ecotrack is fitbit for sustainability: a free app which tracks your carbon footprint and gives you personalized suggestions for shrinking it
ecotrack is a free app for iPhone and Android which passively tracks your carbon footprint, giving you tailored advice on how to reduce it.
After downloading the app and answering eight short questions about your lifestyle, you’ll see an estimate of your carbon footprint estimate for three main areas: transport, energy and food.
That's when the passive data technologies kick in. ecotrack knows when you’re on a bus, car, train or plane, updating your travel footprint automatically. It estimates your daily energy footprint using externally-collected data like your local temperature, and predicts the size of your food footprint from your eating habits and activity.
Through an elegant user interface, you’ll see the most efficient ways to shrink your carbon footprint, and ecotrack challenges you to do it. The occasional ‘nudge’ helps you along: “it’s going to be sunny tomorrow – could you cycle to work?” Your carbon-cutting efforts are rewarded, with badges, coupons, and a leaderboard pitting your efforts against those of your friends.
Once you’ve been using the app for a few weeks, and have a clearer sense of your carbon footprint and a stronger commitment to reducing it, ecotrack will offer you the chance to go a step further by becoming fully carbon-neutral. For a small monthly fee – calculated on the basis of your existing footprint – you’ll get access to the app’s premium features, and we will buy and destroy carbon credits to offset your unavoidable emissions.
Our key value proposition, therefore, is to empower our users to go fully carbon-neutral, through a combination of personalized lifestyle changes and the offsetting of unavoidable emissions. By combining sophisticated data collection and modelling techniques, an engaging user interface delivering personalized recommendations, and a ‘freemium’ model incentivizing further emissions cuts, ecotrack offers a uniquely powerful way for individuals to embrace a fully sustainable lifestyle.
What are the key outcomes and impact of your solution?
Quantifying an individual’s carbon footprint, and helping to shrink it, is at the heart of our mission. We use tailor-made algorithms and localized data collection to generate accurate, real-time estimates of each user’s emissions. As a result, we can track carbon savings across the entire community of ecotrackers.
But while helping users cut their carbon output is our central objective, we also see the potential to help shift the wider debate on climate change and change behavior on a deeper level. Until now, it has been very difficult to use existing technology to estimate an individual’s particular impact on climate change with any sort of accuracy. For this reason, much of the focus has (rightly) been on government- and industry-led efforts to enact large-scale change.
Yet this is changing. Each of us now carries around in our pocket a device which knows where we are and tracks our movements throughout the day. Smartphones can help us see, in granular detail, the effect of our day-to-day decisions on our health, our finances, and even our sleep. What if this enormously powerful and popular technology could also be used to show us our impact on the world around us?
Anyone who has put on a fitbit has felt the sudden significance of making it 10,000 steps each day. This goal is felt even – or perhaps especially – on those days when you don’t step up. Connected devices have already changed how we see our health, our spending, and our dietary choices. It’s time for these same devices to transform how we experience our impact on the climate. By showing users personalized information about their emissions, we hope to create greater awareness about the impact of individual choices on the climate.
The core impact we hope ecotrack to have, therefore, is two-fold: enabling individuals to make significant cuts to their emissions, through more sustainable lifestyle changes to reduce emissions while offsetting what cannot be avoided, and transforming how we, as individuals and as society, understand and experience our relationship with the environment and the climate.
What actions do you propose to realize your stated goals?
The three core actions we need to take for the app to be a success are development, design, and delivery of the product. Technically, this is a sizeable challenge. For instance, on the backend we have designed sophisticated algorithms which can predict a user’s chosen form of transport, while also accessing external data such as local temperature to estimate emissions from energy usage, in real-time. Embedding these algorithms in a way that’s responsive and perfomant is a substantial challenge.
Alongside these technical obstacles is an even bigger design challenge: making the product engaging. As such, we have and will continue to invest considerable energy in creating a simple and elegant app for the end user. This effort involves everything from choosing the right color palette to deciding the right tone in which to offer our recommendations and communicate climate science. One of the most important design decisions is how to conceptualize carbon emissions as a tangible, even visceral metric. We have experimented with several ideas, from a forest which ‘grows’ as users cut their emissions, to an interface highlighting how many ‘earths’ it would take to support their existing lifestyle.
