Will This Technology Make Fish Farming More Sustainable?

Civil Eats | July 6, 2016

Salmon farm

Salmon farm. Photo credit: antonalfred courtesy of Creative Commons

Wild seafood is disappearing rapidly and many consumers have turned to farmed fish as a way to help reverse the trend. But finding a sustainable source of food for carnivorous fish such as salmon and tuna—which rank as the second and third most popular types of seafood in America—has been a persistent challenge for aquaculture producers.

Now, a group of scientists have developed a new form of fish feed that uses no agricultural land and requires very little water. It’s called FeedKind and it’s made from bacteria that eats methane and turns it into energy.

This approach is promising because for a long time fish farms merely fed these fish a diet consisting of wild “forage” fish and oil derived from wild fish. But it often took several pounds of wild fish to produce 1 pound of farmed fish, making it a loss for the oceans.

Then, in recent years, the aquaculture industry turned to feed based on corn, soy, and wheat, usually using dried distiller grains. While these solutions are often better for the oceans, they also rely heavily on agricultural land, much in the way other animal feed does. Similarly, they rely on the use of pesticides and synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which contribute to “dead zones” in the ocean.

“We’re taking carbon from outside the food chain, which frees up more food for humans,” says Josh Silverman, the founder and chief products officer of Calysta, a biotech startup in Silicon Valley. “And we’re turning methane into a higher value product.”

Calysta says FeedKind could address sustainability problems plaguing aquaculture, which the Food and Agricultural Organization found is one of the fastest-growing agricultural industries worldwide.

After raking in $30 million of capital from investors in a third round of funding—including animal feed giant Cargill—since December, Calysta is readying a R&D plant in England that plans to manufacture FeedKind at pilot scale by the end of this year. It’s also hoping to get a North American commercial production facility online by 2018.

FeedKind is made by first dissolving methane in water with the bacteria (methanotrophs that are commonly found in the top layer of soil). The bacteria gobbles up the methane molecules. Then, after the mixture is fermented, the protein produced from this process is extruded and formed into pellets.

“[People] have known about this bacteria for years,” says Silverman, who has a Stanford PhD in biotechnology and comes from the biopharmaceutical industry. “But no one had thought about how to use them in industrial applications.”

The alternative fish feed was originally developed over a decade ago by Norferm, a Norwegian company that won approval to sell FeedKind in the European Union. After Calysta acquired the company in 2014, Silverman says he refined the fermenting process.

Norferm only tested the product in salmon. But Silverman claims that FeedKind could also be used to feed other carnivorous fish such as halibut, sea bass, sea bream, eel, and shrimp—perhaps even terrestrial livestock and pigs, he adds.

Jan Brekke, the CEO of Sogn Aqua, a sustainable halibut farm in Norway, says he has not tested FeedKind on his fish, but is encouraged by its potential.

“The whole idea of [not] using biomass from the sea to produce fishmeal will turn global fish farming in a total different direction,” he said in an email.

FeedKind is not an environmentally pristine product. For one thing, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere during the fermenting process. And Silverman says that Calysta plans to source the methane for FeedKind from natural gas extracted from the electricity grid rather than capturing it from the atmosphere. (Methane is a significant component of natural gas).

Still, Carbon Trust, a London-based consulting firm, found that producing FeedKind consumed 76 percent less water than growing the same amount of protein found in soybean meal and 98 percent less water than wheat gluten. (Calysta sponsored the research, but Carbon Trust maintains that its conclusions were developed independently and the study was peer reviewed.)

Sourcing methane from the grid rather than capturing the emissions produced from human activities (such as fossil fuel production, livestock farming and decomposing landfill waste) may seem like a huge missed opportunity, considering that the greenhouse gas is over 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

But because natural gas is so inexpensive, Silverman says there’s no significant infrastructure or market incentive in place for his company to capture methane at commercial scale.

Still, Jillian Fry, the director of the Public Health & Sustainable Aquaculture Project at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future, points out that the Carbon Trust study doesn’t take into account the large environmental impact associated with fracking, a process which is responsible for two-thirds of the natural gas produced in the U.S., according to the federal government.

“It’s a glaring gap,” she says. “Even if not 100 percent [of the natural gas and methane] comes from fracking, the water, land use, and the pollution need to be taken into account,” she says.

Silverman is hoping that commercializing FeedKind will help to stimulate further the unmet demand to convert methane into something more useful—and help to build the infrastructure Calysta needs to source methane more sustainably in the future.

Fry adds that because of the carbon dioxide that’s released and the methane sourcing, it’s difficult to say at this stage if FeedKind is something everyone should throw their support behind.

But she still thinks it has promise. “We need to strike a balance—we don’t want to kill all enthusiasm for a new product and say that there’s no progress unless it’s flawless,” she says. “It’s very exciting to hear about this kind of development.”

Note: This story was reprinted in GreenBiz on August 16, 2016.

Why Singapore won’t be going thirsty

TakePart/Participant Media | Nov. 5, 2015

Singapore's Marina Barrage reservoir

Singapore’s Marina Barrage reservoir. Photo credit: Public Utility Board, Singapore

In just 10 years, two out of three people will be living in a country that’s struggling to meet demand for water, according to the United Nations. But even though Singapore has no aquifers or lakes, it’s unlikely that nation’s 5.5 million residents will be among the world’s thirsty.

That’s because the small island nation, which consumes 400 million gallons daily, has a water strategy that is arguably one of the most successful in the world.

“We have four national taps,” George Madhavan, the spokesperson for Public Utility Board, Singapore’s government agency in charge of water quality, conservation, and supply, said during a recent Meeting of the Minds urban-sustainability conference in California.

The “taps” flow from desalinated seawater, recycled wastewater, water collected from rainfall, and an imported supply from neighboring Malaysia.

Having a reliable source of water has always been on the government’s agenda, Madhavan said.

“Without secure and reliable access to water in Singapore, business will not come,” he said. “So that’s a top priority to get a bigger piece of the pie.”

The push to develop a mostly self-sufficient water supply has been credited to Lee Kuan Kew, the country’s first prime minister, who took on the task in response to water shortages in the 1960s and ’70s.

It wasn’t a quick fix. It took 30 years to put the system in place.

Singapore NEWater visitor museum

The NEWater visitor museum in Singapore. (Photo credit: Public Utility Board, Singapore)

The PUB water agency says its “jewel” is the ability to recycle used water, or wastewater from sinks and toilets, into what it calls NEWater. The NEWater purification process, which Singapore launched in 2003 (after getting tips from the Orange County Water District’s wastewater-recycling plant in Southern California), meets 30 percent of daily water demand. While the recycled water is mainly used for industrial purposes, it also replenishes the country’s 17 reservoirs.

Recycled water can also supply water for drinking and cooking. According to PUB, NEWater has passed 130,000 scientific tests and exceeds the drinking water standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and guidelines issued by the World Health Organization.

Here’s what happens: The wastewater travels through a network of deep tunnel sewer pipes, then goes through conventional treatment at a sewage treatment plant. It’s then either returned to the sea or sent to one of the country’s four NEWater plants for further purification, depending on demand.

The NEWater plants follow a three-step process. First, membranes filter out small particles such as solids and bacteria. Next, reverse osmosis takes out larger contaminants. Last, the water is disinfected with ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide.

