Can mobile apps help reduce carbon emissions?

It seems like every app is tracking us these days. Facebook analyzes user activity to predict their political affiliation. Waze aggregates user location data to estimate traffic patterns. Almost every day a new fitness app is released that tracks user movement to promote a more healthy lifestyle.

While some data collection may be questionable, it is clear that we’ve entered an era in which more people are able and willing to share their information with friends, organizations, and the world. Often, we hear stories of how companies use these data to optimize ad placement and increase conversions to other websites, apps, and products. However, researchers and data scientists around the world are also interested in how user data can help solve some of the world’s toughest problems.

Climate change is “the defining challenge of our age,” according to former Secretary General Ban Ki Moon of the United Nations. A team of students at UC Berkeley is interested in how mobile technology and data collection can help reduce carbon emissions, specifically in sector of transportation, which accounts for 27% of greenhouse gas emissions in the US.

Ph.D. student K. Shankari presenting the E-Mission platform, which detects user transportation mode

It all began with K. Shankari — a Ph.D. student in the Computer Science department at UC Berkeley. Growing up in Mumbai, she saw the implications of transportation on climate change right in front of her. She explains, “the population density is so high that it makes no sense for anyone to drive…but as people get wealthier, they get a car and a chauffeur and begin to drive everywhere. If everyone in India were to start driving, it wouldn’t matter what we did in the U.S. The planet would be cooked.” Since then, Shankari has been interested in sustainability and transportation. After 14 years of working as a software engineer, she decided to pursue a Ph.D. to follow her interest — and the E-Mission platform was born.

E-Mission is a mobile application that allows users to gather and share travel patterns. It automatically reads the phone’s location information and segments the data into defined trips. Then, the app infers the user’s mode of transportation (e.g. walk, bike, drive) for each trip. It also aggregates all travel data to enable an interactive exploration of transportation on a map — without revealing any individual’s location. This has the potential to become an important tool for various fields of research. It can assist urban planners in identifying the places where people walk, bike, and drive the most. It can enable transportation engineers to analyze the carbon footprint from transportation in various areas, and changes over time.

While closed-source applications like Moves and Google Maps Timeline have similar features, E-Mission focuses on research for the common good. Shankari explains, “I think that one of the big differences between E-Mission and the fitness apps, for example, is community and control. We can jointly decide what kinds of data should be supported by the platform, when it should be collected, and how it should be used.” Anyone can download E-mission on their mobile devices. Even better, anyone can contribute to or extend E-mission, because it is open-source and available on Github. “These aggregate insights are only valid when enough users are on the platform,” says Shankari.

One of the most recent developments in the E-Mission platform is a study focused on the user’s transportation habits — and how an app’s features may change these habits. This study, called TripAware, is being conducted by a team of six undergraduates at UC Berkeley in direct collaboration with Shankari. In a presentation to the Berkeley RISElab, team member Vasudev Venkatesh explained, “based on the relevant literature, people are often ingrained in their transportation habits. They may not know that there are other choices available that are more sustainable, and may even save money and time.”

As a result, the students have developed features in E-Mission that are designed to motivate users to reduce their transportation emissions. Their plan is to test these features with users in urban areas, and see which are most effective in changing transportation habits. In fact, you can head over to their secure website to join the study. Not only will you be helping the planet, you will gain a chance to win a $50 Amazon gift card. You can join until April 20th and giftcards will be distributed in mid-May.

The UC Berkeley researchers currently recruiting users to their website

These days, it can be hard to distinguish which technologies actually present a measurable benefit with all the data they collect. The TripAware study can give insight into what features specifically make an impact — or if mobile apps make an impact at all. Either way, it is inspiring to see these researchers and a community of users help fit a piece into this puzzle.

Update: We’ve done our study, run our analysis, are currently submitting our paper to Computer-Human Interaction. Please clap if you’d like to see another article about our results!

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