BlocPower aims to retrofit buildings across New York City to reduce costs for owners and promote energy efficiency.
Using cloud-based data science tools, BlocPower can analyze how buildings’ attributes affect occupant health, energy consumption and running costs, and prioritize projects for redevelopment.
Revealsnew insights that can reduce costs and help improve building safety
10% liftin productivity for data scientists in exploring complex datasets
Acceleratesdevelopment of statistical models from weeks to days
Business challenge story
Spotlight on energy efficiency
Inefficient buildings can consume huge amounts of energy, making them very expensive to run. Thankfully, help is at hand from BlocPower, an innovative business that aims to make inner-city buildings safer and more efficient.
Tooraj Arvajeh, former Chief Engineering Officer at BlocPower, begins: “In inner-city communities, property owners spend up to 30 percent of their income on energy costs, and often lack the capital or credit to invest in energy-saving technologies. We offer end-to-end solutions to bring energy efficiency to this market—from raising customers’ awareness through to designing and installing bespoke solutions, and sourcing the necessary finance via crowdfunding, microfinance and backing from large banks and investors.
“Initially, whenever we acquired a new customer, we sent an engineer to inspect the property to see how the building was used, work out how it was wasting energy, and identify safety hazards. We faced two challenges: first, the data collection process was very labor-intensive, so it wouldn’t scale to support our rapidly growing customer base. Second, although we knew that the data we were collecting was priceless, we didn’t have a quick, efficient way to extract the value from it.”
A breath of fresh air
Seeking advice on both the technical and operational aspects of data collection and analysis, BlocPower turned to IBM.
“Right now we’re a small startup, but we’re thinking big,” explains Arvajeh. “One study estimates the market potential for building retrofits in the United States at USD279 billion, which could deliver more than USD1 trillion in energy savings over 10 years, as well as mitigating more than 600 million metric tons of CO2.
“To get even close to that, we need support from a company with experience, resources, and expertise. We had read IBM’s papers and patents in the application of data science in building energy efficiency, and we met with their inventors and authors at Watson Research Center—this gave us confidence that IBM was the right choice.”
BlocPower became one of the first companies to adopt IBM Watson Studio (formerly Data Science Experience), which it uses to analyze information about its customers’ buildings. Using the cloud-based solution, the BlocPower data science team based in New York could work on developing their analyses in Jupyter Notebooks, and share them with IBM coworkers on the West Coast in an iterative process—fostering effective collaboration to unlock value from the data.
Arvajeh continues: “Using IBM Watson Studio, we have identified key variables that affect energy consumption—helping us predict the energy use of any given building. Based on the data we have collected, we can start to make broader projections—for example, using a sample of 300 buildings to estimate the energy consumption of any building in New York City.
“To bring the data to life, we created an online 3D map of New York. Building owners can log in, select their building and instantly see our estimate of their energy costs. They can also input their real energy bills, and see how their costs compare to similar buildings. As people submit more information about their buildings, we can refine our algorithms and make even more accurate predictions and customized energy efficiency recommendations.
“If someone logs in and sees that their building is less efficient than similar properties, we can help them plan and execute a retrofit to solve the problem. We’re providing a useful service to the public, and lowering our cost of customer acquisition at the same time.”
The project has proved a success, as customers have already engaged BlocPower to retrofit more than 500 buildings across New York City.
Building a brighter, cleaner future
Based on eye-opening insights from its new analytics platform, BlocPower has a stronger evidential basis for devising smarter solutions for each building—potentially helping building owners cut running costs and improve air quality.
“We do everything we can to help our data scientists and engineers work productively,” remarks Arvajeh. “They used to spend weeks creating Python scripts and creating statistical models to come up with accurate predictions and solutions. With Watson Studio, they can do the same thing in a couple of days, and productivity is up by at least 10 percent. The platform makes it easy for them to access different sources of data, share their ideas, and design ever-more powerful predictive models and algorithms.”
As BlocPower continues to connect the digital and physical worlds, it is creating a new set of products and services—starting with a mobile app based on Harmony, a rapid application development platform from Future Workshops, built on IBM Compose database services within the IBM Watson® Data Platform.
