Clean Tech

Techies Asked to Fix NYC’s Ancient Power Grid, Actual Rocket Scientists Needed

The winner of this hackathon is headed to the White House to present their plan for solving our energy crisis.
Teams gather at the Energy Jam to figure out what to do with sloppy infrastructure data. (Photo by Jack Smith IV)

Teams gather at the Energy Jam to figure out what to do with sloppy infrastructure data. (Photo by Jack Smith IV)

In a dark conference hall lined with carafes dripping coffee unworthy of the name, a group of engineers, academics, brokers and analysts gathered around a dismal pile of spreadsheets. You wouldn’t think you were at Google’s New York headquarters, except that Google representatives were on standby to make sure no one ventured from the hall into the rest of the building.

Hefty stacks of NYC’s utility infrastructure data awaited them. This hackathon’s mission: to solve the problem of energy inefficiency in New York City. The event was a “Data Jam” — a fun and bouncy term for a big data hackathon — organized by energy data startup EnerKnol as a part of New York Energy Week.

“The data by itself is almost useless, it doesn’t do any good unless you do something with it,” Mr. Davis said. “It takes people in this room to connect data to industry issues.”

Energy data is particularly clunky, considering it’s generated by enormous utility companies working with age-old power grids. And as anyone who pays a utility bill in New York knows, issues of energy efficiency hit people in their own home every month when that bill arrives.

“If New Yorkers can consume less energy, it saves them money,” Mr. Davis said. “The number one way to get someone’s attention is with their money.”

But another way to inspire excitement about energy data is to scare them. It went mostly unsaid at the Data Jam on Wednesday, but a large reason companies like Con Edison are interested in infrastructure tech is extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy.

It was Sandy that got city managers and politicians interested in bringing New York’s tech scene in to help take a look at New York’s power grid. To prepare for the event, organizers spent months gathering the data at the heart of the biggest problems facing the utility business.

The Rentocracy team giving their post-win thank you's. (Photo by Jack Smith IV)

The Rentocracy team giving their post-win thank you’s. (Photo by Jack Smith IV)

Last year’s winning team was led by Jonathan Roberts, who came to the Energy Jam with experience mostly in cosmic array astrophysics. His team took on one of the most common problems in big data: sloppy spreadsheets.

“There’s a lot of bitching about energy data, because people are trying to find reliable data sets,” Mr. Roberts said. “Big data is great, but it’s also messy, buggy and outdated.”

The problem for Mr. Roberts was that a utility would put out a messy data set and multiple parties would then try and clean it, resulting in a pile of separate sheets with different levels of organization.

“Con Ed puts out some messy PDF, and some heroic soul turns it into a stripped-down spreadsheet,” Mr. Roberts said. “But when you search, you’ll find the Con Ed one, not this one guy’s GitHub page.”

His team built a search tool to help find the best version of a given data set. They went on to present their project at the White House Datapalooza in front of the Secretary of Energy. Now he’s the Director of Data for About.com.

The winning team, who took the competition by a huge margin by vote of their peers, was a project called Rentocracy. They wanted to address the problem of old NYC apartments being inefficient and using too much energy.

The proposed site would be a “Yelp for landlords,” which would pressure landlords to update apartments to keep them energy efficient. Most landlords don’t care enough to update the apartments, because they’re not paying the utilities, and renters don’t notice because they just get billed once a month in aggregate.

“Imagine that when filling your car and then getting a bill at the end of the month from all of the stations,” the Rentocracy team told Betabeat. “It’s absurd.”

 

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