I was in Zurich 2 weeks ago for the ICT for Sustainability conference. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it there so I thought I would big it up.
Zurich is easy enough to get to with the Eurostar and the TGV (I booked via Loco2). The journey takes about 8 hours, which is plenty of time for some pleasant hacking/reading/looking out the window, with a stopover for lunch in Paris. Its really straightforward and quick to change at Paris as long as you follow the advice given on the Man in Seat 61 website (which co-incidentally was the seat I end up in on the TGV between Paris and Zurich!).
The city itself is in pretty good nick, presumably as it has been trashed in any of the numerous conflicts that the rest of Europe has had. There are trams everywhere including this one by the university that goes through a building.
The university where the conference was held was pretty grand too:
On the Saturday I took a walk by the lake which is a close to the centre of town. Along the edge of the lake there is a few interesting buildings, including the Le Corbusier house (he is also on the money) and a Chinese Garden.
I ventured over to the old industrial side of town later on to visit the MFO Park, an old factory that has been converted into a park area. The mix of the industrial features is very well done and you can climb stairs to the top for views of the surrounding area.
By co-incidence I was in town during Carnival, which proved that the swiss do know how to party (or at least drink lots of beer and do brass band covers of sixties tunes.)
I am attending the ICT for Sustainability conference in Zurich in February. This is the first time I have booked train tickets to Europe since I heard about Loco2 at Ignite Cleanweb earlier this year. Previously, I have used eurostar.com and bahn.com to book train tickets but neither are particularly great user experiences. Loco2 on the other hand is very slick and handles mutli-leg journeys better:
Plus Loco2 tells you how much less carbon you use by taking the train instead of flying:
Best of all was the price:
£214 on Loco2 versus £350 on Eurostar.com.
If you are travelling to Europe, I really recommend giving Loco2 a go.
It is always a little bit sad when you have to write a instruction about how to use software. We are using Solar log to monitor our energy generation for Brixton Energy. Its really ace to see how much energy the solar panels are generating (check out our solar log page).
I read in the documentation that it was possible to export the data as a CSV, but it baffled me for half an hour on how to do os. I eventually figured it out and thought I would share how to do it so other can avoid the pain.
Exporting daily figures
- Click the arrow beside Overview daily and select Overview monthly
- Tick the values box on the right hand side of the page
- Click the magnifying glass on the left hand side of the page
- A popup window then appears with a table of values
- On the bottom right of the table is the CSV link
- You can use the arrows to either side of the magnifying glass to get data for the previous months
Note that the CSV is actually semi-colon (;) separated. You will need to use the import option in Excel to open it correctly. On one of the screens in the Excel wizard you can unselect commas as the separator and select semi-colons instead.
Two weeks ago I went to VergeCON London a conference that brings together people from different background to discuss the convergence of sustainability, technology, transportation and cities. It was a great event because of the opportunity to have discussions with people from such diverse backgrounds (science, non-profit & industrial).
Opening Keynote and panel
The opening keynote and panel focused on some of the big challenges we will face creating a more sustainable infrastructure. Unlike IT, changes to our energy system, buildings and transport infrastructure are long-term – the existing grid for example took over 50 years to build. More and more IT will make our infrastructure smarter but will also inevitably add more complexity.
Sustainability is not something business can ignore – as highlighted by the fact that over recent months many of the world’s biggest corporations had to restate earnings based on raw material prices. To make sustainability work in large corporations requires system thinking, busting silos, bridge building and radical efficiency. The challenge is even bigger for cities. New cities were described as “fun but not relevant”, as the majority of us live in old cities that will need to make dramatic transformations. Some US cities now have chief innovation officers to help make these changes.
There were 2 interactive sessions during the day. The first one was an “introduce yourself to your table” session and a great way to get to know other conference attendees. The second session split the attendees into areas of interest. I joined a session with some of the guys from Navetas about energy management. The consensus was that energy monitors are very useful initially but once the you had learnt where your big energy losses are the novelty wears off and they often get stuck in a cupboard somewhere. Current energy monitors designs are very geeky and don’t communicate well to ordinary people. What may be lacking from energy management and home automation solutions is completeness. We have a collection of bits that don’t add up to a full solution that can intelligently manage the energy in the home.
