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Michael Moynihan

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The Cleanweb Takes Off

Posted: 01/25/2012 11:01 am

This past weekend in New York, a group of high tech companies, venture investors, hackers, college students and observers like me held the second Cleanweb Hackathon on the NYU campus. For those not familiar with a hackathon, it is a gathering where software developers and serial entrepreneurs, fueled by coffee and burritos -- or similar fare -- stay up one, two or more nights writing code for apps that just may change the world. Hackathons have been held on subjects as diverse as operating systems and disaster relief as in Random Hacks of Kindness. (To see upcoming hackathons, go to hackerleague.com.)

This weekend's app building frenzy in New York focused on the Cleanweb, a concept conceived by San Francisco VC Sunil Paul, to describe the intersection of clean technology and the Internet. As described by Paul and his partner, Nick Allen of Spring Ventures, the Cleanweb is to cleantech -- until now a largely hardware type of business -- what the Internet was to computing. With many of the big, capital intensive investments already made or underway, the challenge, Paul believes, is to leverage that investment using information technology. And that is what the eleven teams on hand did over the weekend. Their results were judged by a panel that included Aneesh Chopra whose day job is CTO of the federal government, Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures and Maria Gotsch, head of New York City's Investment fund.

So what did the coders create in 48 hours? As a kibbutzer to their work, I was amazed at how coders some of whom had worked together before, but many of whom met at the hackathon were able to use existing APIs as they are known -- or software platforms from Google, Twitter, Tendril, New York City and small companies like Genability to create stunning, full featured applications that worked out of the box. Teams were, in some cases, aided by friends in other time zones. Others divided the work up among themselves. From whiteboarding to website, the work progressed in a blur.

By Sunday afternoon, the teams had developed applications that compared the energy efficiency of every municipal building in New York (www.honestbuildings.com) collected your daily travel patterns from your smart phone's movement to recommend ways to slim your travel, calculated the cost of installing solar on your home by typing your address into Google maps, notified you or your spouse by email that an appliance at home was drawing excessive power and provided a link to click it off, and turned your thermostat up or down based on the distance of your phone from your home. Many of the apps used GPS data drawn passively from smart phones. Some made use of New York's open data project that is putting large amounts of city data online. Still, others used smart home and meter data made available by Tendril through its platform.

Some of the apps, however, leveraged the new Green Button program launched by the White House last week. The Green Button program literally features a green button that three California utilities placed on their websites last Wednesday. It lets customers upload their smart meter data to a central server where it can be anonymously pooled or reviewed by the customer. Already thousands of homes have clicked the green button and it is likely that that millions of Americans will eventually place their electricity data online. This program, shepherded by U.S. CTO, Aneesh Chopra, has not required a single law or mandate and has the potential to break the logjam over customer access to data that has stymied many smart grid efforts to date. Based on the Blue Button program that gives veterans access to their medical data, it has already provided enough data for developers to write interesting applications. (A similar program is planned for education records.)

Most of the developers present plans to incorporate their apps into businesses. I was left thinking the Cleanweb is a powerful concept with important implications for the future of clean technology and the environment. And with this weekend's hackathon, it is reaching takeoff velocity.