Concept: Spectrum: This Screen Ranks Each Apartment in Your Building By Energy Use

How much energy do you use compared to the other apartments in your building? This screens is installed in the foyer of apartment buildings to rank apartments by their energy use, and rewarding good players with this simple psychology trick.

The Spectrum Energy Display is an electronic display screen that sits in the lobby or foyer of an apartment building. The screen displays each apartment in the building and ranks them in order of their energy use, displaying a 3-day rolling average of energy consumption in total kilowatt hours. A color spectrum is applied to the apartments on the display to help “nudge” residents to reduce their energy use. Energy data for apartments is available from smart meters and can be fed into this kind of electronic display. The design of The Spectrum Energy Display is built upon the behavioral science that shows how motivated people become when compared to each other, as well as the theory of the public disclosure or transparency of data — simply making the numbers easily visible — naturally drives people to change.

Wall screen display of apartments listed by their energy use.

The Energy Wastage Problem

We waste a lot of energy. With a little bit of attention to details, we can cut the energy out cities use by a big chunk — maybe up to 40 percent.

In 2009, McKinsey & Co. released an eye-popping study demonstrating that the United States could hugely improve the efficiency of its homes, offices and factories, through strategies like sealing leaky building ducts and upgrading old appliances. By doing so, McKinsey estimated, the country could save $680 billion dollars over 10 years and do the climate equivalent of taking all the nation’s cars off the road. — The Washington Post

But how do we get people to use less energy? It’s hard to do. Marketing campaigns often don’t work, and legislation is difficult and costly to implement. But there is another way that hasn’t gotten enough attention, and it’s in the realm of “nudgey stuff,” and feedback loops of data.

Simply showing people the numbers is an easier and less controversial way to motivate people to change. It’s a technique called disclosure and it has big potential. In a recent podcast interview I did with leading disclosure researcher, Archon Fung, a professor at Harvard University, he described several examples where the public disclosure of data has lead to impressive change. These case studies include the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, which lead to a 45 percent reduction in toxic chemical use, and the Los Angeles Restaurant Grade Cards, which led to a 22 percent reduction in food-borne hospital admissions. I wrote about both in my book.

Inspired by Opower

Opower brought behavioral science to energy efficiency. The conducted a simple test. They asked people to save energy in four different ways. The first was to do it for the environment. The second was to save money. The third was be a good citizen. The fourth was because your neighbors do it.

Social norms: the only message that got people to change was the message that said “Your neighbors use less.”
Alex Laskey, Founder of Opower, talks about how social comparison gets people people to reduce their energy use while other messages fail.
Opower sample report that comes in your electricity bill.

Which message worked the best? The message about the neighbors. You see, humans are primary social beings, and the way we behave and what we believe in is not built on facts and data nearly as much as we think it is. It’s based on what the people around us are doing. It’s a concept in behavioral science known as social norms

The concept for The Spectrum Energy Display takes the Opower concept a step further. It shows a real-time data feed, which is shown to drive behavior, and also ranks the closer community of immediate neighbors — the fellow apartment dwellers.

How it works

Many apartment buildings now have smart-meters installed. That means they can provide a computer-readable feed on energy data. It’s also pubic-facing to all apartment residents. The Hello World Labs team build an API that draws in a feed of data from each of the smart meters in an apartment block and feeds it into a web-based app built in Node and React. We use a Dell screen to display the app in a browser and it’s set to full-screen mode. The leaderboard shows three day rolling averages of energy use of each apartment, ranked from the lowest energy user to the highest energy user. Vacant apartments that show no energy consumption are not displayed.

Why it works

People often think we can just make “an app for that.” But smartphones and websites are actually pretty terrible at communicating to us. Why? Because each function on the phone or website is competing with the other functions. Also because a person needs to consciously open the app. But there’s a whole other universe in how we can communicate — called ambient messaging — and when it comes to environmental messages, it’s supremely exciting, and largely untapped.

Ambient messages of data and color (like traffic lights) are a key dimension of communication. The information is placed environmentally — where we can easily see it — but it’s not invasive like the billboards or flashing signs you get in conventional advertising. Ambient messaging lets us tell an important story to people in a gentle and subliminal way. We simply show data, and the numbers speak for themselves.

Call to action

Interested in getting The Spectrum Energy Display installed in your apartment building? Hello World Labs can built it for you. Email our founder Katie Patrick at kp[at] to arrange a proposal. We’d love to built this concept for you!

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Katie Patrick

Katie Patrick

Environmental Engineer | “Fitbit for the Planet” Designer | Author of How to Save the World | Learn how to gamify sustainability at