One great idea
Rather than have long 1 hour talks, there were several short One Great Idea TED style talks. Here were some of my highlights:
AlertMe – Get some energy visibility!
Pilgrim Beart from AlertMe gave a really entertaining talk (using a couple of bags full of plastic balls) about where the energy use in your house goes. The key point: there is a bubble of ignorance about energy use due to a lack of visibility. Home energy monitors/displays can help reduce that usage by 8%. Even bigger gains can be made by tackling heating. Pilgrim has saved hundreds of pounds a year by using a more efficient shower head and intelligent thermostats like the ones provided by Wattbox can yield saving of 15%.
Vinay Gupta from WhipCar gave a good talk on their car sharing startup. I don’t drive but I found this an interesting story of how sharing enabled by the web is taking off in a big way. Whipcar have created a hyper local service where in London where you are never more than 10 minutes walk away from a potential rental car. We have an excess capacity of cars and people view them as an assets that is losing money when not in use. The demographics of people using the service are mainstream (mid 30s) both on the supply and demand side. The hard part of building such a service was assessing the risk of the people who sign up and providing around the clock support in case something goes wrong.
Sustainability at Microsoft
Josh Henretig from Microsoft talked about how their initiative to become carbon neutral this year. I was surprised how much I enjoyed this talk and it is definitely inspiring me to push the same idea at Forward. To improve building efficiency they are using big data techniques to give building managers insight into what improvements to take. To offset the energy usage of their data centres they have made big investments in renewables. When staff fly their business units are now charged a carbon price.
A fitting closing keynote came from John Elkington who talked about his new book The Zeronauts. His core message was that we need some unreasonable people to start building business that have zero environmental impact to really push sustainability.
I wrote a guest blog post for Brixton Energy about why I am investing in the scheme. Its a really great idea. If you have any money lying around or stuck in a bank please consider putting it to good use by investing in some shares in the scheme.
Read my guest post here and please spread the word to anybody you think might be interested!
I went to a fun workshop in Brixton last weekend on making photovoltaic solar panels from recycled and scrap materials. I spent a fair chunk of last year at work building the Solar panel section of the uSwitch website so I was quite curious to get down and dirty with the physical technology.
Also, I was totally fascinated by the workshop’s title. Where the hell would recyclable solar panel materials come from? The answer: typically the solar cells are manufactured in China and shipped to Europe, but they are fragile so a substantial proportion of them get damaged in transit. The damaged cells can then be bought by the kilogram as pricey scrap. The rest of the solar panels is made up of old windows, bits of plywood and a couple of random bits and bobs from the DIY shop.
We split up into four groups during the workshop and built a panel per group. Luckily there were some people in my group with more DIY experience than me. There was a wide range of people from different backgrounds at the workshop and it was really interesting chatting and working with everybody. I have written a rough outline of the process below. If you want to actually build one yourself I would strongly recommend the Demand Energy Equality site for more detailed and reliable instructions. I accept no liability for anyone trying this at home!
Grouping similarly sized solar cells
Even thought the cells are damaged they can still generate electricity roughly proportional to their size. You need to group several cells of similar sizes to make a panel. All the cells should be roughly the same size as the output capacity of the entire panel is limited to the output of the smallest cell on the panel. These cells are placed on a big sheet of plywood.
Connect the panels with tabbing wire
Next up you need to connect the cells together with tabbing wire. This involved some soldering of the tabbing wire to the individual cells. I hadn’t done any soldering in about 20 years, but aside from a burn or two it was fun. After the wire has been soldered on some transparent silicon needs to be spoldged over the soldered area to prevent galvanic corrosion. Then a slightly larger metal buss wire is run underneath the bottom row of cells.
To keep the cells in place you dab some cheap silicon sealant (normally used for bath tubs) around the cells. You then hammer a nail (!) through the buss bar. Cover the whole thing with a old window and you are (mostly) done!
