Image via ECOBOT
ECOBOT is a free app for your computer that tracks your fuel, paper and power consumption and calculates your carbon footprint. It'll then show you where you're making the biggest impact on the planet, and it can show you how to reduce and offset. Two aspects of the program are practical and nearly automatic, but one aspect looks like it has a gaping hole in the thought process. Two parts practical...
The app monitors your computer usage to gauge your consumption. For printing, it tracks your printing habits and calculates your footprint. Basic, right? For power consumption, it "monitors your central processing unit (CPU) and factors in the model of your computer." You can manually input other devices you use like a gaming system or electric tea kettle and ECOBOT will do the math for you. This step is a bit more of a pain and most people won't monitor their energy consumption beyond what ECOBOT does automatically for the computer - but still, it could encourage some people to pay more attention. Maybe.
One part ooops...
Now here's where the thought process missed the mark. It starts out with a handy idea:
"Wherever you take your laptop, ECOBOT automatically detects that you've travelled by keeping track of the wireless networks you access and letting you assign geographic locations to each. When you move from one network to another, it calculates the distance. Once detected, you're prompted to enter how you got there, and the distance will be added to your trip history."
Great, but whenever you don't cart your laptop around and access wifi (which for most people, is all the time), you have to manually enter your travels. So the "automatic" part of the program falls apart. So unless a user is willing to do a lot of entry, it won't be accurate in the least.
Making it automatic is the secret sauce
We really have to move beyond this when it comes to apps. We acknowledge that users just don't want to, or remember, or know how to accurately input their data to calculate carbon footprints, which is why there is a general push for apps, devices, and infrastructure that aggregates data automatically (smart grid, anyone??) and informs the user in the most understandable way possible (smart energy dashboards, anyone??). And we also acknowledge most people just don't care about the carbon footprint enough to put in this kind of effort.
ECOBOT has a cool idea (albeit creepy) about tracking where you use your computer and calculating your traveling based on this. But when it comes to calculating the carbon footprint of travel, apps like this are much better suited to mobile phones which are always in a user's pocket or purse and usually always have the GPS turned on. Developers are working on apps that automatically track info, with UbiGreen and Carbon Diem as examples - but for this area, ECOBOT doesn't seem to hit the nail on the head if they really want users to be excited about knowing and curbing their carbon emissions.
And YOU can make it better
If you want to test it out and at least use it for when it automatically inputs data, ECOBOT is available for the Mac OS. But there's good news - it's open source and they're working on a version for Windows. Which means if you're a code junkie and are interested in improving this app, you can take part.
More on Carbon Footprint Apps
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We Have Green Phone Apps Galore...But Are They Doing Any Good?