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Web App Developed at Beloit Leads to Greener Choices

October 29, 2018
By Susan Kasten

You could turn off every light switch, air conditioning unit, and random device on an entire student residence floor of Chapin Hall, and the amount of power conserved still wouldn't match the demands of the building's single elevator. In other words, for those students who are able to climb the steps to their rooms, walking the stairs saves a bundle of energy.

How do we know this?

It's just one of the many findings made visible through the Open Energy Dashboard, known as OED by the Beloit student programmers who have been working on it for more than two years.

OED tracks electrical power usage data in select buildings at Beloit and at five other colleges and universities who have adopted it to date. OED collects raw data and analyzes it to determine uses by floors, buildings, and across campuses, using graphs and charts that educate people and encourage conservation.

Steven Huss-LedermanThe web application was developed at Beloit under the leadership of Steven Huss-Lederman. The computer science professor says that over the past five semesters, 30 to 40 students have worked on this project, which is free and open source, meaning it is available free of charge and can be tweaked in collaboration with partners.

The project got off the ground in 2016, when Beloit went after a grant for electrical submeters as part of its larger sustainability efforts. Steve reasoned that if Beloit purchased software to track the data collected on buildings by submeters, it would cost tens of thousands of dollars. Plus, service from an outside vendor could result in Beloit possibly losing ownership of its data and not having an application that was customized to its needs.   

Primarily, though, he saw an in-house software development project as a way for students to become more competitive through a real world application of computer science skills that would significantly enhance their résumés.

"This project allows students to learn how to use their technical skills and integrate them into a far-reaching project on deadline," Steve said during an October Faculty Forum presentation.

He says OED Involves about 20,000 lines of code. Steve introduced OED through a database capstone course in Beloit's computer science department, but it has continued for many students as a special project in computer science.

Students earn academic credit for their work and no one receives pay. He says this type of software is known as "humanitarian free open source software" because it responds to a need in society. He added that projects aimed at a societal good are intrinsically motivating to students.

In the future, OED will continue to analyze electric power usage, but it will also expand to measure other units that are important to sustainability, including gas, water, and carbon. Plans are also underway to enhance OED's data visualization to include maps.

Steve says that the number of users, which now include the University of Colorado and Central College in Iowa among others, is expected to keep growing.