But Madhavan said the government knew a large part of successfully integrating recycled wastewater to its supply hinged on whether Singaporeans would want to drink it in the first place.

“The difficult part isn’t the technology,” he said. “It’s getting the community to embrace recycled water.”


Bottles of NEWater filled with Singapore’s purified wastewater. (Photo credit: Public Utility Board, Singapore)

To do that, the country had to get rid of the “yuck” factor. For its NEWater branding campaign, it bottled the recycled water with a label featuring a cartoon water drop with a gigantic grin—and constructed a slick visitor center showing how the purification process works via games and interactive exhibits. The water agency also brought reporters to the Orange County Water District’s water-recycling plant, as well as to one in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Another quarter of Singapore’s daily demand is met by its two desalinization plants, which together can process 100 million gallons a day. Because the plants are energy-intensive, the country is experimenting with electrodeionization, a process that consumes less power.

The third tap comes from rainwater collected from drains, canals, rivers, and storm water collection ponds. (Residents aren’t allowed to harvest water without the government’s permission.) In combination with water imports from Malaysia, the rainwater fulfills the remaining 45 percent of Singapore’s daily water needs.

PUB is preparing for a projected doubling in demand by 2060. (Singapore’s water agreement with Malaysia is set to expire in 2061.) The agency says it’s on track to triple its NEWater production and build two new desalinization plants that together will meet 80 percent of demand in 2060.

Madhavan said Singapore thinks about water in a different way.

“You don’t want to drain it—you want to collect it,” he said.


This stove cleanly burns plastic and charges a phone

TakePart | Mashable | Nov. 14, 2014

KleanCook stove

The KleanCook stove inspired the design for the K2 cookstove. Photo credit: Energant

It’s no secret that the smoke spewing from open fires and from indoor coal-fired cook stoves is a silent killer in the developing world, and a contributor to climate change. More than 4 million people die each year from health problems related to inhaling carbon monoxide or particulate matter released from stoves that burn wood, biomass, or coal, according to the World Health Organization.

Despite a long-running government campaign to eradicate dirty fuels from households, the problem persists in China. But thanks to two young entrepreneurs, a new kind of cook stove—one that can cleanly combust small amounts of plastic trash and convert its excess cooking heat to electricity—could be on its way into kitchens across China.

“Smoke-related illnesses are a bigger issue than malaria or HIV,” said Jacqueline Nguyen, one of the entrepreneurs and a University of California, Berkeley, senior toxicology student. “It kills more than HIV and malaria worldwide per year.”

While Nguyen handles business and marketing for Energant, the company behind the device, her best friend, Mark Webb—a 2011 Berkeley graduate who studied biochemistry—designed the K2 cook stove.

The K2 reduces smoky emissions by 95 percent, according to tests Webb conducted. Using the excess heat created during operations, it can generate enough electricity to trickle charge a mobile phone. It has the ability to burn biomass briquettes cleanly as well.

It can also burn plastic and wood without toxic emissions as long as the material—which emits volatile organic compounds when burned—doesn’t exceed 8 percent of the mass being used as fuel, according to Webb.

The ability to burn plastic and wood cleanly is what distinguishes the K2 model from the KleanCook stove, the product Webb designed last year.

Webb got the idea for the K2 cook stove during pilot testing of the KleanCook model in the Philippines this past summer, when he and Nguyen noticed people cooking food over open fires all across the country—and burning plastic bags as a way to get those fires started.

“We decided to make the K2, which was centered specifically around being able to burn off all of the toxic material from this trash,” Webb said.

K2 cookstove from Energant

The K2 cookstove. Photo credit: Energant

But because the two wanted the cook stoves to generate income for local people who would sell the devices for profit, they decided to target the Chinese market, as business costs in the Philippines were too high.

How does it work, and what differentiates it from other clean cook stoves?

The stove’s built-in fan has a geometric design and resembles the turbo fan of a jet engine. When the fan blows air into the fire, it creates forced convection, which makes the stove more fuel-efficient. Carbon monoxide is then converted to carbon dioxide.

The stove’s greater efficiency means that 50 percent less fuel has to be burned to create the same amount of heat, resulting in lower emissions, according to Webb. A patent is pending on the K2’s design.

The stove also contains a thermoelectric generator. When one side of the device is exposed to heat and the other is kept cool, an electric current is generated as the heat travels from one side of the generator to the other. That electric charge is then fed into a voltage regulator to produce a steady current.

Because it’s made from cheap metal, the stove costs only $16 to manufacture. Energant plans to sell the stoves to regional distributors for $20 to $25. In turn, the salespeople will sell the units at retail for $50—a price that Webb and Nguyen say the Chinese government has deemed an acceptable amount to charge based on disposable income.

The debut of the K2 cook stove could be timely, as recent reports from China indicate there’s been an increase in burning trash and plastic, which releases carcinogenic dioxins.

Webb and Nguyen’s clean cook stove venture attracted support from Berkeley’s Development Impact Lab after the pair won the lab’s “Big Ideas” student innovation contest with the KleanCook stove.

The development lab is one of seven university efforts funded by USAID via the U.S. Global Development Lab. That initiative gives money to seven centers at universities around the country that support students creating solutions to global problems such as climate change, food security, health, and poverty.

“Our whole market approach to the KleanCook was to have the cheapest possible thing that was the most scalable and can deliver electricity for devices,” Webb said.

KleanCook also won prize money from the Clinton Global Initiative University contest this past year, which allowed the entrepreneurs to fund KleanCook’s pilot testing in the Philippines.

Though the K2 cook stove—KleanCook’s more sophisticated sister—appears promising, it isn’t ready for market yet. Webb says Energant has a pre-manufacturing prototype that he’s tested for efficiency using a consumer carbon monoxide sensor that recorded the carbon dioxide output of the stove.

To win the confidence of Chinese consumers, he says K2 needs to be tested using validated equipment—something that Energant would have to pay for specialists to do at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.

The company hopes to raise $30,000 from an Indiegogo campaign to pay for the testing.

View the original story here.

Robotic plants could be coming to your garden

TakePart | October 24, 2014

plantoid600pxWhen looking at gardens, landscapes, or forests, it’s easy to focus on what’s visible. Flowers, green grasses, and large trunks are the pretty parts, but below the surface is where plants and trees show their smarts.

Roots spread out, hold fast to the soil, and transmit information to the branches above, telling them which direction to grow, how long to go, and when to drop leaves. They’re also incredibly efficient at piercing the soil.

It’s an intricate system, and now a group of Italian scientists have created a robotic plant that mimics nature’s root system to monitor soil pollution, prospect for minerals, and look for water.

Meet the first plantoid.

It’s made of artificial materials, embedded with sensors, and equipped with a computer chip, a plant robot designed to simulate a real-life tree—trunk, branches, leaves, and all.

But the real stars in this fake-plant show are the roots, which really “grow.”

“We want to use robotics systems to better understand the living systems we use as a model,” said Barbara Mazzolai, a biologist at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa. She’s spent three years designing the plantoid so it can copy the way plant root tips grow and move through soil based on what they find in the environment.

So how does it work?

A motor unwinds a spool of polypropylene filament inside the trunk. The root tips—which are made of Teflon—have nine sensors each that can measure a range of a soil conditions. Those include levels of water, light, gravity, temperature, and pH. The plantoid can also detect the presence of nutrients such as nitrogen and potassium.

