GreenTech Media just released two interesting op-ed pieces by John Pitcher and Rob “Father of LEED” Watson about how energy dashboards aren’t the low-cost panacea many enviro-folks are touting them to be. In fact, he goes so far as to say the touted values of energy dashboards is largely a delusion. (click here for part 1 and here for part 2).
From my experience rolling out pretty energy dashboards to various clients, I would have to agree with most of his points. I’ll explain why in the next few sections but before I do here is a quick summary of the delusions and reality checks that Pitcher and Watson point out:
Dashboards Can Be A Call To Action, But Don’t Provide Action Themselves
One of Pitcher and Watson’s central points is that “the value of a dashboard tool is only as much as the time people are willing to take to use it and the ability of users to understand and follow up on the information they provide.” This seems an obvious point yet I’m surprised how often clients who pay money (and I mean BIG money) for energy dashboards seem to ignore this point. Some common complaints I hear are
“I don’t know how to use it, can you just tell me what it says”
Presumably, a large part of why many clients pay for energy dashboards is to be able to dig into their data. If they just wanted a report they shouldn’t have paid for an energy dashboard that continuously updates their usage data over time.
Of course, one reason for using an energy dashboard may be cost savings: they don’t want or have the resources to pay for a full-time professional whose main job is to analyze its energy usage (like a building manager). Another part of this is that they may be the only ones who can analyze what they want to analyze. For example, a housing finance agency may be the only organization that can look at all the buildings it is funding energy efficiency work in to see what the return on investment is.
So while energy dashboard makers can do their best to make the tools as user friendly as possible, in the end every tool involves some learning curve to use well.
“I think the data might be wrong. Can you fix this for me?”
Energy dashboards are only as useful as the data that comes in. Junk in, junk out. Unfortunately in most cases the data comes from a utility rather than the client’s own sensors. For a client that is aggregating bills from thousands of utility meters it’s near impossible to examine each monthly read and see if the reading is wrong. But again, this isn’t something that the energy dashboard provider can fix unless you’re paying the dashboard provider to audit and fix your bills as well. And fixing bills opens up a whole can of worms about what is wrong and what isn’t,which can be problematic if someone is using the dashboard to determine federal funding, promotions, etc.
“This isn’t categorizing things in the way I want them to!”
This issue is again tied to the “not wanting to learn a new tool” syndrome. Two common reasons this problem arises is that the system defaults don’t categorize buildings/tenants/etc the way the user wants them to, or that the person paying for the dashboard has a different category scheme than the user. Either way the final outcome is that reports don’t come appear in a way that the user wants. Since the user never bothers to try to fix this data or can’t fix this data because the categories have been imposed on him, he hates the dashboards and finds them useless. As with implementation of most software systems this is because a process is missing between the user and whoever commissioned the system in the first place. Unless the payer works closely with the energy dashboard provider to customize the system to the user’s needs, we run into this problem. But because energy dashboards are supposed to be low cost they often don’t want to pay for this up-front development.
Energy Dashboard Providers Often Don’t Have Building Backgrounds
Energy Dashboard IT providers are typically comprised of IT professionals. Users are typically building people (building managers, building financiers, property managers, etc.). What is easy to implement or cool to look at may not at all be useful to building managers. For example, it wouldn’t surprise me if most building managers just wanted a yearly or quarterly written report identifying any findings they should pay attention to. But because energy dashboard vendors are trying to sell energy dashboards they don’t find this out (or they don’t want to find this out). So there’s a huge disconnect. In the end, as Pitcher and Watson point out, it’s “skilled professionals” that save energy, not “technologies or tools.”
Dashboards are the Answer To An Undefined Question
Microsoft and Google experimented with providing people free residential energy dashboards. The promise of free, user friendly tools to monitor your energy usage sounded like a sure win. Yet they didn’t gain traction and both companies eventually canceled the services. Why? The little effort required to use them still didn’t equal the value most people believed they gained.
In other words, as Pitcher and Watson point out, energy dashboard providers didn’t ask the right question.
What is the right question? In most of my interactions with clients, they don’t really care about energy use. Or if they say they do, it’s not energy use that they care directly about per se, but something related to energy use. Like how much they’re spending. Or how they’re doing in greenhouse gas emissions compared to what legislative mandates say they need to achieve to get another round of funding. Asking these questions can lead dashboard providers to provide better reports (online dashboard, written reports, or otherwise) while not overselling their benefits.
What Can Mint.com, Groupon, and OPower Teach Most Energy Dashboard Companies?
In two words: A lot. This ties into two final points Pitcher and Watson make in their op-eds: “Energy dashboards should be designed to be as simple as possible, providing a concise actionable result with the least complication” and “customers need to understand the commitment in both time and effort that is needed to take advantage of the tools they purchase.”
Briefly here are some insights I think each of these web companies can provide.
Mint.com: summarized calls to action and minimal data input
As a mint fanatic, I love how I don’t have to do much to input my spending data. In the past, I did this entry by entry in a spreadsheet. With mint, I only have to do this for cash spending, which is a small amount of my spending. Any dashboard provider that asks the user to enter his or her data is asking for trouble.
Additionally, I love how mint provides email updates when I’m over budget, or when a bill is coming out. These emails provide a strong call to action (“spend less on fast food this month!”, “your credit card bill is due in 7 days!”)
Opower: starts a discussion
Even if the accuracy of its happy/smiley faces is controversial, no one can deny the success of OPower in the energy efficiency space. Opower provides a monthly call to action about your energy usage in terms of good or bad. While you may disagree or think the results are useless, they nonetheless start a discussion and make you think about your energy usage, which may be all they need to do.
Groupon: gives you a curated call to action to physically do something
People may be getting oversaturated with Groupon clones, but there’s no denying that Groupon tapped into a strong human desire to try something new on the cheap. The fact that it was originally curated to just have one discount for that day made its call to action loud and clear, and your follow up was obvious. Energy dashboard providers need to provide the same things to make these systems useful.
What do you think about Pitchers and Watson’s points? Do you think energy dashboards are close to fulfilling their promises or have they been failures for the most part?