role web technologies could play in helping groups.

Second-order behaviour change

posted Oct 27, 2011, 4:18 AM by Howard Noble   [ updated Oct 27, 2011, 5:55 AM ]

One thing that has struck me about behaviour change initiatives with respect to sustainability is how coy we tend to be with defining exactly how we want people to change. A typical answer might be:
  1. recycle more
  2. turn idle lights and gadgets off
  3. print less
Although these are worthy contributions it seems to make the movement towards sustainability appear rather whimpering. I'd like to suggest these examples fall into a category we might call 1st order  - "as you were, please try to be a little less wasteful". What might fall into 2nd order behaviour change? I think sharing falls into this category, here's a nice info-graphic where sharing is applied to cars:

car sharing info-graphic

Changing from car ownership to car sharing is obviously a much greater change both logistically and psychologically. It means we have to adjust our relationship to a technology that entertains a great deal of political attention. 

We normally think of innovation as being technical - we build new things. Why can't we put innovation into the social realms on an equal footing. We are after all always telling ourselves we are 'free', why then are we so shackled by the Dragons of Inaction?

20:30:50 and agent-based modelling

posted Sep 16, 2011, 7:36 AM by Howard Noble   [ updated Sep 16, 2011, 8:38 AM ]

I like to ask audiences questions when I present. I've been asking this one for the last few years:

Consider a population where:

20% have reduced their consumption of energy significantly
30% consume to their heart’s content
50% mirror the consumption patterns of people close to them

What effect might the 20% have on overall energy consumption?

a.    It will decrease  
b.    It will stay the same
c.    It will increase

There is of course no right answer, the idea is to stimulate thinking on the topic of the Rebound Effect and Jevons Paradox. 

The agent-based model (ABM) below relates to this question:


Below are the agents and behaviours that this model is composed of:


In words what is happening is:
  • create a population with 3 types of agent:
    • 20 % consume 1 unit of energy each time unit e.g. per day
    • 30 % consume between 3 and 5 units of energy
    • 50 % consume whatever one of the agents close to them is consuming
  • set the agents moving around randomly and interacting as inferred above
  • they accrue the energy they take from the patches underneath them
  • if they run out of energy they die
What happens? Well if you set the energy growth rate fairly low e.g. 0.0021 per time unit we get the following:


The 30% out-compete the other agents by avoiding the influence of the 20%. Even though the greedy 50% do well for much of the time, at some stage in the simulation their greed changed down to that of the 20% so they accrued less energy. This meant they had less reserves when things got tough (less energy available in the system). The stubborn and greedy 30% out-competed everyone simply by never flirting with the idea that they should consume less. The simulation at the end is dominated by 1 type of greedy agent and everyone else perished. Don't believe me - try it! 

I have not proved anything about the world - that is not what ABM is about. I have made a set of assumption explicit and created an environment that allows other people to explore the inferences that can be made from these assumptions. By doing this within the BehaviourComposer I have hopefully made it easy for others to change the model to something that is more meaningful to them. For instance, they may decide that the 20% might team up with the converted 50% to punish the high consuming 30% somehow - see Nature: Altruistic Punishment paper

I've prepared this for my talk at People and Energy conference next week. Feedback most welcome!

Performance-based targets

posted Sep 6, 2011, 6:47 AM by Howard Noble

After looking into crazily complex possible approaches to simulating half-hourly meter readings based on sparse data (Alex mentioned Fourier Transforms!) we've plumped for the KISS principle. We simply use an array of data points from a reference building where half-hourly meter data is available. We can then generate data for a similar building by multiplying each data point by the ratio of the aggregate consumption e.g. if the reference building consumed 100kWh over a year and the similar building 200kWh then we'd just double each data point.

Once we've generated an array for a similar building we can then transform this data to show what the target consumption is based on a statement like "Oxford aims to reduce consumption by 33% by 2020". (Using for instance a reverse compound interest approach).

The difference between target and actual consumption is then the performance.

We can use the mean of the previous say 60 days performance to generate a projected consumption value, for instance for the end of the current month. 

We then have all the data we need to create the Dripping Bucket or the Boat Race visualisation.

Summer quiet brings coding and writing frenzy

posted Aug 20, 2011, 10:36 AM by Howard Noble   [ updated Aug 20, 2011, 2:18 PM ]

Holidays have resulted in us doing the tasks that can completed individually:
  • Derek is busy writing up a paper based on the data he transcribed and coded from the workshops
  • Howard is writing the code (NetLogo + modelling4all extensions) for his agent-based model that will form the basis of the paper he will give with Ken at the Energy and People conference in September. (Ken is currently in West Papua doing a OLPC project with a local school!) 
  • Alex is close to finishing data.ox.ac.uk which means we'll be able to start developing info-graphics (the dripping bucket and the Olympic race track being the ultimate goal). The Processing.js  library looks very useful and we want to package everything up as reusable and configurable widgets - Sander at OSSW knows more. 
So in summary August and first half of September is going to be mostly about writing code and conference papers. We will then start to plan the end of project event, and where we want to take the project next. 