I really enjoyed the workshop:
- Making things with your hands is great. I definitely felt I was using different parts of my brain then usual in the workshop.
- After playing with raw solar cells I now feel they can be assembled and used in more interesting and varied ways than just the standard rectangular bank of cells.
- I’m no longer scared of soldering, which is great as I suspect I might be sticking a few Arduino type devices together this year.
- It was good to hear some different viewpoints on the Feed in Tariff (FIT).
- I found out about the really cool Brixton Energy project.
- The panels cost about 1/4 of the commercial equivalent, but obviously require some effort to build and maintain. Additionally, you may not get the FIT. At the moment I am still undecided about whether I want to build my own or not.
Last year was a big year for me learning wise. uSwitch has always had a good learning environment but since we became part of the Forward Internet Group the pace has stepped up a level. At the end of 2010 I moved back to uSwitch from uSwitch for Business. This coincided with the company transitioning from the .Net stack to the Unix stack – a transition I am happy to have made. I now find myself more enthusiastic about programming and technology. Best of all I got to work with some really smart people!
I had previously used Ruby for testing, admin sites and scripting, but in 2011 Ruby became my primary development language. Working on it day-to-day I was able to move from noob to vaguely competent pretty quickly. It is a great language whose flexibility and expressiveness really shines through. Many thanks to Siddharth Dawara, Marcin Ciszak, Andrew Nesbitt, Paul Ingles and Michael Patricios for all their patience with me whilst I struggled to get my head around the new stack. Also, a big thanks up to Fred George whose two Object Oriented Ruby boot camps helped a lot. Outside work Chad Fowler’s session at the Scottish Ruby Conference was also a big gap filler, as were the Ruby koans, and the Elegant Ruby book.
Ruby on Rails
Most of the sites I built last year were with Rails. It is a big framework with a lot to learn, but the conventions it teaches you are smart (and transferable). The new asset pipeline features in 3.1 pushed me into learning the basic of CoffeeScript and finding out more about website speed optimisations. Michael Hartl’s Ruby on Rails Tutorial and the Rails Way were my main learning resources.
Unix and Ops
The steepest learning curve of the year was becoming competent with the tools for our Unix infrastructure. At Forward, we have a couple of Dev Ops guru to help us with the hard stuff, but developers do a lot of the basic infrastructure tasks (such as creating servers and diagnosing deployment issues). I had to get my head around tons of stuff: living in the terminal, shell scripting, basic server admin, nginx/apache configuration, monit/upstart, puppet and our ec2/cloud infrastructure. Again massive thanks to Sid, for showing me how to setup my profile like a pro, Noah Cantor for helping me solve the stuff that was well beyond me and Tom Hall for his Upstart tutorial. I also found the two Unix peepcode screencast to be an invaluable introduction.
Clojure and functional programming
At the end of 2010 some of the developers at Forward ran a study group on the seminal Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (SICP). It was probably the hardest technical book I have read since college but also the most rewarding. We wrote the exercise in the book in Clojure. I had played around with higher order functions like LINQ before and learnt a bit of F#, but this was the first time I had learned a functional language in any depth. I even got to write a little bit of production Clojure code thanks to Mike Jones and Jon Neale who had to put up with me fumbling around in Emacs. The peepcode screencast on Emacs was a life saver here and I found Programming Clojure was the best beginners book for me.
I gave my first talk at a conference, speaking about how to do Ruby on a Windows/.Net project at the Scottish Ruby Conference! I also gave two talks at Forward’s regular monthly event First Tuesday. Some good presentation tips came from Presentation Zen, although my presentation style is still very rough around the edges.
The perks are pretty ace at Forward and last year free language course were on offer. I jumped at the chance to learn German. In school, I sucked at languages and hated being forced to do compulsory Irish classes. Happily German has being going really well. Maybe this is because I visit Germany so often and have become acclimatised to the language. The language courses are much more conversational than the rote learning I did at school. I find German to be very close to English and am fascinated by the linguistic similarities. Also, the straight-forward structure of German seems to have clicked with me.
