I hope this idea is good because I don’t have many better.
If you’ve been in cars with real-time fuel efficiency readouts, you’ve seen the powerful effect of feedback on behavior. I’ve yet to meet anyone who can ignore the things. Even those who don’t care about efficiency try to keep the readout high because it feels like a game and we want a high score. Even my father, a man whose other car gets nine miles per gallon, does it when he straps into my mom’s Prius.
I was thinking: wouldn’t it be great if I got feedback like that about my whole carbon footprint?
I can, sort of. There are online carbon footprint calculators for that, but they take work. Before I use one, I have to find it and then input my data, which takes time and motivation few have.
In contrast, fuel efficiency readouts don’t take work. I get in the car and it just fills me in, like magic.
So let me rephrase: Wouldn’t it be great if my carbon footprint appeared out of the blue, without effort or interest on my part, and then updated me automatically through time?
I think there’s a way to make it happen for a bunch of people, and it’s a big deal because:
- We must reduce our footprints to address climate change.
- Most of us don’t know our (in many cases huge) footprints or understand which activities contribute most to them. It’s a malady from which even many otherwise environmentally-aware people suffer.
The big obstacle is collecting personal information. How do we get it without bothering people to provide it? Answer: instead of collecting it, go to where it already is. Where’s that?
If you don’t know, Mint is a popular (and free) online finance-management site for tracking and analyzing personal expenses and investments. It collects your financial information in one place and automatically labels and categorizes it.
It has millions of users, and it has enough data about them that it could generate accurate, continuously updated estimates of their carbon footprints. I want to persuade Mint to implement this. Some development has already been done on the kind of computations needed to infer carbon footprints from financial information, so the project wouldn’t have to start from zero.
If it happens, one day soon, a Mint user will open her financial dashboard and will see a new number, her carbon footprint. If she clicks on it, she’ll get to a page explaining what it is, and which shows a breakdown of her footprint’s various sources and how it’s changed through time. Perhaps she can add additional information, if she wants, to make the estimate more accurate. The persistence of this number in her life will prompt her to pay more attention to the way she uses energy, and maybe even Climate Change, and will provide a guide for modifying her behavior.
Maybe one day she’ll look at her footprint trend line and see a spike. She’ll click on the day of the spike and see that it’s due to a flight she took, and she’ll see for the first time that air travel has a giant footprint. It’s a perfect forum for exactly the education that we urgently need, targeting a big group of influential people.
It should be possible to sell Mint on the project, because:
- Mint can use the information to generate leads for companies who help people save energy or reduce their carbon footprints, and then charge them for those leads. Examples: Mint might notice that my home heating bill is high, so it shows me offers from home energy auditors who’ve paid for that privilege. Or Mint notices that I’m using lots of gas, and shows me ads for fuel efficient cars. Or it shows me where I can buy carbon offsets, etc.
- It won’t cost much, given the right computational framework (too complicated to discuss here, but suffice it to say there are good options).
- There’s publicity in it. Greenies will rejoice, and it may get a new group of users who want to know their carbon footprint. Mint may be able to claim that it reduced its users’ collective footprint by such-and-such amount.
- If Mint were to implement the idea, I’d make it my mission to promote Mint to the world. Hear this, Mint: you do this and I’m your unpaid PR Igor until the end of time. I’ll get a tattoo of your logo on my neck and I’ll wear Mint-branded clothing exclusively for the rest of my life, job interviews and my own wedding included. Think I’m joking? Try me. Bring me a contract and watch me sign it.
Perhaps users could compare their footprint trend lines with those of other users, and maybe even compete to reduce their footprints for prizes. Possibilities abound for social interaction, but I’m keeping this post short, so use your imagination.
If you think my idea is good, please help build support for it by doing any of the following:
- help make this idea get noticed by reposting it everywhere.
- mention it to Mint Founder/CEO Aaron Patzer through Twitter
- try the Mint Twitter or Mint Suggestion Box
P.S. If you’d be willing to become a walking Mint billboard along with me to make this happen, say so in the comments and I’ll contact you. It’ll help if Mint sees that there’s more than one nutter who cares enough to make that pledge.
Mint Logo via Mint.com
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