The State of Green Business: Sustainability goes app crazy

As data increasingly spews from everything — buildings, vehicles, transit systems, cash registers and potentially every light fixture, switch, plug and machine — there’s a growing opportunity to capture it and make it useful for consumers and professionals. Some of it is making its way into apps.

App, of course, is short for “application software.” As anyone with a smartphone, tablet or PC knows, apps come in a vast assortment of flavors: utilities, games, social networking, shopping, productivity, communications, remote monitoring and more. Lots more.

The growth of apps mirrors some of sustainability’s other technology trends — the sharing economy, the smart grid, machine-to-machine communications. All are about data. Big Data: unprecedented and unfathomable volumes of 1s and 0s traversing our world, informing our (and our machines’) decisions about how to achieve the most with the least while addressing everyone’s needs. Energy, water, waste, toxics, carbon — the future of all of these things is linked in large part to how, and how well, we can measure, track, monitor and optimize their flows. And that’s all about data, and the apps that make it useful.

In a world where the perception of clean technology is that it largely “failed” — witness the bankrupt startups and lost investments and (in the U.S., at least) the toxic political conversation that emerged about clean tech during 2012 — apps may be its saving grace. Many of the most promising startups in clean tech focus on devices and apps that enable individuals, households, businesses and cities to use data to improve their energy and environmental footprint.

Sustainability-related apps cover the gamut of topics and audiences — and professionalism. A random sampling: greenMeter (pictured above; computes your vehicle's power and fuel use, and evaluates your driving to increase efficiency), JouleBug (a social, mobile game that rewards players for reducing energy waste), AirStat.us (a free, daily air quality alert for your city), iRecycle (access to more than 1.5 million ways to dispose of stuff), iGo Vampire Power Calculator (shows how much energy the electronics in your home use and cost), PEV4me (calculates the financial and environmental impacts of driving plug-in electric vehicles), Light Bulb Finder (shows how to switch from conventional light bulbs to energy-saving equivalents with the same fit, style and light quality), and GoodGuide (provides health, environmental and social performance ratings for consumer products).

A number of apps take advantage of the Green Button program, launched in 2012 by California utilities but quickly championed by the White House. It standardizes the delivery of energy data from utilities to enable energy users to analyze and optimize their energy use. Green Button was designed as a catalyst to create an ecosystem for software developers to produce new services and products. That ecosystem seems to be emerging. Dozens of apps now exist that allow consumers and businesses to download data and interpret it in a variety of ways. Examples include VELObill, Distributed Energy Calculator, GreenSuite and eTester.

Some of these come from big companies; Wiser EMS, for example, is a Green Button app from the North American division of Schneider Electric, the giant French electric engineering company. Another giant, Alcoa, created Aluminate, an app to facilitate recycling aluminum cans. Other apps are part of the gamification strategy of companies like Recyclebank and Opower, whose businesses focus on using Web- and mobile-based game technology to engage consumers and small businesses in being more environmentally responsible. Many of these apps come from small startups — so-called “Cleanweb” companies — harnessing data and apps as a profitable enterprise. Still others come from nonprofits and government agencies seeking to promote and enable environmental behaviors.

And a few emerge from the growing number of “hackathons” — events in which computer programmers, graphic designers, user-interface experts and others collaborate over a short period — typically a day or a weekend — on software projects. Hackathons are being sponsored by cities, nonprofits and for-profits, and tend to have a specific focus. Some have sustainability as a key driver.

Consider Hack City, the hackathon held during 2012 by GreenBiz Group as part of its VERGE SF conference. The weekendlong event brought together several dozen participants who self-organized into teams and went to work. Their goal was to use data sets and programming tools to create apps that could transform users’ energy consumption. The data and tools for Hack City were provided by General Motors’ OnStar division, Johnson Controls and the city of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment as well as the city’s SFPark office. The teams competed to design apps, which at the end of the weekend went before a panel of judges who awarded cash prizes to winning teams. (You can view a brief video of the event on this page.)

And then there’s Facebook, the mother of all platforms, which passed the billion-member mark during 2012. It also hired its first sustainability executive: Bill Weihl, formerly the “energy czar” at Google. Part of Weihl’s mission at Facebook is to find ways to tap the company’s massive network to promote environmental behaviors. Companies like Opower and Recyclebank already use Facebook’s platform, but — like everything in the online world — there’s almost limitless room for others.

Should Facebook and its ilk succeed in massively growing global markets for green behaviors, they will certainly rank among sustainability’s biggest champions. It’s still too early to assess that potential, but there’s growing recognition that apps and online platforms are one potent way sustainability finally reaches the mainstream.