Planting seeds of sustainability on Facebook

By Nestor E. Arellano, ITBusiness.ca |  Green IT, environment, Facebook

Two Canadian university students hope to plant the seeds of sustainability on Facebook with an application that monitors power consumption and uses peer pressure and the spirit of friendly competition inherent among many gardeners to foster energy conservation.

Kevin Muise and Jin Fan of Simon Fraser University in B.C. are hoping their application -- along with a strong dose of peer pressure, and a spirit of friendly competition -- will motivate people to save energy big time.

Dubbed GreeNet, the application offers users vital information about their energy consumption patterns. Metrics are generated using data from electricity providers.

But the GreeNet system does more than dish out dull facts and stats.
It has a powerful visual component.

The system creates a "virtual garden" based on energy usage patterns. So user participation in energy-saving activities actually causes the growth of virtual foliage and flowers within that space.

That way, application users can visualize -- in a very vivid way -- the impact of their "green" behavior.

Apart from everything else, using GreeNet is a lot of fun, its creators say. That's because users get to grow an online garden on their Facebook page, with each energy-saving action triggering the growth of virtual trees and flowers.

"It's just like actual gardening," says Muise. "You see other people's gardens growing beautifully and get the urge to improve your lawn."

The GreeNet application, designed by Muise, an M.A. student, along with third-year undergraduate Fan, placed second in interface design at the recently concluded Imagine Cup technology innovation competition.

The annual contest, sponsored by Microsoft Corp., brought together around 210,000 young technologists from more than 100 countries.

Participants showcased solutions to real-world problems, according to Daniel Shapiro, product manager for platforms at Microsoft.

The contest, he said, encourages young people to come up with innovative projects that go beyond current mainstream initiatives.

Muise and Fan their motivation to work on GreeNet came from an awareness that global warming is one of the most daunting issues facing humankind today.

The two students also believe social networking sites, such as Facebook, are among the most effective vehicles for reaching out to the greatest number of people, and generating viral campaigns.

In GreeNet, each community member starts by planting a virtual seedling. That seedling will be connected to a monitor that tracks the member's hydro consumption.

The tree's growth is inversely proportionate to the member's energy consumption. As consumption decreases the tree grows, as consumption grows the tree shrinks.

Rather than seeing bland figures of their kilowatt/hr. consumption, users are treated to a visual representation of their energy usage.

The students hope this visual display, as well as seeing the progress of their peers will encourage users to alter their behavior and reduce energy consumption.

Community members can also populate their page with different colored flowers representing various social networking and energy conservation efforts.

For example, pink flowers could represent messages the user posts on the site, yellow could stand for media links, and each violet flower could symbolize an energy saving device purchased by the member.

But for GreeNet to work, Muise said, it needs the buy-in of an energy service provider. "We have opened discussions with B.C. Hydro to get the application linked to their customers billing system".

Once the link is established, the students believe it will be easy to get hydro customers to go online and sign up with GreeNet, as a large number of the users already pay their hydro bills over the Internet.

The interface also provides several marketing and advertising opportunities for green-oriented businesses.

GreeNet can serve as a space for highly targeted online ads appealing to the environmentally conscious consumer.

The application's ranking feature ties in with the business model for selling environmental products and services online. Users can compete with one another in showcasing their violet flowers, which represent energy saving products they've purchased.

There are many free online energy calculators and individual consumers as well as small and large businesses have used them to cut power bills.

Leonard Machler, an independent bio-chemistry research analyst running a consulting firm in Toronto uses the EcoAction Calculator developed by Earth Day Canada.

Machler says he started using the calculator last year to track his lifestyle. The application helped him halve his green house gas emissions, from five tons to 2.5 tons a year.

"I was able to save hundreds of dollars in one year. An organization can use this tool to cut energy expenses by the thousands."

Machler believes applications such as EcoAction and GreeNet are on the right track when they use visual images to represent users' energy consumption.

"If something is presented to you in a graphical manner, it's easier to grasp its impact."

Muise and Fan believe social networking sites that engage users and encourage them to connect with other people are creative and effective channels of disseminating information and ideas.

"If you want to instigate change, you need to talk to the youth. They are the people who one day will be the decision makers," Muise said.

"And if you want to catch young people's attention, you need to speak to them where they are -- at that's in sites such as Facebook."

Facebook's appeal to youth and its potential for viral marketing, give it a big advantage over other media, according to a Toronto-based online marketing specialist.

"Facebook is like an Internet within the Internet. Its opportunities are limitless," said Colin Smillie, a managing partner at RefreshPartners, a boutique marketing company specializing in the use of social media.

Smillie believes larger organizations, such as banks and automakers, should develop a greater Facebook presence to gain access to the site's demographic groups.

"Imagine a young consumer inviting 50 or more of his friends to download an application that's ties in with your product and those 50 kids inviting their own friends to do the same!"

Links to vendors of environmentally friendly products and services will also open up various marketing possibilities.

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