Sustainability Data’s Versatile Potential

By Chris Bousquet • March 27, 2018

Improving sustainability is one of the core promises of the smart city revolution. Cities and vendors alike have heralded optimization as an environmental panacea: by using data to make everything from transportation to service delivery faster and more efficient, cities can ensure more responsible use of energy.

Optimizing existing systems, however, is only one way of realizing sustainability in data-driven cities. Better and more widely accessible environmental data is also a tool for inspiring change, both from the top down and the bottom up. For one, better data allows governments to better understand environmental challenges and address them at their focal points. And, accessible data can galvanize residents to take action—as both citizens and consumers—to improve their cities’ environment.


Adjusting energy use throughout the day has been common practice for at least as long as thermostats have been around. When you get home, you turn the thermostat up, using more energy, and when you leave you turn it down, conserving energy. Now many buildings allow users to program presets, setting automated patterns for when the heat (or A/C) turns on and off. This is energy optimization in its most basic form: use more energy when you need it, and less energy when you don’t.

The City of Boston has sought to take this model and apply it to energy use in city buildings. The city has deployed an energy management system (EMS) in City Hall and the public library at Copley that provides building engineers with real-time energy use data, allowing them to adjust operational settings throughout the day in order to reduce energy and maximize efficiency.

Line graph showing energy loads at the Boston Public Library

This monitoring tool complements the common-sense energy efficiency work Boston has long pursued. Like many other organizations, Boston uses a building management system (BMS) that automatically makes predetermined changes in energy use throughout the day. For instance, the system is programmed to turn on heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) as well as lights during working hours between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. and then turn them down during other hours.

Buildings engineers now also use the monitoring tool to configure buildings so that they adjust energy use based on fluctuations in energy delivery prices throughout the day. Boston’s utility provider, Eversource, charges the city a higher rate for delivering electricity during periods of peak energy demand during a given billing cycle. As a result, the city has an incentive to balance its energy use throughout any given day to ensure its peaks are not as high and therefore that buildings aren’t running up a massive tab during high-demand periods. Buildings engineers t use the real-time monitoring tool to track energy use throughout the day, ensure that there are no major spikes, and adjust operations if they need to balance usage rates. “Working to reduce our monthly peak demand is one of the most cost effective ways to reduce utility costs,” explained Adam Jacobs, the city’s energy manager. “Having real-time data allows us to proactively manage our buildings, rather than reacting at the end of the month when we get our bill.”

Boston also uses the tool to manage a demand response program, in which grid operator ISO New England compensates the city for reducing energy during high-demand times. Boston works with a private company called CPower that coordinates pre-planned load reductions across its customers to reduce the burden on the grid at peak times, and then they split the payments from grid operator ISO New England. Boston agrees to be “on call” at certain times, during which CPower can dispatch city building engineers to reduce their load. These engineers rely on the real-time monitoring tool to ensure they reduce energy to the requisite level.

With access to a visualization of this data, Jacobs can also monitor building activity remotely and look for anomalies. During a snowstorm in 2017 when all city buildings were closed, Jacobs checked the tool and noticed that the library was still using energy as if were open. With one text to the building engineer, Jacobs was able to ensure the building reduced its energy consumption.


Curbing pollution starts with determining where it’s coming from. As of 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had set up more than 10,000 air quality sensors across the United States in an effort to spot polluted areas and drive change. These sensors are immensely sophisticated, with the ability to detect a single particle of any given pollutant within a billion particles of air.

Unfortunately, because they’re so sophisticated, the EPA’s sensors are also prohibitively expensive. With prices at thousands of dollars per additional sensor, purchasing one is an investment, let alone an entire network. And while 10,000 sensors may seem like a lot, when spread across 50 states—especially those like Texas and California with huge landmasses and hundreds of cities—these sensors are not adequate to gather detailed air quality data. With this limited infrastructure, cities are not able to visualize differences in pollution across neighborhoods, which makes identifying the largest polluters nearly impossible.

Rising to this challenge, cities, non-profits, and research institutions have begun working together to pursue a lower-cost, more ubiquitous solution that allows jurisdictions to gather fine-grained environmental data and combat the root causes of pollution. The City of Baltimore in particular has benefited from collaborations to support more detailed air quality sensing. In January of 2017, researchers from Johns Hopkins University won the EPA’s Smart City Air Challenge, which awarded $40,000 to fund the installation of hundreds of low-cost air quality sensors and help cities share the data with the public. The team developed durable sensor housing and a scalable cloud platform for data management to deploy sensors in Baltimore.

The following summer, thanks to the EPA funding and help from local nonprofit CivicWorks, the Johns Hopkins team launched Baltimore Open Air. With assistance from volunteers, the team built and has begun deploying 250 simple, solar-powered sensors called WeatherCubes that measure temperature, relative humidity, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide and send information to the cloud in near-real time. These cubes will eventually cover the city fully, and the data they collect will be publicly available online.

The total cost of the project was $70,000 for an entire network of sensors, making it far less expensive than the EPA’s more sophisticated system. Although the sensors are not nearly as precise as those the EPA deploys, measuring exact quantities of each particle is not the goal of the project. Rather, project leaders want to create a map that will identify more and less polluted areas in Baltimore, and allow researchers to understand the causes of more polluted neighborhoods. Armed with this information, the city will be able to tackle the root causes of pollution, hold polluters accountable, and change practices in smoggier neighborhoods.


Often, the most effective civic change starts not with political leaders, but with inspired residents who galvanize reform among their fellow citizens or in the government.

By equipping its residents with accessible sustainability data, the City of Austin has sought to tap the power of the public to realize environmental reform. In 2016, Austin released an open dataset and public dashboard on sustainability in order to increase awareness of the issue among residents. The dashboard tracks the city’s progress on a number of performance indicators, including emissions, energy use, renewable energy supply, percentage of waste recycled, number of trees planted, and more.

Screenshot of the Austin dashboard with links to more info about energy demands, emissions, and waste

The city has presented this project as a call to action for residents. “Beyond guiding City actions, we also hope that the community will use this information to consider how they can support sustainability goals for Austin,” the city said in the press release announcing the dashboard. Lewis Leff, Senior Business Process Consultant with the Office of Sustainability, echoed these sentiments: “Transparency is one of our core values as an organization, and we wanted to promote trust and encourage civic engagement,” he explained.

Residents have responded to the city’s call, using the dashboard as a tool for pursuing sustainability. According to Leff, the dashboard has seen more than 7,500 views in its first 18 months.

And, more importantly, engaging with the dashboard has spurred visible action. For example, “the dashboard is used by a citizen commission that helps us make progress towards our emissions goals,” said Leff. With access to data on the city’s progress towards sustainability, advocacy groups are able to hold the city accountable. And, local civic tech groups have begun using the published data and requesting more. “We’ve been able to understand where the public wants more detailed information by holding meetings with local civic tech groups like the local Code for America Brigade Open Austin,” Leff explained. “It’s all within the sustainability ecosystem. The data is out there and people are using it.”


Through optimization, better-targeted interventions, and transparency-driven action, cities can leverage data and technology to improve their efforts towards sustainability. This multi-faceted potential is a reminder of the need for cities to think about data as a versatile resource requiring a flexible strategy. By using data creatively across different entry points, cities can cull the most value from the information they collect.

About the Author

Chris Bousquet

Chris Bousquet is a PhD student in philosophy at Syracuse University. Prior to that, Chris was a Research Assistant/Writer for Data-Smart City Solutions. Chris holds a bachelor’s degree from Hamilton College.