Development begins

posted Jul 6, 2011, 6:40 AM by Howard Noble

The project team has now started working on creating prototype implementations that embody the research to-date. This effort is focused representing and presenting electricity meter data in compelling forms. 

We are working on the 'dripping bucket' interface (see Ideas section to the left) as a starting point. HTML5 makes making interactive graphical resources much easier to make and Dave B has made a first draft to help us get a practical understanding of how easy it is to:
  1. Show electricity consumption in real-time i.e. half-hourly meter readings
  2. Show consumption against a target
  3. Show savings (in various forms / units)
We also want to make use of pledging/survey systems to:
  1. Crowd-source approaches for saving energy
  2. Survey what people (within a defined group) want to do with savings
Finally, workshop participants highlighted the need for accountability which suggests:
  1. Make it possible to compare performance between groups (with a named institutional representative)
The dripping bucket (needs a better name) can be drawn in many different forms - essentially it represents a visualisation of performance and a target. There are many other ways we can do this, one of which could be an Olympics race around a track where athletes represent organisations that race around a track at a rate by which they exceed their targets.

The elephant in the room is then - how to agree targets. The workshops also highlighted the need to set the right tone if you are to imply competition within/between groups. Competition is a boon for some and a bane to others. 

JISC Energy dashboards event in Oxford on 14th June 2011

posted Jun 16, 2011, 1:30 AM by Howard Noble   [ updated Jun 16, 2011, 2:29 AM ]

Dragons of action?

Our project team worked with the JISC to organise a meeting for people interested in "Energy Dashboards". In the morning our project team ran a workshop to try to help people design creative ways to use technology to change social norms with respect to energy use. Participants were asked to focus on three scenarios: (a) moving from very low efficiency to much more efficient situation (b) what to do when efficiency improvements stop (c) what to do if efficiency worsens. We gathered the ideas from the 50+ people who attended and will add them to data we gathered from the Oxford and Lincoln workshops. After lunch speakers from other organisations presented their approaches.

On reflection there seems to be two main approaches to promoting behaviour change: command control vs bottom up. We tend to think of our approach as "middling-out" - getting institutional managers and grass roots activists working closely together but this is perhaps mere semantics.

Some of us went to a local pub afterwards and had a BBQ. We planned putting the world to right by discussing the real dragons of inaction (see table 1 taken from The Dragons of Inaction, Psychological Barriers That Limit Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation, Robert Gifford, University of Victoria). (There are also some pictures of the debates below!)










Pictures from the BBQ





Workshop in Oxford

posted May 26, 2011, 4:13 AM by Howard Noble   [ updated May 27, 2011, 7:08 AM ]

We ran the second research workshop in Oxford yesterday. People came from Estates, IT, Finance, Environmental Change Institute and most impressively Earthwatch. We changed the design exercise because we felt it was too broad, so this time we discussed the design of a campaign focused on the following scenarios:

1. How to promote two actions to colleagues in a department (a) turning off PCs after work (b) signing up to a pledge system.
2. What to do when, after some initial success in saving electricity, the savings had leveled off.
3. What to do if people get tired of contributing and savings actually decline.

We still need to work on this activity because the campaign plans that emerged did not propose to make much use of technology, and emphasized a rather traditional approach to instigating change e.g. expecting senior managers to revise policy, carrot and stick incentives, and disseminating information with face-to-face meetings and posters. Perhaps, in an effort to remain realistic, people are less likely to explore more radical solutions. Also we wonder whether their is a general lack of knowledge of how the Internet could be used e.g. open data/linked data, information visualisation, real-time metering. In the group I worked with there was a lot of conversation about how pushy the message could be. This may reflect culture differences in academic and service departments. (Note: DF is decoding the design activity data and we will analyse the survey data again after the Leicester event).

DW and HN created a prototype web interface based on the ideas that came from the Lincoln workshop:


We presented this at the end of the day. The response seemed to be positive although there was concern that ring-fencing money might be legislated against. This interface combines many of the ideas that were highlighted e.g. power of real time information, representing energy savings as money which is ring-fenced and used for causes (which hopefully do not lead to more energy use aka Jevons Paradox), and finally towards senior management accountability. After attending a behaviour change event at the James Martin institute we've had a few more ideas on how to improve this design - we'll present these the the next workshop in Leicester. One participant suggested that rather than just giving to a wind turbine the money could be used to buy shares in the build, which would further increase the value of the donation. Finally, the devil is always in the detail and we should work out what the metrics are for the visualisation e.g. how will the league table work, how will we decide on the targets etc

