Data Portability Opportunity: Public Utilites

Diving deeper on my current obsession with data portability and legacy datastores, here’s an idea that someone’s probably already working on and that should definitely see the light of day (with a nod to my friend and colleague Dave Naffziger for inadvertently planting the seed last April).

First, a pair of assertions:

  1. Humans are peer-obsessed; they calibrate their success and happiness in large part on their performance relative to their peer group. This psychology has been put to effective use by Madison Avenue since the dawn of the industrial age, mostly to get people to spend money they don’t have to buy things they don’t need.
  2. Whether you believe in global climate change or just want to see the industrial world reduce its dependence on foreign sources of energy, reducing the average consumer’s residential energy consumption would offer significant societal benefits.

Now a proposition:

If each residential energy utility was required to open its database of residential consumption and billing data for public access (granularity could be limited to the zipcode or block level to reduce privacy concerns), it would unlock significant gains in residential conservation. With access to this dataset, everyone from energy conservation non-profits to established energy players to new conservation entrepreneurs could use the power of peer-comparison to help drive residential energy consumption down. Consumers could be shown their consumption performance relative to national and local benchmarks, with outperformance offering bragging rights, and underperformance creating incentives to (fill in the blank): buy green power; install better insulation; turn down the thermostat; go solar; etc., etc.

The public availability of the dataset would also reduce the (perceived) obligation of government or regulated industry to drive conservation by empowering an efficient marketplace to use market techniques (e.g., peer comparison marketing) to pursue a public good (and make money in the process).

NB – Less good, but still better than where we are today, individual consumers could be offered the ability to download their personal energy consumption history, supporting Wesabe-like pooling. This would tend to limit engagement in the dataset to people who already had an interest in reducing their carbon footprint or energy bill, offering a small fraction of the impact that a mandated disclosure could unlock.