The roots grow based on the information received from sensors via a microcontroller in the tip. If it works right, the plantoid could be used in agricultural fields to detect heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium.

“It’s like a new microscope that biologists can use as a platform to study natural systems,” said Mazzolai.

Her team has a few kinks to work out before we start sending plantoid Roombas into our gardens. The first hurdle is to get the roots to move and bend simultaneously. To do that, she says, they are looking for the right Velcro-like material for the filament.

“This is the most challenging part to solve,” she said. While the plantoid is not ready for commercialization, Mazzolai is asking companies to explore the ways it could be used in industry.

Some examples? In search and rescue missions, Mazzolai said, a plantoid could send out root hairs that would help to anchor rubble and keep it from falling.

Another application could be in the field of surgery, where the biomechanics of the root tip could be applied to an endoscope. It could grow and move inside the body without damaging tissue and might be able to release drugs, Mazzolai said.

In space, a plantoid root system could anchor spacecraft and act as an exploratory arm to sample soil quality on other planets.

Photo of plant robot courtesy Barbara Mazzolai/Plantoid Project

Space lasers could help count the carbon for the trees

TakePart | September 10, 2014

redwood_forestLasers, 3-D imagery and outer-space surveillance sounds like cutting room floor fodder of a scrapped Austin Powers film, but it’s all part of NASA’s latest effort to map the Earth’s forests and gain a better understanding on climate change.

Dubbed Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation lidar—the nod to Star Wars may be entirely coincidental—the laser instrument will be designed to hitch a ride aboard the International Space Station. Once aboard, it will pump out large-scale 3-D imagery of forests. Lidar—the type of laser mapping tool that Google uses to guide its self-driving cars—will be deployed to measure the height and configuration of a forest’s canopy and undergrowth.

NASA and the University of Maryland hope the technology will give scientists a better picture of just how much carbon is stored in the Earth’s forests and the impact of logging on climate change.

“There’s an open question of what is the net balance between the amount of deforestation taking place and subsequent regrowth,” said Ralph Dubayah, a University of Maryland professor who is leading the GEDI project. “If we don’t know what that is, we don’t know what future atmospheric levels of CO2 are and it becomes hard to run climate models.”

With a 3-D picture—or fingerprint—of a forest, experts would be able to calculate the weight of its trees and figure out how much carbon they contain. About half of a tree’s biomass is carbon, according to Dubayah.

Armed with the new data, policy makers should be able to quantify the potential amount of carbon that could be released into the atmosphere by deforestation or forest fires. They then could determine what it would take to offset that release, such as by planting more trees.

Deploying lidar from space will be an improvement over the way forests are currently monitored.

Airplanes currently are used to shoot lidar lasers down into forests, thereby mapping the height and configuration of a forest’s canopy and undergrowth.

But the plane’s limited range restricts the amount of data that can be collected.

“From space, you can get access to essentially all the world’s forests,” Dubayah said. “Aircraft is expensive and if you’re in the middle of a rainforest, there are a lot of logistics involved in doing that. If you use lasers in space, you acquire much more data much more rapidly at cheaper cost.”

The GEDI system is still in development at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and is slated for deployment in mid-2018. Dubayah hopes that the first batch of data will be available by 2019, with the program running continuously from the International Space Station.

“If we’re going to make any kind of policy changes in the U.S., one way to do that is by planting trees and running climate and land use models to look at potential scenarios,” Dubayah said. “It’s hard to run models forward in time that evaluate alternative policy scenarios if we don’t know what we’re starting with.”

Photo of Northern California redwood forest by Kirt Edblom via flickr/Creative Commons

Drought dowsing goes hi-tech

California Magazine | Aug. 11, 2014

Wellntel pilot

Wellntel is conducting its first pilot with farmers and residents in the drought-stricken town of Templeton, Calif. Photo credit: Wellntel

This year, groundwater is serving as California’s pinch hitter, supplying about 60 percent of the state’s needs during this historic drought. But until now, it’s been an impossible resource to manage.

We don’t have enough data to know just how much groundwater is hanging out below any given house or farm. Because it’s unregulated by the state, anyone can pump as much water as they want—a point of contention between those who think people own the water underneath their property and those who believe groundwater is a communal resource. To make matters worse, groundwater hasn’t been replenished during these dry times, and there’s been a recent rush to drill more wells in the San Joaquin Valley.

But while we can’t make it rain on California, nor force the legislature to pass two bills currently being considered that would mandate local governments to regulate their groundwater, new technology is allowing us to better “see”  the water beneath the ground and could help us make smarter decisions about how best to use it.

A recently developed sensor-based device that measures groundwater is helping UC Berkeley researchers understand just how much of this resource we’ll have in the coming decades. Developed by Wisconsin-based startup Wellntel, the product attaches to the top of a well and uses sonar to measure water levels and a well’s pumping rate every 30 minutes, then sends the data to the computing cloud, allowing researchers to make use of it.

In the last few months, geography department professor Norman Miller and recent Ph.D. graduate Raj Singh have started incorporating data from the devices into the computer-based groundwater model they’ve been developing for the last four years. “One of the big problems I see is the availability of water due to land use stressors under climate change,” says Miller, a hydrometeorologist. “So one of the outstanding questions is how much (groundwater) is left on planet, who’s using it, and when. But there’s a lot of water that we can’t see.”

The current problem, the researchers say, is that while satellite data can show how much groundwater there is on a regional level—in the Central Valley, for instance—it can’t capture how much there is under a city, or at the farm level. There just isn’t enough data from U.S. wells to get a deep understanding of how groundwater flows. The predominant techniques used to measure well water levels—measuring tapes or pressure sensors—are labor-intensive and costly. The U.S. Geological Survey monitors less than 10 percent of its 20,000 wells, California’s Department of Water Resources monitors a few hundred.

But by integrating the Wellntel data into their current model, the Cal researchers believe they can provide a deeper understanding of how much groundwater we have now, and how much we’ll have in the future as climate change takes its toll.

“It’s like moving from a black-and-white to an HD television,” Singh says of the difference in resolution—which with the new data has advanced from gathering data at the 10-20 kilometer level down to a 100-meter level. At that resolution, he says it’s possible to discern the land’s topography and groundwater level differences from houses a few blocks apart.

With this knowledge, farmers and landowners could be better equipped to allocate their consumption, plan their growing seasons and save for dry times—not unlike the way we manage our bank accounts.

Wellntel is partnering with Miller and Singh on a pilot research project in Templeton, a town just outside Paso Robles on California’s Central Coast. The area has sprouted a number of vineyards and hobby farms in recent decades after its almond groves turned fallow.

“There’s been a huge increase in vineyard development in Paso Robles, and many residents saw dramatic declines in their water levels and had to dig new wells because the water table dropped,” says Wellntel co-founder Nick Hayes. “And some of the new wells have had to go so deep that they have to tap into mineral and sulfur-smelling water—it’s pretty severe and it feels dire to them, and their property values are tied to water in the area.” Some even have had to truck in their water, Hayes adds.

Every two weeks, Miller and Singh receive data (stripped of any identifiers) from 12 Wellntel sensors installed every half-mile throughout the 9-square mile pilot area.

