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Zapping Greenhouse Gases, One Zip Code at a Time

Urban EcoMap, an easy-to-use Internet-based tool, enables cities around the world to provide smarter climate-change information for their citizens - encouraging residents and businesses to reduce their carbon footprint.

April 22, 2009

By Jenny Carless

"Cities + residents + real-time information = greenhouse gas reduction." It may not be as elegant as, say, "e=mc2," but this equation holds the key to beating one of mankind's greatest challenges: global warming.

Urban EcoMap, a pilot online tool that gathers and disseminates information on the major contributors of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by zip code, is putting this game-changing equation to work: it gives cities a way to help their citizens take action.

Announced today, Urban EcoMap shows city residents, in real time, the collective results of their individual climate-change actions and how they affect the environment. The project is a collaborative effort led by the City of San Francisco's Department of the Environment and Cisco's Internet Business Solutions Group (IBSG), the company's strategic global consulting arm.

"We will only get residents to change their behaviors in ways that reduce greenhouse gas emissions when they can visualize the difference they're making," says Jared Blumenfeld, director of San Francisco's Department of the Environment. "This is exactly what Urban EcoMap does: for the first time, a San Francisco city resident can see his or her zip code's carbon footprint. We believe this will help motivate people to start doing more to reduce that footprint."

Taking Action on GHG Reduction

Urban EcoMap is an Internet-based public mapping system that provides dynamic, real-time information to San Francisco residents on the community's progress toward meeting its GHG-reduction goals (20 percent by 2012).

It also presents San Franciscans with the most useful, locally available tools and resources for reducing their carbon footprint. These include public transit ridership, alternative fuel vehicle ownership, bicycle usage, tree coverage, recycling rates, per-capita energy use, energy efficiency and certified "green" businesses.

Urban EcoMap amasses this information in two ways:

  • Discover Your City's Neighborhoods: This visual display highlights data that can be compared by zip code as well as among cities.
  • Take Climate Actions: Citizens can view and select actions based on the level of effort required to make the change, the associated cost or financial benefit, and the environmental impact of the action.

With the Urban EcoMap pilot, Cisco IBSG has created a global, open-standards approach that allows people to contribute and share eco-data – via any application or device, just as they would "publish" data on the Internet. The open platform encourages collaboration and innovation: as the tool develops, data from wide-ranging sources will be uploaded and shared on the website, and users will be able to create and add applications on their own.

Changing Behavior through Increased Awareness

Building awareness, fostering a sense of community connection and responsibility, and providing actions for citizens to take will help reduce GHG in cities.

"A major challenge in motivating people to address climate change has been that individuals don't really know what their impact is," notes Wolfgang Wagener, director, Connected Urban Development (CUD), Cisco IBSG. CUD is an initiative to develop and use innovative business models that address challenges in urban sustainability. "Existing tools tend to create 'what if?' scenarios rather than demonstrating concretely the real impact of someone's daily actions.

"But research shows that consumers' behavior changes when they get better access to personal information," he continues. "For example, a recent study by Oxford University demonstrated that real-time feedback on citizens' energy consumption resulted in a 5 to 15 percent reduction in their energy use."

San Francisco and Cisco IBSG found similar data in feedback from the year-long pilot for their Connected Bus, which provides riders with real-time travel information such as bus locations, wait times and other helpful information that makes it easier to ride the bus. About half of users reported that this information and core functionality encouraged them to take the bus more frequently, thus reducing their carbon footprint.

Engaging Citizens

This new online tool puts Cisco's vision of using technology to manage environmental challenges into action.

To create Urban EcoMap, Cisco, San Francisco and CUD collaborated with an ecosystem of companies and organizations including Arup, CH2M HILL, NASA and the Swiss Institute of Technology Zurich. Together, participants designed Urban EcoMap to engage citizens effectively and give them a suite of tools and a set of data in one place that they normally wouldn't be able to access on their own.

Urban EcoMap's open architecture can serve as a platform to deliver many different intelligent urban services, thereby streamlining a city's diverse information flows. As cities around the world increasingly use the network as a fourth utility for integrated city management, better quality of life for citizens and economic development, the many technologies they employ can contribute to the growing wealth of data in Urban EcoMap.

That open architecture is also the key to adding user-generated content easily.

"Look at what has happened with all the different iPhone applications," Blumenfeld says. "That's what we envision Urban EcoMap becoming: a platform that people will design for, so you can get your Facebook applications, your widgets – all the things that creative and innovative people will come up with to help make this fly even better than it already does."

"We will only get residents to change their behaviors in ways that reduce greenhouse gas emissions when they can visualize the difference they're making. This is exactly what Urban EcoMap does: for the first time, a San Francisco city resident can see his or her zip code's carbon footprint. We believe this will help motivate people to start doing more to reduce that footprint."

— Jared Blumenfeld, director of San Francisco's Department of the Environment.

The Urban EcoMap team is working with utility, transportation and waste management companies to develop applications and with social networking sites to facilitate the addition of user-generated information.

Mobile applications already exist. For example, Ecorio, one of the companies with which the team is working in the mobile space, has created an application that provides the carbon footprint of a user's travel behavior. When a city resident travels around town, the application senses whether the trip is by car, via public transportation or by bicycle – and then feeds real-time data showing the GHG effects of that trip into Urban EcoMap.

Comparing GHGs by Zip Code

The Urban EcoMap pilot announced today is just the beginning. San Francisco, a founding CUD partner, is leading the effort, but other cities will be able to follow its model.

It will be an ongoing, evolving platform – encompassing municipalities around the globe, bringing in more innovation partners and user-generated content as well as increasing Urban EcoMap's functionality over time. The project's next step will bring CUD partner cities Seoul and Amsterdam on board.

"Soon, we'll be able to compare a zip code in Seoul with one in San Francisco, using the same data," Blumenfeld explains. "That really is a significant innovation. Imagine the combined effect, when people around the world can make these comparisons with any other neighborhood in any other city."

A Game-Changer

Because cities produce 80 percent of GHG emissions worldwide, they present the largest opportunity for innovation and social behavior changes.

"Today, the entire dialogue around addressing climate change focuses on what countries can do – but countries, absent cities, really can't do very much," Blumenfeld points out. "Cities control everything from transportation planning to recycling to energy-related building codes."

One million people each week move to cities around the world. Those municipalities, however, currently have neither the required data nor the citizen buy-in to make the necessary dent in GHG production. Urban EcoMap will change that.

"Our intent is that Urban EcoMap will start people thinking about how to move the climate-change agenda forward and will address the huge need for this kind of information on a local level," Blumenfeld says. "We want this to be a game-changer, and we will continue to work on it until it is."

Jenny Carless is a freelance writer located in Santa Cruz, CA.

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