“We currently send engineers to customers’ homes to inspect the buildings and identify areas for improvement,” says Arvajeh. “To reduce the burden on our engineers, we’re planning to augment that process with a mobile app featuring visual recognition and artificial intelligence from IBM Watson.
“The aim is to help building owners capture a lot of the data we need without an engineer’s help. For example, they could take a picture of the building, and the app can work out whether it’s made of concrete, brick, masonry or stone. Or the app could detect whether the windows are out of proportion with the size of the room, which increases the risk of heat loss. In turn, that could help us suggest the most effective retrofit options—for example, adding better window insulation.
“By building advanced algorithms into the back-end using Watson, we can bring the expertise of our engineers into the hands of app users. It’s great for customers, because they don’t have to go to the effort of arranging a visit and letting us into their property. And our engineers save time, because they can get the data they need without making long trips across the city.”
Further down the pipeline, BlocPower plans to take advantage of the Internet of Things (IoT) to refine its offerings. Arvajeh elaborates: “Right now, most building owners don’t have preventative maintenance programs, so they spend a lot on emergency repairs, particularly in winter. We believe we can help building managers take a predictive approach to maintenance. By installing sensors that measure temperature, humidity, air quality and more, we can understand the building as a living organism over time, rather than relying on the one-off snapshot we can capture during a visit.
“Also, with better insight, we would be able to view buildings holistically and identify interdependencies. This would allow us to give better recommendations to customers to replace their equipment and improve their thermal comfort and energy efficiency.
“Currently, building owners have to rely on contractors to replace their equipment—one company for the heating and ventilation system, one for the windows, and so on. That can lead to inefficient solutions that don’t take the full scope of a problem into account.
“For example, if your building is cold even with the heat on full power, and you ask a heating specialist for advice, they might recommend upgrading the boiler system. However, if you took a more holistic view, you might see that you could solve the problem much more cost-effectively by replacing an old baseboard, adding a proper control with indoor feedback, and weather-stripping windows that cause a draft. By using IoT sensors, we aim to bring more of that expertise to our customers with less need for engineer visits.”
BlocPower is also pioneering new ways to improve indoor air quality, which can often be as much as 10 times dirtier than outdoor air. Given that poor indoor air quality can be a contributing factor to respiratory conditions including asthma, community and city leaders are keen to work with BlocPower to improve health and safety.
As one example, BlocPower is already using IoT technology to target indoor air quality in schools in the Bronx, after local hospitals noticed unusually high numbers of children presenting with asthma. The company is monitoring air pollution in classrooms and combining that data with weather-related information such as air pressure, wind direction and wind velocity to pinpoint the causes of indoor air pollution.
Based on these insights, BlocPower is working to implement measures that aim to give schoolkids a safer learning environment and prevent asthma-related emergency-room visits. In addition, BlocPower can identify weather conditions that are likely to cause a spike in hospital admissions, and give advance warning to local emergency rooms.
Broadening its horizons, BlocPower plans to expand into Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and other cities soon.
Arvajeh concludes: “IBM has provided generous support from the outset, helping us try new things, learn quickly, fail fast, and drive continuous improvement. We haven’t encountered any of the red tape and bureaucracy you might expect from a big company—the IBM team has given us the time, attention and resources to help us transform our vision into reality.”
BlocPower markets and finances a portfolio of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies to churches, schools, small businesses and non-profits in underserved inner cities across the United States. By connecting online investors to micro-finance opportunities in solar energy and energy efficiency projects, and training and hiring local unemployed workers to install its retrofits, BlocPower plans to bring energy efficiency to a new market segment at scale.
Take the next step
IBM Cloud and based on open source technology. These services enable data-driven teams to collaborate across functions to access the trusted data needed to deliver new insights, deploy machine learning to apply smarts in every function, and leverage data to build advanced applications and create new business models. For more information about IBM Watson Studio, please visit ibm.com/cloud/watson-studio.
Future Workshops specializes in making mobile products for premium international brands. Drawing on its experience in developing bespoke mobile and digital applications across a huge range of business use-cases, the company has built Harmony, a new, easy-to-use application design and delivery platform. The Harmony platform empowers business users to build apps themselves, without any help from their IT department—dramatically reducing the time, cost and risk of software development.
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