What the Smart Grid Could Learn From Facebook Connect

As social media has exploded, web startups building social applications are offering users ways to manage that proliferation. Some, such as FriendFeed, provide a central place for users to aggregate different services, while others, like Facebook Connect, offer tools for federation — a single way to access them all. But the dilemma over whether it’s better to aggregate or federate isn’t confined to social media — companies building out the smart grid and related infrastructure technologies are beginning to grapple with this question, too.

When it comes to carbon and energy data, the purchases we make and the resources we use constitute our de facto “profiles” in real-world networks such as utility grids, roadways, financial systems and business supply chains. Energy and carbon management tools integrate information about our total energy use from these profiles in an effort to cut our carbon footprints. As smart technologies provide ever more data for these profiles, a Facebook Connect-like approach that uses federation, rather than aggregation, may be best-positioned to make energy and carbon management tools more effective, without sacrificing user privacy.

The current generation of consumer-facing web tools for carbon footprinting and energy analysis largely take the aggregation approach. Users can input their personal information, or it can be automatically pulled in, from a variety of accounts — utility bills and credit cards, for example — and organized into a single interface. As FriendFeed is to social networks, so these systems are to your energy data.

WattzOn, for example, aggregates information — some entered manually, some automatically gathered from select utilities (it hopes to soon have credit card partners as well) — analyzes the information and spits out graphs and social comparisons. Other services, like Planet Metrics and Eps Corp., take data from business systems software, sensors, and supply chains to analyze a business’s carbon impacts in a single interface.

Paralysis by analysis

As stricter carbon emissions regulations emerge, making businesses and utilities responsible for their own carbon impacts, the smart grid — and other smart infrastructure projects — will bring more sophisticated monitoring and analysis tools to market.

IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative, for example, will provide detailed data sets about resource flows of traffic management, shipping and supply chain, water systems, and the power grid. Cisco has also begun to move into data-generating smart tools for the green building market, while GE is taking its data-dependent smart appliances from deep, dark, corporate labs to the local hardware store. As the data from these tools piles up, federation tools may help make this data actionable. That means utilities, cleantech startups and their large IT providers are facing a data explosion that will make juggling social media accounts look easy.

In the case of smart traffic management, which aims to reduce congestion and, by extension, fuel use, such systems could take a variety of approaches: installing surveillance cameras or sensors to create “smart parking” systems, or perhaps a peer-to-peer traffic management system that distributes traffic information and alternative routes to individual drivers. In either case, that’s a lot of detailed information to handle. But what’s important is how the system is operating as a whole — not what any one person is doing. That means smart systems are likely to rely on a federated system of management that uses “device-to-device” communication.

A need-to-know basis

Federation offers systems access only to the information they need to perform a specific task, such as identifying a roadway with less congestion or an empty parking spot. Imagine it as something akin to single-login services like Facebook Connect or OpenID: a secure tool for maintaining your identity across energy-using devices, without divulging other sensitive information to systems that need to access that device. Rich Lechner, IBM’s V-P of energy and environment, says such an approach will help ease privacy concerns about such systems.

Whirlpool engineer Gale Horst pointed out in an interview for our Smart Energy Home report last fall that smart appliances could easily be set up to make decisions based on information from the grid without giving control of that device to the utility, and without sending information about what decisions were made back upstream — just the energy-saving results. This kind of system would require a federated approach. The utility, the device maker and the consumer would all have access to different information relevant for their own needs, without sharing sensitive information from another party.

Even off the smart grid, federation is a hot topic in security circles these days. The New York Times’ Bits Blog last week noted Microsoft’s efforts to use federated systems to protect road warriors’ data. But once again, this points to the need for open standards on the smart grid. Better integration across different systems will help smooth security issues, and open standards can help provide robust security protocols.

This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.