By assimilating this data into their current groundwater model, the researchers say they’ll eventually be able to predict how groundwater levels will change from season to season over the next few years, as well as over the coming decades based on a range of greenhouse gas emissions scenarios up to 2050.

Miller says it’s not clear right now just when they’ll be able to make those predictions. But the Cal researchers have met several times and shared their model with Frances Chung, the chief of the modeling branch at the state’s Department of Water Resources, and they say the state is interested in making use of the new technology. Such an ability to collect information about groundwater levels could boost the state’s pro-regulation movement.

“If you limit water it has to be based on what you know, and right now it’s extremely difficult to control and monitor,” Singh says. “But as we get more information and it becomes more scientific—and more objective based on facts—it will be easier to regulate.”

View the original story here.

How IBM helps monitor biodiversity in the Amazon

GreenBiz | February 18, 2014

aBrazil IBM Wikiflora Screenshot

A screenshot from IBM Brazil’s Wikiflora app.

In the future, tracking the growth and development of a certain stand of açaí palm trees in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest might just as likely be done by a student as a government biologist.

That’s because a new data portal and mobile app built by IBM in its São Paulo research lab — one of 12 R&D hubs run by the company experimenting with new approaches to sustainability — will be used by a cadre of citizen scientists to help the Brazilian government monitor and track the biodiversity of the Amazon rainforest. It’s part of a group of projects developed by the company to give users the tools to help manage and monitor their environment via crowdsourced data.

In 2010, Brazil’s Ministry for Environment and Innovation presented his group with a 500-page catalog of all the species recorded in an area of rainforest close to the city of Manaus, according to Sergio Borger, a team lead of the São Paulo human systems division.

“Though this area was well explored, it comes up as just a big square on Google Maps,” Borger said. “That paper catalog of its biodiversity was limited to the scientists who created it.”

The government challenged IBM to think of ways it could bring the experience of the rainforest alive to younger generations — and simultaneously develop a central repository for all of its data.

But instead of conjuring up the hot and humid climate of the Amazon rainforest as inspiration, Borger was moved by a winter memory from 15 years ago: the time he and his children counted birds for the Audubon Society during its Christmas Bird Count. The oldest known citizen science project in the world, data from the 114-year-old count helps scientists monitor biodiversity and gain greater insight from population changes over time.

“I was very passionate about that,” he said. “So I felt crowdsourcing was the way to go, as one of the elements of monitoring our environment is asking our citizens about it.”

As the government’s first priority was to get the project into the schools, Borger and his team first prototyped a website-based platform they dubbed Wikiflora. It took them a year and half, and was completed in October 2011.

Wikiflora enabled students to upload their photos of a plant species, enter specific characteristics and classify it after comparing it against an existing catalog photo. Each photo contained data to describe precisely where it was taken.

A key part of the platform was its identification gaming function. Students could review their peers’ entries and rate how well they thought that student classified photos. A user’s rating would determine the weight of his or her assessments.

Over the next year, the team developed a mobile app, Wikiflora 2.0, which carried over the feature that allowed students to upload photos and rate them with their smartphones. It also gave them the capacity to track and map individual plants and trees, as well as components such as the leaves and trunk, via more photo uploads. To identify the particular plant or tree, students were asked to choose from a long list of similar-looking plants or trees that the app would present for selection.

But because the students were too impatient to scroll through the options, Borger said, his team set off a year ago to revamp Wikiflora 2.0 so the public could collect data and monitor it over time using real-time processing and data aggregation.

“We’re on our third wave of learning now,” he said.

The platform’s third iteration, Missions, uses the company’s IBM InfoSphere Streams product to process collected data coming in (from many sources at any particular moment) before it gets stored in a DB2 database. Borger estimates that it will be released later this year for both Android and iOS smartphones, but in a research capacity only.

Multiple users will be able to add to the data file of a specific plant or tree by using unique identifying characteristics, such as the diameter of a tree trunk.

“That can be done with some level of certainty,” Borger said. “At this point, the system makes an assumption [on which plant or tree the data belongs to], but we’re working to refine it even further.”

His São Paulo team is developing tools to advance the capability of real-time processing and aggregation of images so that when a user takes a photo of a certain element of a plant or tree, for example, Missions will help the user determine its species and give the user five to six options to choose from. After the user makes the final identification, the data is sent to the database.

Tracking mobile species, such as frogs and insects living close to water, tack on another dimension of complexity altogether. They will be included in the future, Borger says, as his team is determining how to handle this type of monitoring.

IBM is particularly interested in knowing if insects living close to water are present because they can serve as bioindicators.

“If they’re not there, the water may not have enough oxygen for them to live,” Borger said.

The company’s efforts to get the public to crowdsource environmental indicators through technology is not new territory for IBM.

In 2009, an engineer in its San Jose, Calif., Almaden Research Lab developed CreekWatch, an app where users help the state to monitor drought conditions by uploading photos and weighing in on water levels, flow rate and the amount of trash at each location. Borger applied what he learned from this project to the development of the Wikiflora and Missions platforms.

And IBM’s Accessible Way app allows the greater public to map accessibility barriers in urban areas, so that mobility-challenged individuals can select suitable routes well in advance of their trip.

“We look at sustainability,” Borger said, “as a way to make our environment smarter.”

View the original story here.

Screenshot of Wikiflora web app courtesy IBM Brazil

Can tech startups change the way we eat?

The Guardian US/UK | October 31, 2013

Good Eggs site produce

Good Eggs offers a range of produce from local producers that can be ordered online.

These days, even the most casual observers can’t go long without hearing about yet another potentially disruptive business model hoping to redefine an industry.

But when that industry is food, it’s worth paying extra attention. Food, after all, affects everyone. And as the appetite for local food grows stronger than ever, a new crop of tech startups are moving to circumvent the industrial food system in favor of small, regional producers.

Innovative? Certainly. Disruptive? Maybe.

Founders from two promising examples, Good Eggs and Freight Farms, spoke at the Net Impact conference in Silicon Valley last week.

Farm-to-doorstep food, ordered online

Good Eggs, based in California, launched earlier this year after two years of research and testing to find unfilled needs in the food system. Co-founder Rob Spiro, an ex-Google employee, hung out with farmers, spent time on their ranches and tagged along on shoppers’ food-buying trips.

“There’s more demand than there is supply for local food … it’s very rare that you find a dynamic like that,” Spiro said at the Net Impact conference. The highly perishable nature of food, he added, causes the imbalance. Good Eggs’ solution is an online farmers’ market, complete with delivery. With more than 150 profiles of regional producers to pore through, San Francisco Bay Area residents can shop for food the way one might approach online dating.

First, find the type of product you’re interested in, whether it’s seasonal fruits and vegetables, dairy products, meats and seafood, baked goods or snacks. Then, see if the accompanying description and photos appeal to you. When you find something that meets your requirements, you can arrange to pick it up at a regional location or schedule a home delivery.

Good Eggs will aggregate orders from multiple vendors; delivery costs $3.99 per order. The idea is that shoppers have a better chance of finding what they want without having to visit multiple farmers’ markets while producers will only harvest what’s been ordered for the week, reducing food waste.

Aside from the Bay Area, Good Eggs is piloting test programs in Brooklyn, Los Angeles and New Orleans and plans to expand to hundreds of cities, Spiro said. He aims to take market share away from traditional grocers, including Walmart and Target, as well as from Amazon. “We would love to take them on,” he said.