What unites these technical and design challenges is our underlying strategic philosophy. We are ardent believers in the lean startup methodology, which can be summarised as: put the user first. We intend to externsively test our design decisions with users, both qualitatively through interviews and focus groups, and quantitatively through A/B testing and other experiments. Indeed, even before we had a product to test on users, we gained useful insights from a specially commissioned survey of hundreds of prospective users. The findings of the survey – for example, that 90% of millenials who are concerned about climate change would be willing to change their behaviour – helped guide our mission from the outset.
Finally, after the technical and design challenges are surmounted comes another important one: delivery to end users. Beyond simply publishing on the iPhone and Android app stores, creating a widely adopted app involves a solid marketing strategy. Initially, we intend to target students in the Greater Boston area, focussing on members of the Harvard and MIT student sustainability community who are already committed to shrinking their carbon footprint. This rich source of willing users will allow us to tailor the app to our target market. But through a combination of a strong social media presence, on-campus initiatives and demo days, and old-fashioned word-of-mouth sharing, we hope to exploit the networks of our passionate, tech-savvy early adopters to rapidly scale up the adoption of our app.
Who will take these actions?
ecotrack exists to help individuals take action to address climate change. But the team behind ecotrack is not an island: it exists as part of a large network of prospective users, supporters and funders. Our core team consists of four academics based at Harvard and MIT. We have already received generous financial support and guidance from groups based within both institutions.
At the core of our mission is the belief in individuals, at scale, to take the fight to climate change by taking responsibility for cutting their emissions. As such, the success of the app depends on inspiring individual users to take action through the app, and our research suggests a strong appetite for a product that enables action and empowers individuals in this way. Yet we are not blind to the importance of academic institutions, media organizations, cross-sector industry, and government at every level in this effort.
Our collaboration with this wide range of actors will take various forms, but we are especially interested in partnering with organizations who are able to help us spread awareness of the app, and provide a benefit to our users. Promoting the app will rely on media platforms – both social but also traditional – in spreading word of the app. As well as the support we have received from university initiatives as noted above, we hope to partner with campus student groups to provide an initial base of enthusiastic users, and connect us with a wider network of sustainability organizations across other campuses.
Lastly, we would like to incorporate the accumulated knowledge of those in the mobile app and behavioral science communities. For the former, we would like to draw upon the insight of people who have built valuable user experiences, such as UI and UX designers. For the latter, we want to tease out behavioral insights and embed them into our app to inspire and embed substantive and sustained behavioral changes.
By standing on the shoulders of giants in the academic, financial, media, app development and behavioral science communities, we hope to build an awesome product which can help people cut carbon.
We hope that users find ecotrack easy, enjoyable and even inspiring to use. Admittedly, however, compared to other popular apps which allow users to save money, such as Uber, or explore social content, like Instagram, our app is ‘asking more’ of our users. In order to tackle climate change, individuals need to take decisions in their day-to-day lives which could be “painful” – perhaps inconvenient, complicated or disruptive to their lifestyle. The benefits of these actions are enormous: in limiting global temperature rise, cutting utilities bills and encourage healthier living. However, to get off the ground, we will need to build a committed community of early adopters who are already receptive to taking action to fight climate change.
Fortunately, the demographics of the Boston area are well-suited to this challenge. The city is relatively young, liberal and endowed with an unusual number of universities and colleges, making Boston a great place to launch our app. In particular, we plan to target university students, initially exploiting our own networks within Harvard and MIT before scaling up our focus to students across the city. University campuses are the perfect environment to promote an app of this sort, featuring dense populations of well-educated, globally-minded young people who we expect to be especially receptive to our mission.
