Do you ever wonder how much energy you could save if you took the stairs instead of the elevator? Or how about if you unplugged your chargers and reduced your TV-watching time? Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that these questions have even crossed your mind. In an effort to increase consumers’ awareness of their environmental impact, Professor Nancy Wong from UW-Madison’s School of Human Ecology has created an app that allows people to track their daily energy use.
MyEarth - Track your carbon savings is an Android and iOS app designed to monitor your energy usage and savings in an “energy diary.” Users select activities and tasks they will do each day and, as they complete each item from their diary’s list, the app calculates the total carbon they have saved. Users can then view their profile to examine consumption patterns over the time since they began using the app.
“I like to think of it as a useful educational tool,” Wong said, noting that when people go about their daily lives they often aren’t consciously thinking about how their actions are affecting the environment. The MyEarth - Track your carbon savings was designed to make it easier for consumers to realize just how much energy they use every day and “to make people realize, you know, little steps done on a daily basis can amount to a lot, and it matters,” Wong said.
As users complete tasks and save carbon, not only does a graph depict their energy-saving patterns over the week, but they can visually see the impact of these savings as the miniscule iceberg a cute polar bear clings to begins to grow. With this visualization, Wong hopes the app is helping consumers understand that making daily energy-saving changes does have a positive impact. “People need to be able to feel a sense of progress,” she said and the growth of the iceberg represents this.
To determine which activities to include in the app’s list, Wong looked through research studies to see what sorts of things people often do to be more sustainable. She then hired Andy Stevens, a graduate student in the environmental science program, as her research assistant to determine the amount of carbon that was saved by doing each of these things. With a focus on “typical college undergrads,” the current activity options you can add to your diary are somewhat limited to things students could do in their everyday lives, but the developers plan to add more activities as the reach of the app continues to expand. As of our interview, the app has about 1,200 users, half in the U.S. and others as far off as Hong Kong, China, where the app has even been translated into Chinese. Wong also said that in Taiwan alone the app has over 100 users. The app was only released two weeks prior, April 20, so the surprising global reach of the app is encouraging for the creators, who hope that their user base will continue to grow.
“The most important thing is to keep engaging people to use it,” Wong said. To do so, the team plans to release a future update that will allow users to compare their carbon savings to one another and share their energy usage via social media. Other updates will offer a daily reminder setting and will include a calculations tab to inform app users of what metrics are used to determine the amount of carbon a certain task saves. Working with John Meurer, the computer science student who does most of the app’s programming, Wong also plans to introduce new graphics such as little bushes growing into a tree and eventually becoming a forest to represent the amount of carbon users have saved.
As users watch their carbon savings rise, Wong wants the app to serve as a behavioral aid that will inspire consumers to continue to change their daily habits to save even more energy. Each action has an impact and MyEarth - Track your carbon savings aims to demonstrate the significance of such.
“I recognize the fact that it is not possible for us not to consume at all. We need to consume in order to survive, there’s no denying that,” Wong said. “But maybe the app will help us consume more wisely in a more sustainable way, and that’s really all that I hope to achieve.”