Campus as a Laboratory: Late Night Hackathon Digs Into UChicago Energy Data

People at the University of Chicago study climate and energy from a variety of perspectives, including geophysics, computer modeling, law, economics, and molecular engineering. Yet the most immediate way to make a difference on climate change and sustainable energy is to look at our own campus, one of the largest consumers of energy in Chicago. Useful new solutions to reduce energy usage and cut cost could then be expanded to other universities and similar workplaces, a bottom-up contribution to complement larger-scale research.

That logic motivated the formation of the Campus as a Laboratory Initiative, a partnership between the Office of the Provost, the Office of Sustainability, the CI’s Center for Robust Decision Making on Climate and Energy Policy (RDCEP)UChicago Student Government, and the Energy Policy Institute at University of Chicago (EPIC). These groups, as part of the Office of Sustainability Advisory Council (OSAC), organized the effort to connect UChicago faculty, students, and staff with Sustainability and Facilities personnel, providing opportunities to brainstorm and build new ways to look at and use data in campus energy decisions.

Campus as a Lab kicked off on May 20th with a Spring Hackathon, where a packed room in the Saieh Hall for Economics heard about UChicago’s current energy procedures and challenges, then split into small teams and worked with real data on campus buildings. The first piece of a year-long program including three hackathons and a grand challenge, the event prompted attendees to start exploring the data and thinking about potential solutions to reduce the university’s energy budget.

“We are one of the larger consumers in the city, so the your work can have a significant impact on energy consumption,” said Provost Eric Isaacs in his introductory remarks. “The amount we spend on energy is about $40 million a year. You will help us not only reduce greenhouse gases, you will help the University reinvest that money in the academic infrastructure.”

Participants received a crash course in how UChicago purchases and uses natural gas and electricity from Energy & Utilities Manager Matthew Beach. In addition to cutting energy demand by making buildings more efficient, Beach and the Facilities team also look for the smartest ways to purchase energy in a constantly fluctuating market. To start, he asked for help in taking his data from spreadsheets to more modern tools that can inform operational improvements.

“Some of this stuff can have huge payoffs, we’re talking millions of dollars,” Beach said. “But I need better transparency, better analytics, and better ways to think about and use data.”

Broader context was then provided by Elisabeth Moyer, associate professor of geophysical science and co-director of RDCEP, who talked about why now is an opportune time for bold new energy ideas. Cheaper natural gas and renewable energy sources, more efficient buildings, and new regulations will shake up the energy sector, creating an environment ripe for creative new ideas to take hold. Moyer encouraged hackathon participants to find real data-driven solutions that help school officials make smarter decisions, not just “greenwashing” changes with little true impact.

“Saving money is good environmentalism,” Moyer advised. “Any energy problem is so big and so hard, you have to do the cheapest thing possible, so if we can avoid extra power plants by shaving off peak demand during the day, it’s more money that can be spent somewhere else.”

After sessions on energy data, visualization, and how consumption is tracked at campus buildings, attendees formed groups and filled up on snacks for three hours of hands-on hacking. Using a dataset specially prepared for the event -- containing over 8 million rows of data on energy usage for all 114 buildings on campus -- teams combed through the numbers to find new insights and ideas for future development.

One team looked at the energy performance of older buildings such as the Crown Field House and the Kent Chemical Laboratory, which were given efficiency upgrades in 2011, but still fall short when compared to similar structures on campus. Others looked at how different building types, such as residential, laboratory, classroom, or parking, affect their energy usage over different time scales and in different weather. Some tried to predict future energy use based on historical data, to better inform purchasing decisions.

Groups also identified anomalies in the data that Facilities had not previously noticed, and recommended numbers they would like to see added to the dataset, such as the age of each building, its occupancy, the daily usage of natural gas versus electricity, and the costs of different types of energy improvements. As the event ended past 11pm, the participants and representatives from the Offices of Facilities and Sustainability left fired up about the seeds planted at this inaugural hackathon, with new ideas about the future of energy on campus and beyond.

Photos by Matt Marton