In particular, student organizations provide an ideal initial user base. We have already partnered with MIT’s Campus Sustainability Group, who have kindly volunteered to test-drive the app in its early iterations. The group – and its parallel organization at Harvard with whom we have also developed links – is already committed to fighting climate change and will therefore bring great energy and enthusiasm to trialling the app.
From these sustainability groups we hope to generate not only useful insights on how the app is used and experienced, but also a small but vocal collection of early adopters who can then promote the app across campus. We then aim to target student mailing lists and use on-campus events to raise awareness of the app, in addition to the natural word-of-mouth promotion from initial users. Our app is inherently social, featuring leaderboards, peer-to-peer challenges and other ways for users to “compete” over cutting their emissions. By targeting existing communities of interest and social networks, these social features will be salient to users from the very start.
By iterating and improving the app as the user base expands onto new campuses, we plan to scale the app quickly to other millennials, including those who both in work and at school. The app will be free for anyone to use, but our survey research suggests that millennials are especially receptive to technology that helps to cut emissions. Ultimately, we project our serviceable available market to encompass an estimated 130 million users who have the technology and motivation to commit to a more sustainable lifestyle via our app.
What do you expect are the costs associated with piloting and implementing the solution, and what is your business model?
For the revenue side of ecotrack, our core business model is based upon a monthly subscription service. For approximately $5 per month we offer premium users additional features within the app alongside carbon offsetting of their unavoidable emissions. By buying and cancelling carbon credits from regulated markets - such as those of New England’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative - we can help the subset of ours users to go ‘carbon neutral’. This means that by changing their behaviors to reduce avoidable emissions and offsetting the rest they can be ‘net-zero’ emitters of CO2, which we believe should be an aspiration for everyone who wants to live sustainably.
Note that although subscription services for apps are reasonably new, there is a strong precedent, especially with our target market. Apps already serving our market this way include myFitnessPal ($10 pm for calorie tracking) and Headspace ($13 pm for meditation tracks).
On the cost side, for the prototyping phase (to end of 2017), our projected budget requirements are approximately $40k. This takes into account the costs of data, software, external development support and beta tester compensation. Thereafter, we project our costs to be approximately $125k in years 2 and 3 and $250k in years 4 and 5. These latter years include the increased costs of backend (AWS) hosting costs alongside staff salaries.
We therefore consider ourselves a for-profit social venture. Crucially, our social mission of cutting carbon is embedded within our business model: by signing up more users to the subscription service we will help save carbon and make a large financial return. We have yet to incorporate but we are considering a standard corporate model or a ‘B-corp’ model which will allow us to more formally support our social mission with external stakeholders as well as shareholders.
We intend to use this for-profit social venture structure to maximize the funding opportunities available to us. We aim to draw upon both venture capital and impact investing funds, with a preference towards funders who understand our market and provide valuable human capital such as insight into the app market. By drawing upon these human and financial resources in the short-term we aim to make our venture financially sustainable in the long-term. In doing so, we hope to be a flagship example of a socially-engineered, profitable, sustainably-oriented innovation. We hope that this will inspire others to create other sustainable products which will help shift humanity towards a low-carbon trajectory.
The main concepts which we are drawing upon for our execution of the prototype and pilot are lean startup combined with agile development. Our interpretation of these paradigms is, broadly: build what’s most valuable first; do it as quickly as possible (‘fail fast’) in short iteration cycles; and test with users as much as possible. Because we are not using a ‘waterfall’ production approach, our timeline is therefore less predictable. But, as a result, we believe our end product will be more valuable and meaningful.
Our aim is to develop the prototype over the next six months with beta testers drawn from Harvard and MIT student communities. The prototype will be used to test the technical elements of the product, including the riskiest parts of the frontend and backend, such as the speed at which the algorithms can be processed and insight delivered to the user. Alongside this we will continue to develop and iterate our MVP designs with end users, such as the best way to gamify progress for the user and integrate social elements within the app.
By separating the riskiest technical and design challenges we aim to de-risk the production cycle whilst maintaining a focus on providing value to the end user. Within 12 months we intend for the two facets (the technical prototype and the design MVP) to come together and be launched at the end of 2017. We thereafter aim to continue to iterate ecotrack based on user feedback and testing including A/B tests, whilst monitoring our core metric of choice: user retention.
