Category Archives: Environmental

Work in progress: Ambient audible energy data

The three instruments you hear here represent the electricity use of three items of office infrastructure – the kettle, a laser printer, and a gang socket for a row of desks – in the Helen Hamlyn Centre office over 12 hours from midnight on a Sunday to lunchtime on a Monday, in December, monitored using CurrentCost IAMs. The figures were scaled to provide ranges that sounded better, and converted into a MIDI file using John Walker’s csvmidi and then Aria Maestosa.

The ‘ticks’ indicate each hour’s passing. The ‘honk’ (Tenor Sax) is the kettle (up to 1.5kW when in use). The ‘whine’ (Synth Brass 1) is the Kyocera laser printer. The other synth (Polysynth) is the gang socket, which mainly had a couple of laptops (15W-50W) plugged into it when people were in the office, and a charger (1W) plugged into it otherwise . Lower pitch indicates greater electricity use, hence the high-pitched whine is the background power of the printer (about 10W on standby, rising to 300W-500W when in use).

As the audio starts, you can hear, over the background whine of the printer, the kettle come on as the security guard makes himself a middle-of-the-night cup of tea. Then, early in the morning, the kettle is used three times by the cleaners – twice in quick succession (reboiling?) and then once again. Suddenly, from 9.30, as office staff arrive, the kettle goes on again, laptops are plugged in, the printer starts printing and the energetic hubbub of office life becomes apparent.

Sound of the Office

Data sonification has been in the news a bit recently, from Domenico Vicinanza’s ‘Sound of Space Discovery’ to Opower’s ‘Chicago in the Wintertime’. It’s something that’s long intrigued me, but if I’m honest, has underwhelmed me in terms of either its actual utility or indeed its impact aesthetically. A (visual) graph is useful because I can use it to find something out. A table of numbers, likewise, even if patterns are less immediately evident. But a beautiful orchestral piece that just happens to draw on aggregated data which are a long way from anything I can comprehend, in scale or meaning, doesn’t tell me anything, somehow. Sarah Angliss was pretty much spot-on in this 2011 Mad Art Lab post.

Energy use is the focus of one of the main projects I’m working on, and one of the strongest findings that came out of interviews and co-creation work with householders that Flora Bowden and I did last summer and autumn was the notion that the invisibility of energy was a major component of householders’ lack of understanding, which contributed – by their own admission – to energy waste.

More than one person specifically suggested that being able to ‘listen’ to whether appliances were switched on or not, and, more interestingly, what state they were in (e.g. listening to a washing machine will give you a good idea as to where it is in its cycle), was potentially more useful for understanding how to reduce energy use than a flashy visual display or dashboard. Sound is potentially even more ‘glanceable’ than glanceables. Even hearing what you’d left on as you went out of the door would be useful. There are echoes of Mark Weiser’s Calm Technology including Natalie Jeremijenko’s Live Wire (Dangling String) but also the ‘useful side-effects’ of things like the ‘clacking’ sound of mechanical railway departure boards as an indicator that the display has updated, as Adrian McEwen and Hakim Cassimally point out in their excellent Designing the Internet of Things.

We also explored aspects of this idea further in our Seeing Things project with RCA students back in November, with contributors including Dave Cranmer and Dagny Rewera having an audio/visual sensory translation element to their work. Of the participants, Ted Hunt took an explicitly multi-sensory approach with his project, including audio, while Francesco Tacchini, with Julinka Ebhardt and Will Yates-Johnson, subsequently went on to create the incredible Space Replay where audio is both monitored and played back in public space.

I’m not saying the ‘Sound of the office’ audio above is particularly good. It was more of a let’s-play-around-with-some-data experiment, and I’ve since found that proper sonification platforms exist. But the approach is something I very much want to explore and build on – possibly whole-house energy use audio disaggregated by appliance, or by activity – and it raises so many interesting questions around what is most useful or most effective at actually either influencing energy use, or helping people understand the complex systems around them. Should it be aesthetically pleasing, or horrible enough it triggers you to turn things off? Is that just the kind of over-simplification that makes most energy monitor displays ineffective? Should the audio be real-time or provide a summary? Should it be paired with visuals? (e.g. like Alexander Chen’s beautiful MTA.ME or Listen to Bitcoin / Listen to Wikipedia) How much should it try to be ‘music’ versus, basically an ‘auditory affordance’ or alarm system? Should there be something about the quality of the sound that indicates something, e.g. load on the National Grid? (Thanks to Aideen McConville and Jack Kelly for this suggestion.)