Broadly speaking the Oxford participants concurred with those who attended the Lincoln event. Here's some additional things I noted:
  • When answering the survey questions it is difficult to answer personally, the temptation is to think about how others might perceive the questions
  • The form of data was highlighted as very important and particularly with respect to pledging e.g. a graphic that showed 80% had pledged and there was no energy saving would be very de-motivating.
  • With pledges there could be a lose relationship with the actions people will do e.g. they can pledge to be part of an initiative but tell people a range of things they themselves will do to reduce energy use. (This avoid the situation where people are asked to pledge to do something they already do).
  • It was highlighted that the People and Planet league table was very motivating for some people in Oxford, and the new release due in next few weeks.
  • Since the people attending with workshop were self-selecting we are encouraged to get the questions out into a more open forum to see how people respond more generally.
  • Again attitudes to competition emerged but this time the idea came forward that perhaps some people didn't like competition, not because it was a bad way to motivate people, but simply because they didn't want to lose. This might be particularly true of people who are not used to competing...so have less experience of losing.
  • Another disadvantage of energy dashboards in reception is that you'll see them when you come into work in the morning...just the time when you're about to switch everything on.
  • When we discussed communication channels we were told to beware using channels people use to 'play' e.g. Facebook, for work purposes. We were also advised that if something is important then it should be made into a 'hard copy'. The very sage advice was also given - don't obsess over the channel - obsess over the quality of the message.
  • In agreement with Kotter, we were advised that a campaign should start with a bang. Survey data showed that people are frustrated by the rate of change and just want to get on with it.
So, the workshop keeps evolving and we need to redesign the design activity for the Dashboards Event in Oxford on the 14th June

Workshop in Lincoln

posted May 18, 2011, 3:20 AM by Howard Noble   [ updated May 18, 2011, 6:36 AM ]

We ran our first research project workshop in Lincoln yesterday. These sessions enable our team to bring people interested in behaviour change and sustainability campaigns together to discuss the role that technology/the internet/meter data can play in increasing engagement with environmental issues. The structure of the workshop has been designed to help us get plenty of detailed quantitative and qualitative data we can use to inform the design of visualisations of energy use at Oxford. Our starting hypothesis for this work is that putting a graphic on an LCD monitor in the reception of buildings will have practically no effect on behaviour. Ten people attended the workshop, coming from Lincoln University, the City and County councils, and the Transition Town movement

The Survey


With only 10 participants our ability to generalise is of course very limited but here's some headlines:

Confusing stuff!:

    • Meter data at the most granular level is the most motivating (e.g. office level) because we are likely to know the people who are using it
    • But when we go public with our data it is more motivating to do so at a departmental level. By going public I mean when people can compare and contrast their consumption.
    • However, if we are working towards a target then participants thought the most motivating graphic was at whole organisational level (University level).

Visualisations can provoke very different responses:

"This visualisation would appeal to a great number of people and would probably motivate them to be more energy efficient. Unfortunately, it doesn't explain why Pete is very sad and what you specifically need to do to stop him being so sad - so although more appealing it's not so comprehensive."

"Guilt is not a good long term driver! And a polar bear is hardly relevant to most of us. Please don't develop anything like this!"

An interesting visualisation is not necessarily the same as an effective one

We need to be careful of eye-candy and PR stunts!



(5 (orange) is a high score e.g. very interesting, 1 (green) the opposite.)

Boring but gets the job done. 

The fact that it is common across many things (fridges, houses and appliances) is very useful. The concern is that it is overly simplistic and it is not clear how the numbers it represents were derived:

Attitudes towards sharing data vary considerably 

When comparing an individual's data, and information pertaining to their employer. I find it quite surprising this 
(cohort was not more prepared to share home energy use more openly.

Campaign design exercise

The design exercise was interesting but we did not have enough time to get the data we really wanted. Participants were just about to start thinking at the level of detail we were after when we had to stop. Nevertheless some interesting ideas came out:
  • All groups expressed the need to bring together the people that already care about sustainability initiatives to help drive campaigns. The idea was touted that these people could be given training and accreditation which could feature on their CVs and be valued during recruitment. 
  • Most groups picked up on using competition to drive energy efficiency but quickly found that there were many ways to do this and deciding the metrics was not easy. Should people compete on absolute energy use (kWh), or performance against a target consumption level. Who should set the target - external bodies or should targets be agreed internally. Who are the best groups to compete against, departments or offices, within or external to an organisation

Common good game

As usual the players were very quick to spot that we did not define the rules, and see that the slightest change would dramatically effect the outcome. Participants found the link between the game and running energy campaigns obvious and after a presentation by Joss on the so-called Jevons effect the conversation flowed. There was perhaps a sense that like reporting energy consumption at too high a granularity, thinking in such an abstract level was not helpful. The main thing I learn from this hour was the importance of trust. This means trust in the people delivering a campaign, the statistics they use, the motivation behind the actions. A really concrete example of the need for trust came out with the idea that energy savings should be ring-fenced and turned into something of value e.g. a student bursary. It would be a real measure of trust in the campaign that this money was kept as intended.

Another big theme for me was the role of competition. I hope I am not generalising too much but cut-throat competition is enjoyed/promoted by some people (men?) and not so much by others (women?) The idea is to use competition to drive change in a spontaneous and emergent manner, however many people picked up on the idea that 
this could result in people feeling excluded, or push people into a corner. As mentioned before, the tone of the competition will be decided by the metrics it uses. It is then very important to get consensus on how people will compete.

Based on the way the design exercise ran we will change the design exercise to focus on targets/game metrics. 

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