Here is a strand.

Eleven years ago I attended a public meeting at the Delta Prince Edward hotel where Maritime Electric, Prince Edward Island’s electric utility, made its case for a dramatic increase in electricity rates.

As I related at the time in this space, the key line of the evening, for me, came when CEO Jim Lea, responding to my question about whether there would ever be a situation where it would be beneficial for the company if electricity consumption were to drop, answered, with commendable honesty, “no it would not be beneficial.”

That simple realization drove home for me that it was never going to be the utility that was going to drive electricity reduction efforts: if anyone was going to do it, it was going to be we the people.

Also in the audience at that meeting was Richard Brown, a fellow resident of downtown Charlottetown, a fellow computer programmer, someone interested in energy issues, and, at the time, a defeated Liberal MLA.

Six months later, Richard was elected to the Legislative Assembly again, and joined the Liberal opposition for a term before being reelected in 2007 and joining Executive Council.

Two years later, in 2009, Richard was named Minister of Environment, Energy and Forestry and I interviewed him as a part of a series on climate change I was producing.

I returned to Richard’s office two years later, in March of 2011, to discuss the possibility of having information about electricity load and generation, including wind energy, released as open data, returning to the thread that started in 2003: if it was we the people that were going to responsible for reducing electricity consumption, we were going to need access to data about generation and consumption to arm ourselves.

By July, still without access to this data, I created a hack that used New Brunswick data to provide a slice of the energy picture and created another hack, covered by CBC Spark, that allowed the energy flow to be visualized through techno music.

A year later, in June of 2012, the project I’d originally discussed with Richard bore fruit, thanks to the efforts of his department of of the province’s IT department, and open data on energy load and generation started to flow and I started to archive it.

Someone who noticed my efforts was Scott Bateman, a researcher in human-computer interaction at the University of PEI (and a colleague from many years ago when we both worked on the provincial website project). Scott proposed that we work together on a project to create an in-home appliance – an “energy thingy,” he dubbed it – that would use that open data to present “actionable feedback” about electricity usage.  It might glow green when the wind was blowing and much of the electricity was being wind-generated, and glow red when the reverse was true. And thus help you decide when to turn on the clothes dryer.

Scott proposed the project to the NRC, it was funded, and now that “thingy” is a real thing: it has how-to manual, open source code, and you can build one yourself.

Meanwhile, I shifted my focus from the macro to the micro, applying for and being granted a City of Charlottetown micro-grant to fund The Social Consumption Project, a pilot effort to provide daily water and electricity consumption data to five households in Charlottetown.

All of which led to me spending this week in Calgary, in part with Scott’s academic colleagues in the Innovations in Visualization Laboratory at the University of Calgary, discussing both our “macro” and “micro” energy projects, with an eye to learning more about how their thinking in information visualization can be used to both improve the presentation of data and increase the likelihood of it spurring positive action.

We spent a very productive session with the team in the lab today, and already my head is filled with alternative approaches and interesting ideas: they are an insightful lot and, as I wrote the team afterwards, it was refreshing to discuss with interested others ideas that I had mostly, to this point, discussed only with myself.

Scott and I are presenting the “thingy” at the SurfNet conference later this week and I’m certain that we’ll find other opportunities for collaboration there.

I never could have imagined, when I attended a little meeting in a Charlottetown hotel, that I would end up, a decade later, pursuing the same strand, in a rich academic context.

This is the kind of thing I love doing – following stands, connecting dots, building digital connective tissue, meeting interesting people, following my curiousity.

Among other things, it has provided me with a route back into the academy after 30 years: I have finally found a way of engaging academia which, rather than being soul-dampening, as it was the first time around, is compelling in ways I never could have imagined.

Moral of the story: don’t be afraid to follow unlikely strands; they can lead you places you can’t get elsewhere.

Do stuff. Tell other people about it. Ask questions. Be patient. And see what happens.


Jonas Bengtsson 's picture
Jonas Bengtsson on October 8, 2014 - 02:57

Such a great story Peter! Very inspiring!

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