Climate change and the declining state of the environment is a pressing issue. The effects of global climate change could result in increasing sea levels, extinction of multiple species, and hundreds of thousands of human casualties due to climate change-related health issues. The total cost of climate change each year, if left unmitigated, is approximately $1.2 trillion, not including an additional 250,000 lives projected to be lost annually. It is difficult to imagine an issue that is more important to tackle on both economic and humanitarian levels.

Currently, environmental responsibility lies mostly with corporations rather than individuals. As a result, many individuals lack the incentive, or even the education, to reduce their carbon footprint. Ecofolio aims to combat the lack of actionable education and incentives for individuals to become more eco-friendly.

What Ecofolio does is a web application that makes intelligent and individualized suggestions to users about how they can lead more environmentally-friendly lifestyles. It also incentivizes users to implement sustainable recommendations and reduce their environmental impact by leveraging social norming.

Key features of the application

  1. A comprehensive lifestyle survey divided into four categories: transportation, housing, purchasing/food, and work that informs lifestyle change recommendations.
  2. A proprietary algorithm that suggests intelligent, customized recommendations to users on how they can reduce their environmental impact in ways that are both significant and easy to implement based on the user’s existing lifestyle.
  3. An incentive system created through the powerful phenomenon of social norming, as leveraged through a system that compares a user’s carbon footprint and rating to those of friends and peers on the web application.

The technology behind our product

The algorithm behind our customized recommendations
The backend of our recommendation algorithm was developed in Java, which we also used to create the recommendation algorithm. More specifically, we used Java servlets, a specific Java superclass created for optimal integration with web applications. Our carbon footprint calculator was a resource from the EPA and our rating system was developed in-house through the statistical normalization of the average carbon footprint of US residents by state.

The backend database supporting Ecofolio
We used various Amazon Web Services tools to develop our web application as well:

  1. Amazon EC2 server that provides the CPU power needed to run the web application;
  2. AWS's Elastic Beanstalk service, which has a convenient integration service with Eclipse Java EE and deploys our web application to our EC2 server; and
  3. Amazon DynamoDB, a SQL-based database optimized to integrate with other AWS products and allow for testing.

Tackling privacy concerns and data storage elegantly
Users have a unique username and we store the SHA-256 hash of passwords, as opposed to the actual passwords, for enhanced security. In order to mitigate this unlikely security risk of a rainbow table attack, our web application and DynamoDB table stores no information about the users’ survey answers. The only user attributes stored are their username, the hash of their passwords, their emails (an optional field), their carbon footprint, and the recommendations the web application has previously given them. Thus, in the highly unlikely event of a hack, users’ accounts will not be compromised as little to no personal information is actually stored in our system.

The front-end development and ensuing user experience
In terms of the code layout and design, the web application renders the HTML and JSP pages. The survey is an HTML form, as are the login and home screens. When a user presses a button, the button redirects to the appropriate Java servlet. All the Java servlets have extensive error checking for malformed inputs. Transitions between subpages are accompanied by subtle animations that provide a smooth user trajectory, while complementary colors and easy-to-read fonts help ensure that site usage is as pleasant as possible.

What’s next for Ecofolio

Since creation of our prototype, we have continued moving forward in the refinement and iteration process by engaging with potential users in the Philadelphia area, including through pitches to 20 environmental sustainability and social impact organizations in the region, and we have acquired new users in other regions of the country. We also hope to see if a possibility exists with integrating our application into Facilities and Real Estate’s (FRES’s) annual Power Down Challenge initiative, or if it might even be leveraged throughout the university's existing and upcoming environmental sustainability initiatives as Penn aims to reach its goals outlined in its Climate Action Plan 2.0.

Along the way, we have almost doubled our original goal of 50 users on the platform and are continuing to track carbon emissions reductions through the recommendations implemented by Ecofolio users.

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