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This New York Times article on the application of modern data tech to cities caught our eye this weekend, not just because the headline mentioned SimCity, to which one member of the JouleBug team devoted an almost certainly unhealthy portion of his youth.

It was the goal of the effort that really made us sit up in our collective JouleBug chairs:

The goals are big gains in efficiency and quality of life by using digital technology to better manage traffic and curb the consumption of water and electricity, for example. By some estimates, water and electricity use can be cut by 30 to 50 percent over the course of a decade.

That’s ambitious — almost to the point of sounding impossible. Go home, scientists! You’re drunk.

It would be impossible if we didn’t currently waste so much water and energy (and other resources) simply because we don’t see how much we’re using.  As Peter Drucker wrote, “What gets measured gets managed.” The corollary is that if we fail to measure something, we’re probably going to fail at managing it.  That’s what’s happening with water and energy.

But information isn’t enough.  I’m sure everyone reading this — and the person writing it — has a bad habit that they know they should break, but simply haven’t yet found the motivation to do so.  The same problem applies to energy and water use and conservation.  Fortunately, the smart people working on building a new data infrastructure for cities understand this.

Communicating effectively with data, experts say, requires skills beyond technology. Jurij R. Paraszczak, director of smarter cities research at I.B.M., pointed to a water-management pilot study in Dubuque, Iowa, in which 150 households were equipped with sensors to measure and analyze their water use. They had the data, but the households were also grouped into teams for an informal competition. Water use dropped by 7 percent in two months.

“People live in cities,” Dr. Paraszczak says. “So much of the equation is not just the data but how you encourage people to change their behavior.”

The social ingredients of motivation, habit and incentives, according to Dr. Koonin, will be part of the research agenda at the N.Y.U. center. “The approach we’re taking here is from sensors to sociologists. This has got to be science with a social dimension.”

That sounded really familiar to us.  JouleBug is an app with a “social dimension.”  We take solid science on the ecological and monetary impacts of all kinds of behaviors around resource use, and we supply the missing social ingredients.  We motivate people with competition and rewards.  We change behavior.

We’re excited to see what the next generation of measurement infrastructure for energy, water, and other resources will look like.  What we’re really excited about, though, is the good we can all do once we have better data.  JouleBug’s goal is to be a big part of the new way that cities (and all of us individually) build better sustainable habits.

Download the app to get a head start on the future.