white house and open data

In 2007, when Barack Obama was running for president, it cost roughly 44 cents to store a gigabyte of data. This year, as President Obama approaches the second half of his second term, the cost to store a gigabyte of data is dipping below 5 cents.

The same trend has played out in wireless streaming, sensors and other power electronics that have all become immensely cheap compared to their historical costs. That, in turn, is creating entirely new applications for energy that were only just beginning to become reality when the president entered the White House.

"Five and ten years ago, it might have been $150 or $200 dollars a month to provide streaming wireless data from a meter. Now it’s $20, $30, $40 a month," explained EnerNOC's Gregg Dixon in an interview for GTM's intelligent efficiency report last year. "The hardware to meter energy is a fraction of what it was a decade ago."

That doesn't even include the same steady cost reductions in batteries, solar panels and LED lights.

Those changes have helped a new wave of companies cost-effectively parse information from meters and building management systems, develop apps on mobile devices and create new enterprise-level energy services in the cloud. Information and hardware are now so cheap, getting these systems deployed is often less about cost and more about battling inertia among utilities, corporate customers or homeowners.

With bits now rivaling electrons and therms as the most important measurements of the energy economy, the White House has been trying to make data the foundation of its clean energy and climate strategy. 

"We will be driven by the philosophy that data is an important national resource," declared Energy Secretary Moniz at last week's Datapalooza in Washington, D.C. "Making open data widely available and easy to find is critical."

Since 2012, partly in an attempt to leverage the smart metering systems it supported in the stimulus package, the Obama Administration has created numerous energy-related data programs. The Green Button Initiative, the Energy Data Initiative and the newly-formed Climate Data Initiative were all designed to make information more accessible through crowdsourcing, opening up government resources data sets to developers, holding codeathons and creating prize competitions for startups.

"Taxpayers paid for these vast troves of data, they should be available," said U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park. Park pointed to a McKinsey study from last year showing that open data, largely from government, could create $3 trillion in economic activity for the U.S. -- including more than $340 billion in the electricity sector alone.

So has the strategy worked? 

So far, there haven't been any clear breakout successes as a result of the White House's data initiative. None of the winners of the Department of Energy's "apps for energy" contest have hit it big, for example. But two years isn't much time to gauge success in the energy sector, even among startups in the fast-moving digital world.

Creating groundbreaking companies isn't necessarily the end goal of the initiative. The idea is to use data to make companies and government agencies run more effectively and unlock deeper economic value. In that respect, there are some signs that it's starting to have an impact.

Swapnil Shah, CEO of the building energy analytics company First Fuel, said that government weather data, GIS data and Green Button data from meters has been critical for performing remote audits on commercial buildings.

"The output of all this is data is accurate energy savings," said Shah.

At last week's Datapalooza, First Fuel announced that it would be analyzing the energy profile of hundreds of government buildings using the Green Button format -- a step toward standardizing data collection within the nation's largest real estate holder, the General Services Administration. As part of GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini's effort to turn data into action, the GSA has been working with First Fuel and Retroficiency to find efficiency opportunities in hundreds of government buildings.

Tangherlini called data crucial to "making our financial position more sustainable" by better learning how government facilities are operating.

Ben Bixby, the director of energy products at smart-thermostat maker Nest, agreed that new sources of data are helpful to companies operating in the energy sector. Bixby's company, MyEnergy, was acquired by Nest last year and still operates under its own brand. The company uses utility data to help homeowners visualize and manage energy consumption, and has benefited from the Green Button Initiative.

"As the administration succeeds in unlocking more data, the whole experience gets richer," said Bixby. 

For some, that access is helping build entirely new business models that could transform traditional manual processes. Aaron Woro, who founded his web-based solar surveying company Solar Census in 2006, said that better quality information has enabled the company to perform detailed site analysis in less than one second.

"All open data from the government are essential so we can view the world as the sun sees it," said Woro, who scooped up a $735,000 grant from DOE's SunShot Initiative last fall.

That doesn't mean the government completely understands what the industry is looking for. During his Datapalooza speech, Secretary Moniz boasted that the DOE's buildings performance database had logged 750,000 buildings around the country, making it the largest such database. But not everyone was sold on the value.

"What does that really mean?" asked Sanjoy Malik, the CEO of Urjanet, a company that collects and standardizes data for utilities and corporate customers. "Is the data similar from one building to another? Are the formats the same? I think they sort of get it, but I'm not sure they totally get the deep complexity of it."

Whether or not officials understand the data in the same way professionals do, the administration continues its push. The White House used Datapalooza to announce more than a dozen initiatives it has been working on over the last year. Those include a new database of geothermal resources, a new tool to track hydropower potential, awards through SunShot for data-based businesses lowering solar costs, an EPA tool to track the impact of policy decisions on pollution, and a commitment from eight utilities to develop an open standard for publishing power outage data.

"We are unleashing a torrent of information," said John Holdren, the White House's senior science and technology advisor. 

Like the stimulus-era smart grid programs and loan guarantees to clean energy manufacturers, it will take more than a few years to see the full impact of the investment. But almost everyone agrees that the government's focus on enabling more information is a good thing. Now it's up to the industry to make sense of it.

Photo Credit: White House Open Data Strategy/shutterstock

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