Thereafter we aim to reach product-market fit and, supported by a viral marketing campaign, grow the userbase of ecotrackers. Alongside this we seek to improve the advice we offer users, offering increasing depth of accuracy and breadth of audience across developed markets. Finally, by year 5, by building the world’s first passive carbon footprint tracker we aim to help 10m users save 32m tons of CO2 annually: equivalent to the annual emissions of Norway or Cuba.
Our focus on empowering individuals to change their behavior is quite distinctive, compared with the majority of other solutions. However, we share some similarities with Amanzi (http://solvecolab.mit.edu/challenges/2016/fuel-carbon-contributions/c/solution/1329188), whose proposed “social media platform focused on sustainability” echoes the social elements of our proposal. We also share with the DREAMERS proposal (http://solvecolab.mit.edu/challenges/2016/fuel-carbon-contributions/c/solution/1329162) the aim to spread awareness and education about climate change. Finally, the proposal by eyerah (http://solvecolab.mit.edu/challenges/2016/fuel-carbon-contributions/c/solution/1328943) to require carbon footprint labeling on products shares our focus on changing behavior by providing individuals with better information.
ecotrack is built upon a rich intellectual foundation of academic and non-academic sources that show how to build and impactful, behavior-changing product. Some of these sources which we are drawing upon for the theory and practicality of ecotrack are below:
Arrow, Kenneth J., Michael D. Intriligator, Serge-Christophe Kolm, Erik Schokkaert, Jon Elster, Chris Hann, Jean Mercier Ythier, et al. “Handbook of the Economics of Giving, Altruism and Reciprocity.” Foundations 1, no. I36 (2006): 1–886.
Eyal, Nir. Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. Penguin, 2014. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=dsz5AwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT5&dq=nir+eyal+hooked&ots=KzLznDtjRL&sig=4V7zr4I4Jzo-VHbuyfFNFg8ACt8.
Furr, Nathan, and Paul Ahlstrom. Nail It Then Scale It: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Creating and Managing Breaththrough Innovation. Nathan Furr and Paul Ahlstrom, 2011.
Gowdy, John M. “Behavioral Economics and Climate Change Policy.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 68, no. 3–4 (December 2008): 632–44. doi:10.1016/j.jebo.2008.06.011.
Joshi, Yatish, and Zillur Rahman. “Factors Affecting Green Purchase Behaviour and Future Research Directions.” International Strategic Management Review 3, no. 1–2 (June 2015): 128–43. doi:10.1016/j.ism.2015.04.001.
Kollmuss, Anja, and Michael Lazarus. “Buying and Cancelling Allowances as an Alternative to Offsets for the Voluntary Market.” OECD Environment Working Papers. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, August 4, 2010.http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/content/workingpaper/5km975qmwp5c-en
Leonard, Thomas C. “Richard H. Thaler, Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness.” Constitutional Political Economy 19, no. 4 (2008): 356–360.
McCright, Aaron M. “The Effects of Gender on Climate Change Knowledge and Concern in the American Public.” Population and Environment 32, no. 1 (September 1, 2010): 66–87. doi:10.1007/s11111-010-0113-1.
Ries, Eric. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. Crown Business, 2011. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=tvfyz-4JILwC&oi=fnd&pg=PA15&dq=lean+startup+ries&ots=8H7bE87lvW&sig=yssZn0_lLVfne3F555y7Hsa6pC0.
“Sins of Emission.” The Economist, August 3, 2006.http://www.economist.com/node/7252897
Zelenski, John M., Raelyne L. Dopko, and Colin A. Capaldi. “Cooperation Is in Our Nature: Nature Exposure May Promote Cooperative and Environmentally Sustainable Behavior.” Journal of Environmental Psychology 42 (June 2015): 24–31. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2015.01.005.
How can individuals and corporations manage and reduce their carbon contributions?