Inspiration: Low-income households have limited finances and have a hard time paying their bills, including their utilities. If their utility bill is not paid, then the utility company shuts-off their power. If they are living in subsidized housing, they will lose their housing. The Ann Arbor Housing Commission (AAHC) provides subsidized housing for low-income tenants and includes the utilities in the tenant's rent so that the tenant does not get a DTE shut-off. This keeps people housed but since tenants are not paying their utilities directly, they have a higher energy usage than if they have to pay for their own utilities, which is costing the AAHC more than they receive in rent to cover those costs. If the cost of utilities exceeds the budget for utilities then the AAHC has to cut maintenance costs to the property to break-even. This will lead to the deterioration of the property, which impacts the residents who are living there as well as the surrounding neighborhood as well as.
What it does: Energy $aver is both an app for a tenant to track how much electric and gas energy they are using and it provides a financial incentive to the tenant to save energy. The AAHC has a monthly utility allowance for each apartment based on the size of the apartment. If the tenant uses less energy than the utility allowance then the AAHC will share those savings with the tenant by providing a rebate to their rent ledger. Energy $aver provides an administrative dashboard for the AAHC to also monitor energy usage daily, monthly and annually so that the AAHC can talk to tenants with high energy usage to help them strategize on how to reduce usage.
How we built it: We built a web platform using DJango and React. The platform will collect actual energy usage data from DTE and other utility companies (but we used historical data for our test product). The AAHC inputs the monthly utility allowance and the software converts that to a daily utility allowance to enable timely feedback to tenants. The platform will feed data to the mobile application so that the tenant will be able to access their daily usage. The platform also keeps historical data of the government properties and their utility usage, allowing for long-term identification of high-usage units caused by a building malfunction or tenant behavior. The application will track the tenants savings (if they are using less energy than the daily allowance), as well as historical information on past savings. The application will also display de-identified savings of other tenants in the community to incentivize and encourage tenants to participate.
Challenges we ran into: DTE information was not available as live data to test the platform so we had to use historical data to test the design. The formula for converting monthly utility allowance to a daily one needs to be sophisticated enough to account for seasonal changes. Gas usage increases in the winter due to furnace usage and electric use increases in the summer due to A/C. Wireframing an application that leverages various datatypes and needs conversion on many timescales was challenging. The platform user expects to be able to filter quickly and easily through their historical data, but it's not simple when the data's integrity is unreliable. On the application side the challenges included scrolling pages, designing the UI, understanding Swift works with Xcode.
Accomplishments that we're proud of: Creating a platform that assists low-income residents in the community. Addressing local community issues through an equity lens.
What we learned: Several members learned new programs and how they integrate. We learned about low-income housing and challenges residents face. We learned how to work together as a team of people with very different skills.
What's next for Energy Saver for low-income households: Integrating the web platform with the iOS and use React Native to create a cross-platform applications. Downloading live utility data to test out the program.