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Tips for presenting energy data: look to Facebook, LinkedIn, Amazon

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What’s the key to making energy data interesting, and more importantly, able to influence behavior? DJ Patil, data scientist extraordinaire at Greylock Partners and previously at LinkedIn, doled out some tips at GTM Research’s Soft Grid conference in San Francisco Wednesday, including telling the audience to look to some of the techniques that Internet giants like Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and Amazon are already using.

Many utilities across the country are replacing dumb analog meters with digital meters that automatically and frequently transmit energy consumption data of their customers. That data is piling up on servers somewhere, waiting to be made useful. Pacific Gas & Electric, for example, collects 3 terabytes of data from its 9 million smart meters each month.

Utilities also are being asked to share all that energy use data with their customers to help them figure out ways to reduce energy use, particularly during hot summer or cold winter days when energy demand is high and lowering that demand helps utilities to manage their energy supply. Some utilities are launching websites and mobile apps to make it easier for their customers to access their own energy data.

But consumers don’t want to wade through lots of numbers and figure about why they should care, said Patil, citing Facebook, Google and LinkedIn as role models for presenting data. He noted that consumers don’t have to take a lesson or read some wordy instruction about how to use Facebook or Google, so why make consumers work hard to figure out how to navigate their energy data?

“The trick is we put data in a form that doesn’t seem like data,” Patil said. “Your dashboard should look nice, with nice colors and contrast. You should make the data sexy and fun. People don’t like to look at crap.”

Using data to create social connections also keeps people interested in revisiting a site. Patil pointed to the “people you may know” widget on Facebook as a feature that gets a lot of clicks. Offering unexpected but helpful information is another way to keep consumers’ interest.

A good example is the feature on Amazon that shows a shopper a list of items that other people with similar tastes and product preferences also bought, Patil said. A LinkedIn feature that tells people who in their networks have gotten new jobs demonstrates another way of packing personal data in a compelling way, he added.

The idea of using a social network to promote energy conservation isn’t new and is being put to use by a growing number of energy software developer and utilities. Opower, working with the Natural Resources Defense Council, launched a social energy app on Facebook earlier this year that compares a Facebook user’s energy consumption patterns with those of her friends. The app is part of a trend in which utilities and businesses use games and contests to retain their customers’ interest in conserving energy. The idea is that people will more likely pay attention to their energy use and change their behavior for good over a long haul if their peers are doing the same and there are rewards involved for hitting conservation goals.

The folks at Facebook also thought they could help reign in wasteful energy use, and they hired Bill Weihl, the former Green Energy Czar at Google, to figure out ways to promote sustainability and energy efficiency.