Larry and Sergey, listen up guys and step up to the plate. Many people out there are asking how you are going to top Google StreetView.
The state of our built environment is in disarray. If we're going to reduce our energy use and green up our buildings, we need to think about the performance of existing buildings, as new-build only account for a small proportion of building stock. Over half of the world's population now lives in cities, so we can make easy gains by improving the quality of our urban built environment. This isn't the low-hanging fruit -- this is the fruit that has fallen from the tree and is now rotting on the ground.
Google, you've developed a fantastic sophisticated engine for processing imagery;
can we please borrow it to save the world?
Where to start?
If you want to find out how well your building performs thermally, a good place to start is to take a picture of the outside of your property with a thermal imaging camera. It enables you to quickly identify the "hot spots" -- where heat is being transmitted through your walls where, for example, you have gaps in insulation, poor quality windows etc.
The heat that leaks from your house is represented by different color shading. You can then do something smart about it by remedying the problem areas. The only problem is that these pictures are pretty pricey and only occupy a small "niche" in the market, and the chances are you're not going to bother.
How can we scale up a survey of our built environment's assets, and do this on a massive scale? After all, if we do everyone's at the same time and scale up the operation, it's going to be much cheaper in the long-run than taking loads of individual pictures that are never going to get taken in time to avoid catastrophic climate change.
The Google Streetview 'engine' takes pictures that are processed to form 360-degree views, using GPS units for positioning in concert with a trio of laser range scanners. The net result is that you can look down your street in a virtual world, and find a snapshot of your house.
But wait a minute... swap out the photographic cameras for thermal imaging cameras, and suddenly you could survey the energy performance of the built environment really, really, really quickly. Sure there would be some organizational challenges - you'd want to ensure that people had their heating on when you were surveying their area; there might be some issues with seasonal variation that are worked through and you wouldn't be surveying the houses under ideal circumstances, but it would be a great ready reckoner and might encourage people to take further action.
Imagine being able to go on Google Maps, switch from 'Satellite' or 'Map' to 'Thermal' and see how much heat is escaping from your badly insulated house roof? Or... how about walking down a virtual street on Google StreetView, and being able to see that your old single glazed windows have terrible thermal performance compared to your neighbors highly insulated triple-glazed windows.
Many people are blissfully unaware of their buildings energy performance -- the warm heat from inside streaming through badly insulated walls; yesterday's poorly insulated windows and cracks and air gaps. But how many of us actually pay any attention to our building's energy performance?
As well as our own actions as individuals, as a collective we've got scant information about the state of our built environment because we just haven't been collecting the data. Whilst we're now retrospectively trying to do this -- for example in the UK, where I am writing from, by requiring all homes sold or let, come with an "Energy Performance Certificate" -- the scale of the problem is simply immense and the processing power required to make sense of it all beggars belief.
It's not just collecting the data, it's a problem of collecting the right data and knowing how to manage it, as Walt Patterson eloquently described in his Chatham House working paper 'Managing Energy Data'. We've got tons of data, but it's not presented in a way that is readily accessible.
Google's maps and Street-view interface makes Geographical Information Systems (GIS) accessible to the person on the street. It organizes vast quantities of data in a way that is sensible and easy to navigate. Google are the masters' of this type of work and would be ideally placed to deliver some of the tools and techniques that we are going to need to 'manage our energy data.'
The suppliers simply aren't going to deliver effective demand-side management as long as we buy energy by the unit, as Walt highlights, "Poor performance from a customer's technology means more revue for the [energy] company. This perverse incentive has persisted ever since." With a lack of real political ambition, the state won't deliver a solution either. It needs a business that can make money from the exercise to spur innovation on.
I'm sure Google could sell advertising space to manufacturers and installers of insulation and efficient heating products; the near-perfect product placement would warrant premium charges for advertisements.
You would be able to switch between standard and thermal views at the click of a button to make sure that the blob of orange red and yellow was actually your house!
This would have great repercussions all the way round. Homeowners would be able to quickly assess the state of their house and work to improve any energy-sapping, poor thermal elements of their buildings. It would also enhance corporate social responsibility... As casual users browsed the streets of a major city, they'd quickly be able to identify that the xyz Corp building is haemorrhaging heat, and apply pressure to them to clean up their act.
It would also present few privacy problems as number plates wouldn't show up, and amorphous blobs of heat are harder to distinguish than pictures of people.
So... anyone reading this, if you know anyone who works for Google, lobby them to devote their Friday afternoons to get this project off the ground!
Follow Gavin D. J. Harper on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gavindjharper