The field is interesting partly because, post-PhD, I’ve come to realise that what I’m interested in is not so much the question of “how do we influence behaviour?” as an end in itself, but something more like “how do people understand complex systems of which their behaviour is a part, and how do we help them understand those systems better?”. There’s a substantial blog post coming on that, which hopefully draws together lots of interests and ideas, from the IoT to heuristics to seamfulness to affordances to mental models, and (I hope) will set out a kind of research programme which I might be able to get some funding for. But in the meantime, this is certainly part of the direction we’re going in with the ‘energy feedback’ part of the RCA’s work on the SusLab project. It’s going to be ambient, and it’s going to involve more than just numbers and graphs.

Direct link for MP3 file
Sound of the Office

Designing with people in sustainability and behaviour change research: DRS 2014 Workshop, 15 June 2014

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On 15 June, at the 2014 Design Research Society conference in Umeå, Sweden, we will be running a workshop on Designing with people in sustainability and behaviour change research along with SusLab project colleagues from Chalmers University of Technology and the Wuppertal Institute.

This full-day workshop should be of interest to designers and researchers working at intersections of sustainability and ‘behaviour change’—two major current themes across product, service and architectural design and human-computer interaction.

We hope we can learn from each other—we want participants to share methods, ideas, stories ‘from the field’ and needs and possibilities arising from ongoing and future projects, through group exercises, presentations and re-enactments; over the day, we’ll collect these insights in a structured format, matching needs, methods and case studies with potentially applicable behavioural design techniques. This will be then published online as a guide for researchers, but also to inform others working on sustainability and behaviour change—including in a policy context—of design research’s value in this area.

While technology is important, people (whether or not we call them ‘users’) are key to the environmental and social challenges of design in everyday life. Understanding people—and the contexts and social practices of living and working—is crucial. Without these insights, work on sustainability risks being based on assumptions about human behaviour and decision-making which may not capitalise on the opportunities design offers.

In the workshop, we’ll be exploring methods for involving and including people better in design research for sustainability and behaviour change—designing with people. These include ethnographic methods, participatory design and co-creation, prototyping, probes and provocations, and integrating qualitative and quantitative data. We’ll discuss aspects distinguishing sustainability and energy research from general user research—how can specialist knowledge best be used?

Here’s our proposal for reference (PDF)—the details may change slightly.

Taking part

To take part in the workshop, you need to be registered for the conference (you can’t register separately for the workshops), and also submit a case study (see below) directly to us – email dan.lockton@rca.ac.uk – by 1 April. We will let you know your acceptance by 15 April, which is also the cut-off date for the early bird conference fee, so we’ll try to make sure we let you know a few days before this.

Here’s information on the DRS 2014 workshops and how to register.

Submitting a case study

We would like participants to put together brief case studies (approx 2-4 pages) of methods, ideas and stories ‘from the field’ about research relating to behaviour, people’s interaction with products, services or environments, with either a sustainability perspective or relating to other areas of social benefit. These do not have to be formal papers, but they can be if you wish. Key things to include are:

  • how you framed the problem you were investigating, or what you were trying to find out
  • how/why you chose the research methods you did
  • how they worked in practice – how did the results inform your design process?
  • how you would improve the methods

Ideally, we would like you to bring to the workshop (or at least have images of) some of the actual artefacts / tools involved. For example, if you used a form of design probe, be prepared to talk through the details of it.

Please also include, again briefly, some needs and possibilities you see arising from ongoing and future projects: what kinds of questions are you going to need to answer?

The point of the workshop is collectively to share and learn from each other’s methods and experience, so our main criteria for selecting participants will be based on a) making sure we have a diverse set of people, methods and contexts represented, and b) making sure we keep the workshop to a reasonable number of participants to allow easier discussion and group work over the day.

Please send your case study to dan.lockton@rca.ac.uk by 1 April. We will let you know whether you’ve been accepted by 15 April, hopefully before.

