Aaron Kozloff landed his first job since graduating last December from Oberlin College managing The Environmental Dashboard. Success will hinge on an idea hatched by three of his former teachers, John Petersen, a professor in Systems Ecology, Rumi Shammin in Environmental Studies and Cindy Frantz in Social Psychology. They want to know how many of Oberlin’s 8,300 residents will alter their consumption habits if they believe they have a personal stake in the outcome?
When faced with a real-time monitor of our electric and water use, do we dial back our consumption? According to social ‘norming’ theory, knowing how we're doing relative to our peers is a stronger motivator than an aggregate count of our energy use.
First up is a video screen at the local elementary school where students are getting a lesson in reading data transmitted by sensors submerged in nearby Plum Creek, at the Oberlin wastewater treatment plant, and hooked into a power meter at the Oberlin Municipal Power and Light plant.
“The students learned when they’re not there, electricity (use) goes down,” Kozloff says. “It’s about systems thinking.”
Like the dashboard of a Prius, the Environmental Dashboard has multiple screens that illustrate the flow of water from a campus building to a treatment plant or power from the plant to a house. Counters display each resident's use. On mouse-overs, cartoons pop up information like, “The water you use in Oberlin is collected from the West branch of the Black River, into a reservoir. It is then filtered, pumped, and stored in water towers until you turn on our tap.”
The Dashboard leveraged the college connection to good effect, partnering with Prospect Elementary, the Oberlin Bonner Center, David Orr’s The Oberlin Project, and reaching the public at places like The Slow Train Cafe. The college also helped open doors to the utilities who previously set up the sensors. The start up cost is not high, he said, estimated at a couple thousand dollars for the hardware. For the display, the dashboard has relied on open source code and bootstrapping the development by hiring it out to freelancers.
“We have a team of students in our Ecological Communications class who are working with local public school teachers to develop and implement curriculum that incorporates the Dashboard,” he adds, “which we will test prior to and after the lesson to check for any changes in systems thinking and sustainable attitudes.”
For these reasons, Kozloff thinks the dashboard is scalable. Seed capital was provided by a grant from Great Lakes Protection Foundation. They were tasked with piloting it the Dashboard in Oberlin and coming up with a model that could be used in other areas.
“It did take a decent amount of manpower for the Oberlin pilot,” he admits, “However, as the project has progressed we have developed resources, and on the tech side of things open-source code, for other communities who wish to implement the Dashboard.”
Ensuring community buy-in is a definitely a critical issue to consider before implementing, he adds. Both the Dashboard’s community-based content and organization specific screens show a commitment to sustainability that Kozloff hopes will attract sponsors who can take the show on the road.