Quinzee focuses on helping users be smart about energy consumption. To do so, Quinzee presents data from smart meters in a way that educates, motivates and enables residents to make more intelligent decisions about their energy use.
MaRS Market Intelligence spoke with Faizal Karmali, Co-founder of Quinzee.
Why did you choose to launch Quinzee in Ontario?
The regulatory and political environment in Ontario is fostering energy efficiency, particularly through the Green Energy Act. And Ontario is ahead of the curve globally with the adoption of smart meters. There are smart meters on just about every single house and small business in the province. We saw this as an opportunity given there is so much energy data being collected.
What is being done with this energy data today?
A recent study by Accenture talks about how the average North American spends six to nine minutes a year looking at their energy consumption. We’re talking about an average $2,000 spent per person and it’s being looked at for six minutes. Smart meters are collecting data for utilities for the purposes of billing and energy management, but the data is not yet in the hands of consumers for their own energy management. The challenge is significant. Few consumers understand as yet what a kilowatt-hour is, although the information is available. Moreover, the market has a limited attention span and limited interest in energy. Quinzee is creating more value for utilities and their customers from the data.
Why this lack of interest from people in their energy use?
It’s because no one really connects their day-to-day behaviour with energy use. It’s just so far removed from an average’s person’s life. Sure you’ve got pockets of people who say they are very energy-conscious, but, in general, the average person does not even think about it or translate their words into action. It really boils down to our culture of excess and the fact that the effects of our overuse of energy are not visible to us.
How can data visualization help?
The current way in which data is presented requires interpretation and, considering energy use is an area of limited interest, the likelihood of that interpretation taking place is low. For Quinzee, the broader idea behind leveraging data visualization is to ensure people can rapidly interpret our data visuals. For now, we’re focused on providing quick nuggets of information that make it simple and easy for a user to act on.
What nuggets of information resonate the most with users?
We’re finding people respond the most when their energy consumption data is put into context. For example, we provide a household with averages, so that they can place themselves in context of what’s normal for them, their neighbourhood, their city, country, etc. The natural motivation for humans to be “normal” is what will drive the average energy use lower and lower.
This phenomenon is similar to what we saw with the blue box recycling program. The driver for adoption was having households put blue boxes outside: then other neighbouring households felt pressure to use one as well. There is actually a street in the UK that is adopting a similar methodology for energy consumption. All of the residents on the street have agreed to write their energy meter readings on the sidewalk. As other residents walk home, they know exactly how much better or worse their consumption is than their neighbours’. This has led to something like a 20% reduction in energy usage on that one street alone.
Will this type of social pressure be enough?
It’s only one method we intend to use. Another idea is to help people understand the aggregate of the impact their actions have. Today, we consume energy like it’s an endless resource, but that’s just not the reality of the planet. We are so far removed from the aggregate that it’s not very relevant to us on a micro level. I think one of the major goals of data visualization is to help us place our day-to-day personal behaviour and choices into greater data contexts, be it the context of a neighbourhood, a city, a province, a country or the world. Connecting individual choices and behaviour to something bigger will help people feel empowered. Eventually when someone switches off a light, they will feel like they’re actually contributing to something positive. They will understand the connection.
Who owns energy data today: utility companies or households?
The way it’s set up now is that utility companies own the data, but households have full access to it. The utility companies are working toward enabling this access, but not all of them are there yet. In the US, President Obama has undertaken what is called the Green Button initiative, which mandates all US utilities to provide energy data to the customer and enables third-party providers like Quinzee to analyze and present that data to end users.
In Ontario, MaRS is actually helping drive a similar Green Button initiative for the province. While Ontario is ahead of the game in having implemented smart meter technology, it has been leapfrogged by the US in terms of driving data transparency.
Is this a policy issue?
Not really. Ontario’s Minister of Energy has been talking about getting information back into the hands of Ontarians. It’s just been a slower process.
What is your long-term vision for the company?
Resource management is important in many sectors, and our culture of excess and indifference stands in the way of that. Quinzee aims to improve the quality of life of communities, both rural and urban, around the world. By starting in a highly educated, relatively wealthy country like Canada, we hope to prove a model that can be translated to sectors such as food, healthcare and waste. For us, Quinzee is the first of many applications that will use data and information to influence behavioural change.
Let’s use healthcare as an example. What if an individual saw the bill every time they went to see the doctor? This actually happened to one of my friends, who accidentally received a bill for his MRI service. He was shocked to see the amount. It has encouraged him to think twice the next time he feels the need visit the doctor. It’s not about changing the healthcare system; it’s about using data to drive transparency so that people can feel engaged and make informed decisions.
What are some of your favourite visualizations?
I really connect with one visualization NASA has of the world at night where the lights are on everywhere. With just one glance you can see how well-lit a certain city is, and how much power countries are using.
GE has also done some spectacular work with their visualizations. We look to what GE has done with visualizations as motivation for how we would like to share some of our information.