But Good Eggs will have its work cut out to make sure it signs on enough producers to meet customer demand and vice versa. If it can’t meet most of shoppers’ grocery needs, they may not be willing to switch from bigger chains. The company also will need to keep a tight rein on quality control and – given the many different producers – make it easy for customers to choose between different products without being able to see, touch or smell them in advance.

In New Orleans, its fastest-growing market, the company already has signed on producers that weren’t previously selling at farmers’ markets, Spiro says. “We’ve got Vietnamese fishermen selling on the New Orleans [Good Eggs] market now that have not been hooked into the farmers’ markets or the local food scene,” he said.

Farm in a crate: year-round hydroponics

Two friends in Boston, Brad McNamara and Jon Friedman, were frustrated by the inefficiencies of growing plants in rooftop greenhouses. So they designed a hydroponics farm in a shipping crate that can be installed anywhere with electricity and water hookups.

That led to the founding of Freight Farms in 2010, then the raising of nearly $31,000 via Kickstarter for the company’s first unit in 2011.

The idea is a portable farm that users can use to grow local, fresh produce year round – instead of relying on food trucked or flown in from warmer climates. “Our main goal is to allow people to create small and medium-sized food businesses that can supply fresh and local foods to any environment,” McNamara, Freight Farms’ CEO, said at the Net Impact conference.

By doing that, the company hopes to ultimately change the way food is grown and distributed on a large scale. “The food system is linear, which creates inequality, access issues, price issues and spoilage,” McNamara said. “The system is ripe for disruption – and tech is a way to do that.”

Inside Freight Farms’ 40-foot-long shipping crates, users can grow their selection of more than 3,600 plants, including leafy greens, herbs and mushrooms. The system is climate-controlled, lit by LED lights and electronically monitored. Freight farmers can view the conditions in their farms via their smartphone and customize alerts, for instance, when the temperature or humidity exceeds a certain level.

The freight farms have the potential to be installed in a range of locations, such as underutilized land at schools or recreation centers, side lots or vacant lots. And, in order to use land more efficiently, the crates can be stacked four high and eight deep.

One developer in Massachusetts plans to install freight farms on three acres of an abandoned strip mall – farming a few crates himself and renting the rest to others – instead of putting in new stores. The system is designed to be accessible to those with little farming experience, McNamara claims. Inexperienced farmers have achieved crop yields of 60%, while experts have yielded 95%, he said. And the company also networks its farms so that users can support each other and share farming strategies and techniques.

Freight Farms has received a lot of interest from regional food distributors who haven’t been able to meet the demand for fresh local produce after the local growing season ends, McNamara said. “It’s cheaper for them to buy from a freight farm versus putting another truck on the road,” he added.

One distributor in Minnesota was so happy with the basil grown by a freight farmer that he offered $1.75 more per pound than the price he was initially willing to pay, he said.

With a price tag of $60,000 per shipping crate – and a threefold increase in price if the farm is solar-powered – McNamara acknowledges that a freight farm is not affordable for everyone.

In the past few weeks, though, he says he’s been exploring the ideas of regional food distributor sponsorship for crate farms in low-income communities. The distributor would pay for the farm with stipulations that a certain percentage of the vegetables would be grown for their inventory.

Freight Farms has also been tweaking its user instructions to make them more visual and to simplify the process. The hope is that this could make the farms more accessible to a broader swath of people, including those with little education or without strong English skills.

“We want to have these changes buttoned up by the middle of next year,” McNamara said.

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Cloud technology brings clean drinking water to India

GreenBiz | September 4, 2013 | Original headline: How cloud technology can bring clean drinking water to India

Women and children collect drinking water from tanks at an urban resettlement slum in Delhi, India

Women and children collect drinking water from tanks at an urban resettlement slum in Delhi, India. Credit: Frog Design

Imagine not having access to clean drinking water because you refused to vote for a particular politician, or didn’t pay bribes to the driver delivering your supply. Even after doing both these things, you’re still not sure just exactly when the next delivery will arrive.

This is the case in India, where access to drinking water is not universal. As India increasingly urbanizes and water becomes even more scarce, solutions that raise access will be more important in the coming decades.

That’s why the Piramal Foundation — which addresses India’s development challenges through social ventures — funded Sarvajal, a company that uses cloud technology to provide water via filtration stations and solar-powered ATMs.

UNICEF reports that water-borne diseases such as cholera, gastroenteritis and diarrhea in India are responsible for $600 million in medical bills and lost productivity per year, but it could get worse. The national government estimates that demand for clean water will rise 50 percent by 2031 if current delivery models stay the same. According to the World Bank, 220 million Indians will migrate to cities over the same 20-year period.

The problem: Steady access to clean water

In rural areas, residents often have no other choice than to capture groundwater.  “The water was brackish, there were no pipes, no tankers, and filters were too expensive,” said Anand Shah, former head of the India-based Piramal Foundation, of the lack of access. “They’d sift it but would still have large amounts of kidney stones, joint pain, arthritis and gastrointestinal problems.” Plus, the reverse osmosis process to desalinate and filter out impurities was inefficient.

In urban slums, the situation can be better, but not optimal. Although tankers arrive to dispense water for free, they’re intermittent and unpredictable, Shah said. Residents invest large amounts of time pursuing the tanker, jostling to fill containers they carry home. And even if the driver has the best intentions, the country’s rough roads lead to unexpected roadblocks.

Through a monitoring device attached to each filtration unit, embedded sensors and an RFID reader, Sarvajal tracks water quality in real time. It follows user activity, how many times the water has been backwashed and rinsed, when filters need changing, how much water a station has dispensed and how many times the power went out.

Service and maintenance were costly, so a monitoring device was built in-house allowing the company to diagnose machines from one central location.

The company grew from one pilot location in 2007 to more than 200 filtration station-ATM combos in villages of at least 5,000 people each across India. One resident per village can purchase a franchise for about 30,000 Indian rupees, about $500, and sell the filtered water for a penny per liter, he said.

Users pre-pay for their water, and funds are loaded onto Sarvajal ATM cards.

Selling, really?

Shah said he realizes that selling water in a country that has offered water as a public resource could appear off the mark. But delivery via the tankers is unpredictable, and it takes families time to collect water from the tankers and filter it at home.

“We looked at every alternative out there, and even if a family buys the cheapest water filter, we’ve priced it still under what it would cost them per liter,” he said. Bottled water costs 32 cents and water pouches 14 cents per liter on the street, and creates more waste than refilling reusable containers.

According to Shah, local franchise owners can earn a good living — up to two to three times what they would make for unskilled labor. While Sarvajal still owns the water filtration equipment, it takes less than a year for the franchise owners to start returning profits, he says. Sarvajal, on the other hand, doesn’t expect to profit for another five to 10 years.

Shah says Sarvajal launched as a for-profit company in part because a non-profit would have a harder time attracting technical talent.

Scaling into urban areas – with some help

Sarvajal has secured the go-ahead from the local government in the metropolitan area around New Delhi to set up some 50 filtration station-ATM units — areas without regular access to drinking water.

Because Sarvajal mostly had operated in more rural areas, it needed help. To that end, the company hired Frog Design, a consultancy that engineers and designs products and services in energy, health care and social innovation.

