Hints and recommendations regarding Digital Tools for Sustainable and Efficient Energy Behavioural Change

One of the daily challenges of life is, “How do I get people – including myself – to do what I want?”. It’s something the app industry has tried to tackle, and it was also one of the questions at the core of eTEACHER. Interview with the Project Coordinator: Dr. Gloria Calleja-Rodríguez from CEMOSA

February 2nd – Forming attitudes is hard. It may be exciting to start a new habit, but it’s challenging to make it stick. And this is what eTEACHER is about, a project to change the long-term energy behaviour of end-users in different buildings. But the strength of this project lies in the unique twofold combination: a sophisticated brain, which gathers information on end-users energy behaviour and needs, processes data and provides customised recommendations; and the end-users’ involvement, which has guided our technical work throughout. Over the last four months, users were asked to test the app and give their final feedback before it goes on the market.

However, the app was released later than planned due to various technical issues and the global pandemic, which complicated the testing and monitoring in the demo building. Let’s try to provide some pieces of advice about getting people to change their energy habits, based on the experience of the eTEACHER team.

Why is user engagement so important for changing behaviour apps, like eTEACHER?

Because if we want to get building users to download and try our app, we must first inform them about the project and energy issues. And once they’ve downloaded the app, they are kept on board by both the project’s engagement strategy and the app’s user-friendly features (mobile app and desktop version).

Which were the main challenges you tackled in user engagement?

There were several challenges. The main one was the wide range of user profiles: students, teachers, office staff, doctors, flat occupants, cleaning staff, patients, etc. Building users were of different ages with educational and cultural backgrounds. Feedback from all these people has been used in our solutions to make them more successful with building users. Since the global pandemic started, we haven’t been able to obtain this feedback in person at forums, interviews or workshops. Attracting their attention and collecting their feedback is now much harder.

How did you engage with them and which conclusions can you draw?

As a solution, we are continuously tracking users’ statistics, which show exactly how building users are using the tool. We constantly update our engagement plans in the light of these statistics. This engagement involves using calls and digital media such as emails, appealing videos, online surveys, etc. We conclude that it is best to consult with users from start to finish as this encourages them to take up our behaviour-change solutions. We also think it is important to hold face-to-face meetings with users so that they are not overloaded with emails or videos.

What technical challenges are you facing during the demonstration phase and how are you dealing with them?

One of the main challenges is related to the wireless monitoring technology and the quality of the data that they provide. We have data gaps during some periods; some sensors send the same value during long periods etc. One of the reasons is that device users connect and disconnect, but there are other technical problems, for example, the lack of signal coverage and the low battery autonomy. Wireless technology seems to have important advantages such as the price and easy installation but it looks like it isn’t ready for big buildings. The good news is that this kind of technology is developing very quickly. We have also experienced that the devices sometimes do not meet commercial specifications. We are using different solutions to address the issues with sensors and data quality such as including algorithms for automatic data validation in the databases, developing a weekly maintenance plan for monitoring devices, checking data quality and sensors status periodically. One lesson learnt so far is the monitoring devices and the eTEACHER tool need to be supervised and serviced if they are performing properly during the demonstration.
Another technical challenge that we addressed during the implementation phase was the interoperability with the building (Building Automation and Control System or monitoring system) and the different eTEACHER tools which include data processing tools and user interfaces. The solution is based on developing a universal communication interface consisting of a common database, a synchronisation tool and an eTEACHER API.

If not mentioned before, how has COVID-19 impacted the demonstration and what solutions did you take?

In addition to affecting user engagement, the pandemic had a heavy impact on the use of the buildings. On one hand, office buildings are less occupied many people are working from home; schools and offices more ventilated; healthcare centres have lower occupancy because many appointments are solved by phone and they try to minimize the waiting time. On the other hand, residential buildings are used more than before because we go out less and many of us are working from home. Therefore, it is difficult to evaluate the behavioural change and the energy savings resulting by eTEACHER since we cannot compare the consumption and behaviour before and after. In our case, we stay positive because our evaluation methodology is based on comparing control and study environments before and after eTEACHER. Control environments are rooms that will never get eTEACHER while study environments are similar rooms that get eTEACHER during the demonstration period but not during the baseline period. We will assume that COVID-19 has impacted both kinds of environments and we will compare deviation before and after to obtain behavioural changes and energy savings from that comparison.

What kind of feedback have you collected from the users so far that can be useful for the future?

We are collecting quite different feedback, I guess because we have many different types of users as I mentioned before. Some users are very happy with eTEACHER tools while others report they don’t have time to use it or they think the tools are not mature enough. Several users who have the eTEACHER toolkit at the office are reluctant to use their smartphones; we have the same problem in the schools. So, even if it may sound a bit old-fashioned, a desktop version seems important to have. One of the most successful functionalities is the virtual 3D model building where you can visualize information about comfort conditions and energy consumption. This shows how important the user interface is. In general, several users have shown their interest in having details about their use of energy. As a conclusion, I would say that data collecting and processing is very important for providing interesting and reliable information for the building’s users but we also have to pay a lot of attention to how we show users that information.

Do you have any recommendations for those who want to replicate your idea?

I have several. The first piece of advice would be to focus on interoperability related to building facilities, devices and eTEACHER tools from the very beginning of the implementation. The second recommendation is to ensure data quality by investing enough resources in monitoring devices and developing validation algorithms. The last recommendations are to avoid disappointing building users and to involve them in the process, to fine-tune the tools and user interfaces and to carry out enough internal validation and quality tests before giving the tools to them.

2 Feb 2021

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