Organisers

Dan Lockton, Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, Royal College of Art, UK
Flora Bowden, SustainRCA, Royal College of Art, UK
Sara Renström, Design & Human Factors, Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden
Anneli Selvefors, Design & Human Factors, Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden
Pernilla Hagbert, Homes for Tomorrow, Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden
Carolin Baedeker, Sustainable Production & Consumption, Wuppertal Institute, Germany
Najine AmeliSustainable Production & Consumption, Wuppertal Institute, Germany

 

Guest post at Ethnography Matters

ethno-to-web21 Over at the excellent Ethnography Matters we have an invited guest post about SusLab, explaining the RCA’s work on the project so far through from an ethnographic perspective. From the conclusion:

…we hope to demonstrate, in the context of the wider political, academic and commercial debate over energy and behaviour change, what it means to design with people, rather than for people.

This is something that’s lacking from much of the behaviour change work that’s going on across sectors, both academically and commercially: the value of involving people in the process. Ethnography is a major part of this, and can provide powerful insights into opportunities for developing new products and services that actually take account of the real contexts of people’s lives and everyday decision-making—in lots of areas, not just energy use.

If you’re interested in the links between qualitative and quantitative research in this kind of field – as well as others where the buzzword is ‘big data’ – I particularly recommend Tricia Wang’s ‘Big Data needs Thick Data’ from earlier last year, also on Ethnography Matters.

What’s the future of the UK’s energy? 12 February

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On Wednesday, 12 February, we’ll be presenting our work on SusLab so far as part of What’s the future of the UK’s energy?, the next event in the RCA’s Sustain talks series, alongside some big names in sustainability policy and design.

By 2050, we could get all the energy we want from safe and clean guaranteed renewable sources. The decisions we make now are likely to impact the trajectory of global warming, climate change, our ability to grow food, how we do business or heat our homes for the next 100 years. Leader of the Green Party for England and Wales, Natalie Bennett; Forum for the Future’s community energy and finance specialist, Will Dawson; and Dyson-Award winning design engineer Sam Etherington explore this future from community-owned energy and renewable wave power to political mindsets and weaning the economy off fossil fuels. With SustainRCA’s consumer energy research project, SusLab. This event will be chaired by Aniol Esteban, New Economics Foundation.

If you’re interested, please do sign up at Eventbrite. The event is free, and takes place at the RCA’s Battersea Campus, from 6.30 – 8.30pm, 12 February.

Update: Here’s a review of the evening by Zara Arshad, and a couple of photos of Flora and Dan presenting.

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Home Energy Hackday: the results

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On Saturday 9th November, about 35 designers, developers, makers, researchers and other interesting people came together at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre. We had everyone from energy startups to service designers, venture capital to building performance and energy consultants, along with participants from our SusLabNWE partner organisations, Chalmers (Gothenburg) and Imperial College London. (Full list of people who signed up).

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The hackday brought together both more ‘technological’ and more ‘human’ perspectives on energy use in the home, with a range of interests, experience and expertise.

As such, while we had a table of electronic prototyping bits – and more brought by participants, and kindly lent by Imperial -  groups were free to use whatever methods they liked to explore, prototype and demonstrate their ideas, including digital and paper prototyping.

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And they did: over the course of 12 hours of intensive (but hopefully fun) work, teams addressed two quite broad briefs / themes arising from our co-creation work with householders earlier this summer and autumn:

In/visibility of energy

▶ Householders have told us that not being able to ‘see’ the energy they use (and what’s actually using it) limits their ability to change how they use it. This doesn’t just mean visualisation via numbers and graphs – what could be new ways of communicating energy? Following on from this, are there opportunities for more ambient (e.g. audio) interfaces for energy use?

Thermal comfort

▶ Heating uses the largest proportion of energy in homes, but the area of thermal comfort is complex and it is not as simple as merely turning down the thermostat. Can we look at this question not directly through temperature, but instead from the perspective of householders’ comfort and their sense of control over the home environment?

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Seeing Things: The projects

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Visualising invisible patterns in human behaviours and environmental conditions

Go straight to the projects

On Friday 1 November, in the Senior Common Room at the Royal College of Art, twenty students from twelve different courses presented the outcomes of their week-long Seeing Things projects to invited guests, including participants in other AcrossRCA projects run by Sustain and the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design. AcrossRCA is a week-long programme of cross-disciplinary working at the RCA, bringing together students and staff with different expertise, interests and perspectives to collaborate on a wide range of briefs.

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