Jan Chipchase, Frog’s creative director of global insights, set up a team of staffers from India. They spent over a month in Delhi interviewing and observing how residents navigated securing drinking water. The group also spoke to water providers who had opened businesses related to supplying clean water.

Savda Ghevra, a resettled slum on the edge of Delhi, was the focus of the research. Frog wanted to find out the value of clean drinking water, how a delivery system would meet residents’ needs and what might arise during the implementation of an alternative system. (The extended research was funded by the Institute of Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion at the University of California-Irvine).

“A water ATM allows stored value to convert to digital credit. As the world digitizes, we wanted to find out to what extent a low literate community was willing to invest in these types of technology,” said Chipchase.

Using digital tools to store value in less developed countries is not unheard of, says Chipchase, who cited Kenya as a country where much of the population banks online.

As a result of their research – detailed in a report, “Journeys for Water” released Tuesday – Frog concluded that in the context of the current water delivery model for Savda Ghevra, the “belief that water is a right and should be free is moot. In the slum residents pay for their water in one way or another – with time and money, with their ability to move and make political choices based on their interests.”

“It’s realizing that the current practice of water tankers isn’t working from a social and practical perspective,” Chipchase said. “This project is far more about understanding politics and economics in the broader sense.”

But Frog found that despite all the advanced technology enabling a water delivery system such as Sarvajal’s to exist in a country lacking adequate infrastructure, it must give residents some ownership and control for the system to be sustainable.

Shah said his team estimates that Sarvajal needs to scale to 1,000 to 1,500 locations to break even.

Democratizing of technology

Chipchase said Sarvajal is a perfect example of how “reverse innovation” is taking place through combining “mature” technologies such as the mobile telephone system, RFID tags and sensors. “The ability to prototype is becoming mainstream. It’s not just Silicon Valley anymore.”

Shah is a CalTech and Harvard-educated Indian-American who grew up in Houston, then spent 13 years in India after college, yet most of the 120 employees at Sarvajal are Indian nationals. His team of 25 engineers developed the filtration system’s monitoring device, coined the Soochak.

Coin-operated water filtration stations exist in Vietnam and Thailand. Yet Sarvajal’s pairing of cloud-based monitoring and an ATM service appears to be unique.

Capital returns should be secondary

Shah has been contacted by the Indian division of water giant Pentair and an array of venture capitalists about potential investments. But after learning more about the company’s timeline for return, he said, they lost interest. The same thing happened, he said, with larger companies interested in moving into the space themselves.

“My response to them was you’re asking the wrong question – you should be asking how long it’s going to take to solve the problem,” he said. “We’re in this to solve the problem, not for money to be made. Things like water — where innovation hasn’t happened in 50 years – these are really big opportunities to think about them freshly from a new perspective. Returning capital should be a byproduct or a secondary [outcome].”

Middle image: Women collect filtered drinking water at a solar ATM and filtration station operated by Sarvajal. Bottom image: Sarvajal’s filtration stations are operated by local villagers and are monitored for maintenance using sensor technology. All photos courtesy Frog Design

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How Google is changing the renewables game

GreenBiz | April 24, 2013 | Original headline: How Google is changing the renewables game for Apple, Facebook

Nightfall over Google data center in Lenoir, N.C. The need to consume ever-increasing amounts of energy in their data centers — yet continue marching towards renewable energy goals — has been an ongoing challenge for Google and Apple.

Google has offset electricity needed for its centers through purchase power agreements that enable an equal amount of renewable energy to be created, yet has lamented that managing power sales and purchases on the wholesale market takes time away from its focus on building user products.

And despite Apple’s onsite generation of renewable energy, it has still had to supplement its need for renewables through buying off the grid and purchasing renewable energy certificates to offset the conventional portion, green IT experts say.

It’s a conundrum that has kept the Silicon Valley tech giants within the constraints of local utilities’ energy mix in states that don’t permit direct purchases of renewable energy.

Nowhere has this challenge been more evident than in North Carolina, an indirect access state that houses data centers for Google, Apple and Facebook as well as AT&T, Wipro and Disney. Compounding matters further is proposed legislation that would repeal the state’s renewable portfolio standard mandating that 12.5 percent of North Carolina’s energy mix come from renewable sources by 2021.

But things are looking up. Now, Google is trying to transform the local landscape in North Carolina by partnering with Duke Energy. The pair worked together to develop a mechanism which will enable companies of all sizes to directly purchase renewables through a new category dubbed “renewable energy tariffs.”

“The tariffs are creating a new class of service,” said Michael Terrell, who leads Google’s public policy efforts in energy and sustainability. “We think it will be a good framework for purchasing renewable energy,” he told GreenBiz.

Before the program can be launched, though, the new class and tariff structure needs to be approved by the North Carolina Utiltiies Commission. Duke Energy will make a regulatory filing asking for its adoption within the next three months.

Under the tariff, renewable energy will be sold at specific rates yet to be determined — higher than conventional sources, of course, but passed on only to those who choose to participate in the program.

“What we think is exciting is that it’s scaleable – it allows companies to buy large amounts of renewables … not every company can manage power on the wholesale market,” Terrell said.

Terrell said that he hopes the tariff will be in place by the end of the year.

Google’s announcement of the renewable energy tariff concept last Friday came on the same day it released plans to expand its Lenoir, N.C. data center with $600 million in investments. The possibility of accessing more renewable energy directly will come in handy for the company striving to reach a commitment it made in 2007 to become carbon neutral.

Implications for Apple, Facebook


The renewable energy tariff promises to boost Apple’s tally of renewable energy directly purchased for use at its data center in Maiden, N.C.

Despite Apple’s claim last month that its data centers are powered by 100 percent renewable energy, experts say that based on the information the company has released, it does buy conventional power off the grid in North Carolina (comprised mainly of coal and nuclear power in 2013, according to a Duke Energy report filed to the state’s utilities commission) to supplement what it cannot supply on its own from its 20 MW solar array and 10 MW fuel cell installation at the Maiden data center.

According to Brad Brech, a data center energy efficiency expert and board member of the Portland-based Green Grid, Apple fell short of its claim.

“Assuming that the facility runs the fuel cells at their rated capacity, they will be running their data center at its average operational load in 2012 on 85 percent renewable energy. On a sunny day, the facility will be running on 100 percent renewable energy for eight to 10 hours because the 20 MW solar farm is feeding the grid during that time period, increasing the percentage of the time the data center runs on renewable energy to 91.3 percent of the day,” Brech told GreenBiz. “On a rainy day, it will be 85 percent.”

Brech used Apple’s reported figure of the Maiden data center’s total consumption of 104,000 MWh in 2012 as a basis for his calculations, which he said on average requires 11.8 MW of generation capacity.

“With the current renewable energy generation and energy storage technologies, it is extremely difficult to run a facility that uses large amounts of electricity on renewable energy 24 hours per day, seven days per week,” Brech added. “Most renewable energy generation sources for electricity are intermittent and then are no economical, large scale energy storage technologies available to store electricity for release when the renewable sources are not generating.”

Gary Cook, an IT analyst for Greenpeace, also weighed in. “Apple is otherwise buying renewable energy credits to allow it to claim that all of the electricity it buys is renewable energy,” he told GreenBiz. “It’s not clear how much of Apple’s 100 percent renewable energy claim is being supported by REC purchases. … Technically speaking, if Apple used the current standard for reporting greenhouse gas emissions, Apple would have to use Duke’s grid mix.”

