Microsoft: Democratizing data to protect the planet

Much conversation around the greening of information technology is, frankly, boring. Energy-efficient data centers, PCs that sleep automatically, cloud computing that uses server capacity more efficiently–all important, to be sure, but dull.

What’s more intriguing are the ways IT is being used to attack big environmental problems.

IBM has gotten lots of attention, and rightfully so, for its Smarter Planet campaign, in which data is used to help unclog traffic congestion or develop new types of biodegradable, biocompatible plastics. Google has its power meter, which helps consumers manage energy consumption, and RechargeIT, an effort to speed the adoption of electric cars. Not to be outdone, Microsoft has developed several consumer-friendly services that use the power of data to save energy and preserve the environment.

Hohm helps homeowners save energy and money. Bing maps with real-time traffic information help commuters avoid fuel-wasting traffic congestion. Eye on Earth, currently available only in Europe, provides gives citizens air and water quality information they can use to protect their health, and to become more politically active.

04-21Bernard_lg“This is about the democratization of information,” says Rob Bernard, Microsoft’s chief environmental strategist. The company is taking data that was previously unavailable, or available only to specialists or insiders, repackaging and distributing it. “We’re one of a very small number of companies that can have a massive impact,” he says.

Rob, who became MSFT’s first environmental strategist in 2007, oversees, coordinates and promotes a slew of activities inside and outside of the company, from the compostable plates in the company cafeteria to fieldwork by researchers who analyze the decline of salmon in the Russian River basin. He spoke last year at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference and we met again last month at Greenbiz’s State of Green Business forum in San Francisco.

06-24niagara_homepage_lgHohm was introduced last June. Using analytical tools licensed from the the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Energy, the online application enables consumers to understand their energy costs, save money and reduce pollution. The software is easy to use in the sense that it’s intuitive. It’s time-consuming, though, most people have to enter their energy bills manually, and answer nearly 200 (!) questions that, if you’re like me, require some research. (Do you know the square footage of your house, or what year it was built? I don’t.) I confess that I gave up about halfway through the signup process, mostly because I’m already well aware of simple ways to cut my energy costs, like plugging leaks around windows where the wind seems to whips into our house in winter. I’ve been meaning to caulk for months, but for some reason the job never rises to the top of my to-do list.

If, however, you are a customer of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Seattle City Light or Xcel Energy in places where those utilities have signed on as partners, the software will take less time to set up, automatically import your bills and help you track your costs. Hohm is likely to get more useful and “smarter” over time, as more utilities sign up, more users input data and smart meters help customers better understand and manage their energy usage. (Think about how much more useful Quicken or Turbo Tax once you can import data from your bank or mutual funds.) You can read more here at the Hohm blog.

LARGEBing traffic maps, meanwhile, make it easier and quicker to plan your morning commute. While other online maps incorporate traffic data, Microsoft says that its technology, called Clearflow, which took four years for its research labs to develop, uses machine-learning techniques to reflect the adaptations drivers make as congestion spills from freeways onto city streets. The New York Times covered the innovation in this blogpost; what’s significant is that without the sophisticated software, drivers would be left to their own devices to navigate clogged traffic, wasting time and fuel in the process. Google, by the way, has just added bike routes to its maps.

Eye on Earth is explicitly a green product, developed by MSFT in cooperation with the European Environment Agency. It provides official, real-time data on air and water quality for hundreds of locations across Europe, as well as user-generated ratings, which don’t always match. (The EU said today that air quality in Copenhagen was “good,” but 66 local people rated it moderate and some called it “smelly” and “irritating.”) Bernard says Eye on Earth visualizes existing information in a way that makes it user-friendly.  “You take a bunch of data that’s hidden in spreadsheets that probably five people in the world could understand, and democratize it,” he says. “It encourages citizen action.”

None of these are world-changing technologies, but they all reflect the can-do spirit of the IT industry in general and Microsoft in particular. It’s no stretch to believe that the people who gave use the PC and Internet revolutions over the last couple of decades will drive the clean energy/climate revolution that we so badly need now.

Eye on Earth

Eye on Earth

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