There are some fantastic resources out there for learning languages. I listened to the Michel Thomas German audio course and Deutsche Welle Audio Tutor daily when walking to work. Repeating German to myself probably got me strange looks, but luckily in London you don’t know your neighbours. Recently, I have become totally addicted to Babbel’s free iPhone vocabulary trainer and Online course.
Statistics and R
Over the last few years my lack of statistics knowledge has stopped me in my tracks when approaching some data analysis problems. Last year I decided to do something about it and learn statistics and the R programming language. Here again Forward was the right place to be working. Alex Farquhar ran an intro to R session, and Abigail (the Forward Statistician!) ran a nice stats overview class. In August, I went to the useR conference at the University of Warwick. To be honest several of the talks went over my head but it was great to go to a conference outside my comfort zone.
Since then statistical techniques and thinking have come in extremely handy on recent projects. Statistics without Tears: An Introduction for Non-Mathematicians was my gentle introduction and I have been steadily working my way through the superb Khan academy statistics course. The RStudio IDE got me up and running with R and I got the basics from the Quick-R website. R in Action was the only book I could find that was wasn’t overload with statistics formulas.
Responsive web design was a big revelation for me in 2011. With so much internet usage now via mobile devices, having a site optimised for mobile is no longer a nice to have feature. I first heard about Responsive web design at a First Tuesday talk Luke Williams gave. At uSwitch, our front end guru Emma Sax did an amazing responsive styleguide which has made front end development work much easier. I recommend checking out Skelton which does a similar job.
I have steadily got into the habit of incorporating HTML 5 style markup into my work. Using the new input types like telephone lets you easily improve the user experience. I also hacked together a Wordcloud to learn about the canvas tag. Dive into HTML 5 is a nice introduction to the new features that are available.
I had a basic understanding of Google Analytics, but last year I invested some serious time learning it properly. Teams at Forward take a lot of ownership over the work they do and the metrics in software like Google Analytics are critical to get insight into how customers are interacting with your websites. For nearly every feature I was involved in building, I made sure they was at some way to measure it usage (often by using custom events). I recommend watching the Google Analytics IQ Lessons which will give you a thorough overview.
Most my work last year was centred around building new energy efficiency websites at uSwitch. I have always been interested in environmental issues so this was the perfect area for me to be working in. At the start of the year we built an energy-saving products shop on top of the great work Andrew Nesbitt and Michael Patricios did at Just Shops. I also ate my own dogfood and installed an energy monitor and a standby saver at home.
Later on in the year, Hemal Kuntawala and I built a Solar power website which lets the public find solar installers in their area. Hemal brought a lot of expertise from his side project Mixeeba along with an inspiring “just do it” attitude.
I started a couple of little side projects mainly to learn Ruby, Rails and MongoDB. The main one was to aggregate content from Twitter links, but since I started using the amazing Flipboard application, I quickly gave up on the idea. As a learning technique I have found building my own stuff to be the most effective way to pick up new technologies. Only HTML to Hemal eventually saw the light of day!
What a year…
Coming up soon what I am planning to learn in 2012!
I have just returned from a great holiday in Germany and was struck by the number of solar panels on buildings and houses there. When we visited Saxon Switzerland, we stayed in the Hotel Erbgericht which not only had solar panels on the roof, but also had a few free standing panels around the back of hotel. All of the newish or under-construction houses we passed had panels on the roofs as did many of the older houses.
Unsurprising, solar power generation is much higher in Germany than in the UK. According to Wikipedia, Germany produces 18,000 megawatts compared to the UK, which produces a measly 200 megawatts. Although, Germany is a sunnier place than most of us inselaffen believe, I suspect the German traits of efficiency and love of nature have a lot to do with their solar power adoption.
For all the UK government’s talk of a green revolution and economy the UK has a long way to catch up with Germany. We spent a few days in Kassel (a small city in central Germany). Not only do lots of the buildings in the city centre have solar panels but lots of the people in the city work in the solar power industry. One of the biggest employers (with over 5,000 employees) is SMA Solar Technology. The government has finally introduced a feed-in tariff in the UK, so hopefully we will see much more solar power in the UK in future.