“Given that they expect the Maiden facility to grow and its electricity use increase it will be difficult to achieve 100 percent renewable energy use and assure the reliable operation of the facility,” Brech concluded. “The reality is that all users of renewable energy, whether they are residential or commercial, depend on grid-generated electricity for some part of the day.”

Apple did not make a spokesperson available to respond.


The social media company runs a data center in Forest City, N.C., operates another in Prineville, Ore., is building a third in Lulea, Sweden and recently announced plans for a fourth near Des Moines, Iowa. While it has not been as aggressive as Google or Apple in the renewables market so far, it has a goal to reach 25 percent use of renewable energy at its data centers and facilities by 2015. And it’s planning to tap into renewable energy sources for its data centers in Sweden and Iowa, according to Reuters.

If Duke Energy’s regulatory filing to the North Carolina Utilities Commission to establish renewable energy tariffs is approved, Facebook will also have the opportunity to increase its use of renewables in Forest City.

Duke Energy spokesperson Jeff Brooks told GreenBiz that he didn’t know whether Facebook or Apple has expressed interest in participating in the renewable energy tariff program.

GigaOM‘s Katie Fehrenbacher reported last summer that Facebook’s head of energy efficiency and sustainability Bill Weihl expressed interest in purchasing renewable energy through an industry trade association which would “influence utilities’ grid choices through the group purchasing of clean power,” the article read.

How the renewable tariff program would work

Google and Duke Energy still have yet to hammer out much of the details of the renewable tariff program, which is a separate initiative from the state’s renewable portfolio standard.

The program will initially focus on large commercial and industrial companies as customers, according to Google.

“They have fairly predictable energy loads and it’s consistent, which makes it easy to design a rate that will meet their needs,” said Brooks, who added that Duke Energy had been discussing the tariff program with Google in detail for the last several months. General discussion about the idea began when Google first asked Duke Energy for a renewables rate during initial discussions about expanding its Lenoir data center, according to Brooks.

To start, the customer will decide if they want to offset some or all of its energy consumption, then the utility will match the customer with a project in the region that has a third party purchase agreement, Brooks said.

In addition to the utility going out and identifying renewable project sources, projects can approach the utility and come in under the tariff, he continued.

While Brooks could not project the level of demand in North Carolina for directly purchased renewables, he said he sees a potential for long-term growth of renewable energy sources.

“We’ve seen renewable energy projects bloom in the state over the last few years, and we’ve seen a great interest in solar energy companies, wind and even biomass and other forms of methane gas projects too. Solar in particular has really boomed in the past few years, and we’ve seen costs come down for those technologies,” Brooks said.

Terrell said that Google has been speaking to other utilities about the renewable energy tariff proposal. According to Brooks, the idea to offer renewable energy rates to various customer classes is fairly new but not entirely unique. Dominion Virginia Power, he said, provides a similar offering.

“It’s [an idea] that utilities are exploring in different ways,” he said.

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Mobile app turns city residents into agents of change

GreenBiz | March 27, 2013 | Original headline: How a civic app is turning city residents into agents of change

iCivic improvement requests resolved via PublicStuff mobile app

Civic improvement requests resolved via PublicStuff mobile app. Credit: PublicStuff

Would you turn in the girl next door for watering her lawn too much?

That’s exactly what has been happening in Plano, Texas ever since the city started using a mobile app and digital communications system. Residents can report problems in real-time ranging from environmental health hazards to water leaks, potholes, trash and broken street lights.

When the city’s water supply was under siege due to invasive zebra mussels and a simultaneous drought, the City of Plano restricted residents to watering their yards once a week, then once every other week. But with limited staff, there was no way the city could absorb the costs of monitoring and enforcement around the clock. Drive-bys noting whether lawn color was closer to brown than green wouldn’t cut it either.

Enter the mobile app and communications system the city purchased from New York City-based startup PublicStuff. Suddenly, residents who downloaded the FixIt Plano app (for free) could stop grumbling to their friends about their neighbor’s behavior — and gleefully send a hall-of-shame photo (which included the date and time the photo was snapped) documenting the excess water consumption directly to Plano City Hall instead. The location of the incident could also be mapped as well, provided the phone’s location tracking was on. And once the “report” was in the system, anyone could track its progress through receiving push notifications from city staff.

“When we enabled people to report watering violations, the use of our PublicStuff website and app really skyrocketed,” Melissa Peachey, the electronics communication manager for Plano, told GreenBiz.

Residents got so snap-happy, in fact, that in the first 19 days after FixIt Plano set up a category for water violations, 71 reports were filed.

“Being able to tag a picture to it makes it a valuable tool … The technology puts the reporting capability in their hands and they can make that report as they see [the issue],” Peachey said.

Though the watering restrictions have since been relaxed (residents are now allowed to water twice a week), the FixIt Plano app remains a convenient way for residents and city staff to keep an eye out for violations.

To date, the city has closed nearly 3,900 resident reports on the app since it debuted in 2011. Analyzing the data as a whole, Peachey says, enables Plano to make data-driven decisions for the benefit of citizens and city budgets. One such decision that might be made based on FixIt Plano data is where the city will spray for mosquitoes as a means of controlling potential West Nile Virus carriers. The city will map the locations of dead birds reported by residents and look out for areas of high concentration. A pop-up message informing that a dead bird was spotted, along with instructions on how to dispose of one in a safe manner, will be sent out to residents after the original report was filed, according to Peachey.

National push to use technology and open data for city problem-solving

Plano is just one of many cities using mobile technology to do a better job of tracking problems with the help of residents. These innovators are using open data collected by and from the local population to better plan emergency responses, city services and manage everyday occurrences such as traffic jams.

While about 200 cities (including Philadelphia, one of the pioneers of using open data and civic hackers for public good) have purchased the PublicStuff software and app that are customizable with widgets of their choice, others have signed up with competitors SeeClickFix and Citysourced to give residents access to city hall by reporting via their mobile devices.

In an update of PublicStuff’s mobile app released last week, non-English speaking residents can send in requests in their native language, and their message will be automatically translated into English for the city workers — and vice versa.

How’s it working so far? “We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback,” PublicStuff co-founder and CEO Lily Liu told GreenBiz. “We want to be sensitive to different words used in local languages and let people know that there are some sorts of modifications to the text. Obviously that will affect someone’s response and we’re building in a mechanism for that,” she said. PublicStuff also wants to make sure that its system recognizes colloquial words like “graffiti,” Liu added.

Increased communication between city staff and residents — along with increasing civic engagement — are not the only benefits for the multitudes of cash-strapped cities that have been forced to cut back on city services and staff in recent years. According to Liu, cities using her company’s products have been able to free up much-needed staff time from taking reports over the phone. Users can also pay their municipal bills and parking tickets on PublicStuff.

The service can also facilitate quick communication of crucial information during emergencies when power lines might be down, Liu said.

“Before Hurricane Sandy, cities sent out information on how to prepare, and during the hurricane residents sent in notes on the system rather than bogging down 911 lines, so critical resources weren’t tied up,” she said.

Liu, who was recognized in December by Forbes as a “30 Under 30” social entrepreneur, co-founded PublicStuff with Vincent Polidoro (now the company’s Chief Technology Officer) in 2010. The initial beta version of PublicStuff was released at the end of that year, and it was tested in a few cities in early 2011. The company is backed by FirstMark Capital venture capital firm and the Knight Enterprise Fund.

A former staffer for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Liu was inspired to develop the product after noticing that there was a gap in services for government agencies that wanted a better way to communicate with the public. None of the vendors, products or price points were accessible for cities, she said.

The cost for cities to install the PublicStuff software and use an app depends on the population size — anywhere between $1,000 for small cities and “more than $20,000” for large cities, according to Liu.

Plano did not say whether it has saved money from using PublicStuff, though Adrian Hummel, the electronic media specialist for the city who works on the back end of the system daily, observed that many of the reports sent in are closed within 24 hours.

“Some remain longer,” he said. “Obviously a pothole or street repair will take longer than [picking up] a dead animal.”

Cities 2.0 prep for growth through open data, tech

GreenBiz | July 19, 2012 | Original headline: How city-level innovation is creating business opportunities

If you want to visit the future, go to Philadelphia.

The city of brotherly love has published more than 100 datasets since April, when Mayor Michael Nutter issued an executive order requiring city branches to release their once-buried information through an online portal accessible to anyone. The site includes data from nonprofits, universities and businesses, as well as municipal data from maps of enterprise zones to a searchable database of childcare providers.

“Helping government become an enabler and a platform for innovation” is what his job is all about, Adel Ebeid, Philadelphia’s first Chief Innovation Officer, told attendees at the GreenBiz Cities 2.0 webcast on Wednesday.

The intersection between local governments, big data and innovation was the key theme of “Leveraging City Investments in Technologies,” part one in the three-part series of presentations.

As urbanization accelerates, cities are poised to play a crucial role in fostering innovation, even as their swelling populations and sometimes-creaky infrastructure create a massive business opportunity for the corporate sector, webcast speakers said.

The world will undergo a huge demographic shift over the next four decades, said Eric Woods, a director of Pike Research, a global market research and consulting firm focused on cleantech. Currently, a little more than half the global population lives in urban areas. By 2050, the share of the world’s population that’s urbanized will rise to 70 percent, with the fastest urban growth taking place in Asia, he said.

“We’re going to be adding around a million people a week to the urban population for the next 40 years,” he said.

As a result, new market opportunities are blooming. According to Woods, more than $100 billion will be spent on “innovative infocentric technology” worldwide over the next 10 years. By 2020, almost $16 billion will be spent annually on that core technology.

Plus, cities of the future will need to provide infrastructure and services on a larger scale than ever before, he said.

That includes working with companies and citizens to harness data, lowering operating costs and delivering needed services as efficiently as possible.

“Cities have become a learning laboratory of innovation and new kinds of capabilities,” said GreenBiz chairman and webcast moderator Joel Makower.

Makower cited a report published by GreenBiz Group and London-based SustainAbility earlier this year focusing on how cities are “vital to the future of sustainability.” Turns out, the report concluded, that sustainability needs cities just as much as cities need sustainability.

How, then, can cities leverage their investments in technologies to provide the greatest benefit possible? And what are the opportunities for business to partner with cities in pursuit of a more sustainable future?

Leveraging technology upgrades

There’s an easy answer to the question of what a city can do first for the most effect with the least cost, according to Jim Anderson, vice president of Schneider Electric and head of its U.S. Smart Cities program.

Upgrading buildings is the low hanging fruit for cities, he said: “Many are not upgraded or updated over the years, so it becomes a big energy user and can be upgraded at not really any cost to cities.”

Water use efficiency and transportation should be the next targets. “A lot of water is lost from leaks and old pipes and old systems out there that probably in many cases goes unnoticed,” he said.

Mobility from a traffic and congestion standpoint should also be attended to, Anderson said, along with improved traffic management. For example, new sensors available in the marketplace can help address traffic flows through real-time data.

“There are some new and evolving business models evolving around traffic and traffic congestion involving tolling,” he said.

“[There’s] huge cost savings about understanding the benefit you can get from improved competition, growth of innovation and the decrease of congestion,” said Helen Honisett, director of emerging solutions ecosystems at Cisco. “It costs cities to have people sitting in cars.”

Financing Cities 2.0

A key issue is “how we finance the technology innovation that we need,” said Woods of Pike Research. “There’s going to be increasing focus on looking at new business models, new ways of financing operations in cities and new types of partnerships.”

Anderson used as an example his company’s Smart Cities division, which works with cities to devise efficient strategies across six domains: energy, mobility, water, public services, buildings and homes and smart integration.

When U.S. Smart Cities does performance contracting for government buildings, it conducts an energy efficiency assessment in those buildings and installs upgrades.

Costs are paid for up front from a third-party financial institution based on the expected energy savings after the upgrades are complete. This poses virtually no risk from the city’s end, Anderson said.

“It’s a way cities can upgrade their infrastructure, upgrade their faciilties without any taxpayer issues or having to come up with any up-front money to fund that,” he said. “And those savings are guaranteed by Schneider.”

Driving the conversation

Since most cities don’t have chief innovation officers, who drives the conversation between companies and cities when it comes to these initiatives? And are cities starting to work together in their efforts as well?

It can start within city departments, such as a city’s office of sustainability, and eventually get to the mayor’s office, but it all depends on the city, said Ebeid of Philadelphia.

He participates in a working group made up of seven U.S. cities’ Chief Innovation Officers. Calling themselves the G7, the group shares experiences as a way to learn from each other.

The same dynamic is taking place in Europe, Honisett observed. One difference she’s noticed is that there’s been a shift where cities are less competitive. Now, they’re willing to share with each other and partake in discussions regarding how to move from one stage to the next, she said.

Cisco runs a Smart+Connected Communities initiative aimed at economic, social and environmental sustainability.

“One of the things that Cisco that works with cities on is to understand the benefits around technologies,” said Honisett. “We see huge amounts of cost savings that can be made within cities by using technology.”

The case of Philadelphia: Cities 2.0 on the ground

In Philadelphia, Ebeid said he wants to reenergize city residents to see themselves as innovators working not just on one project here and there, but to set up frameworks for sustainability.

In the next few weeks, Ebeid said the city will designate a chief data officer to oversee its open data effort — which, to be sure, came a couple of years after San Francisco made a similar open-data move, but which has made great strides.

Since 2010, the city’s Greenworks program has published an annual report which tracks 160 metrics across goals in energy, environment, equity, economy, and engagement. Greenworks is a project of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability.

One data set that the city will be delving in the next year or two, Ebeid said, is residents’ requests for non-emergency services – something almost every city has.

“We’d like to mine that data and visualize the community chatter and try to put into perhaps what the next conversation is going to be about. That is what will set us apart from traditional mining of datasets,” he said.

In addition to working with the tech and startup community through hackathons and meetups, Ebeid’s office is starting to engage with the 83 higher education institutions in the area – the second-highest number of local collegiate institutions in the country.

“In many cases, that’s perhaps an underleveraged asset,” he said.

Ebeid said he’d like the partnerships to be focused on business incubation and scaling.

“Universities certainly have the wherewithal to scale it quickly so that we can respond to almost any situation,” Ebeid said.

Photo of Philadelphia night skyline by Thesab/Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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