With support from the Siebel Energy Institute, an international team of researchers is using social media to analyze how people experience comfort indoors. This data about how people feel when they are in a building, will help building managers manage heating and cooling systems more efficiently.

By combining data on the actual conditions inside buildings with social media posts, the researchers hope to learn more about individuals’ perceptions and expectations of physical comfort. For example, a visitor might be more willing to put on a sweater when they are in a historic, beautiful castle than when they are in a modern building that boasts energy efficient design.

Led by Patrizia Lombardi, PhD, professor of urban planning evaluation at Politecnico di Torino, the project aims to develop energy management machine learning algorithms and to influence future policy choices on energy sustainability in public places.

With colleagues at MIT, Lombardi is using an open source platform called Human Ecosystem to carry out a large-scale mapping analysis of users’ behaviors and habits using data collected from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Lombardi, the head of the Inter-University Department of Regional and Urban Studies and Planning, is working with colleagues in engineering and computer science to analyze how students in three very different university campuses communicate on their social networks about their comfort level.

A team of energy science researchers is analyzing how people describe their comfort levels in different types of buildings, including this 18th century Castle in Torino Italy.

A team of energy science researchers is analyzing how people describe their comfort levels in different types of buildings, including this 18th century Castle in Torino Italy. (Image credit: Valentino Castle)

The project, called URBE – Understanding the Relationship Between Urban Form and Energy Consumption Through Behavioral Patterns will track about 500 users spending time in three different university buildings in Turin—an 18th Century castle that houses the school of architecture, a 1950s-era engineering building and the brand new humanities building designed with the latest energy-aware technology.

While part of the data gathering involves surveying participants about their comfort levels in certain buildings and other aspects of their energy use, the investigators decided that social media could provide more accurate, real-time information about users’ perceptions of their environment and comfort within it.

Vendors will collect relevant social media posts (using keywords) by participants when they are in the buildings, as determined by geolocators. This data will be combined with mapping of energy use and CO2 emissions data from those buildings.

Along with better understanding the connection between human comfort and energy use, the project is also tracking participants’ transit habits, all with the goal of improving sustainability and reducing carbon use in urban areas.

The URBE project generated buzz among students at the Politecnico with a contest for creating the best game on the topic of sustainability, energy consumption and user engagement. Thirty-five teams participated, and seven received prizes during the campus’s celebration of Sustainability Week in November 2016. Among the winners was a multiplayer game based on Pokemon Go with the goal of designing a new sustainable building and another was a digital game for smartphones for a waste recycling competition among university departments.

Lombardi spoke with the Siebel Energy Institute about the project.

What is new about your research on sustainable energy use?

There is an often unexplored relationship between the settlements and buildings people create and human behavior with regard to energy consumption. The idea is to try to make the two areas of the technical and the social more related with one another.

Ultimately the URBE project will encourage people to make sustainable choices about their energy use. But first, we need to better understand how human beings experience their environment. How we feel in relation to our environment is a personal experience. We hope that social media will give us a new window into how people really feel.

What tools will you be using to collect and analyze data?

Rich meter-side energy data analytics will support the identification of chronological, territorial and sectorial consumption profiles of urban citizens by exploiting information available from smart metering devices (e.g., electrical, gas, and thermal energy meters), GPS systems/apps, surveys, digitalized urban maps.

A total of 500 users (students and staff) of Turin City campuses will be monitored by gathering data on mobility and temporal geolocation. Embedded sensors in mobile phones and dedicated apps (e.g., to identify the means of transportation based on GPS data) will allow us to track the behavioral patterns of single individuals and to evaluate the associated energy use. Surveys will be used to extend results to larger population sets.

Furthermore, user satisfaction feedbacks (e.g., perceived comfort level for heating) will be collected using ad-hoc mobile applications.

What are the challenges of working with this data?

One major challenge is to make the qualitative and quantitative data communicate each other together towards a common objective.

For instance, answering the question, “how could the surrounding environment and buildings, where we live every day, affect people’s subjective perception of comfort?” We are studying the intersection between comfort perception by single users (a measure that will be absolutely qualitative) and the energy consumption in a whole city district. To do that, we need to capture the comfort perception of each building user.

With the help of an artist and an IT engineer’s algorithm we intend to seek these data through the use of art and social networks.

What are you hoping to accomplish with this research?

Combining the collected user feedback on the perceived quality of provided services with the characterization of their actual provisioning will give more insight into user behavioral patterns.

We’ve established these milestones for the project:

1) Identification of behavioral energy patterns of users of the university campus.

2) Development of algorithms for the optimal energy management strategies of building and urban mobility services through data from different sources (users’ mobile phones, smart-meters, etc.).

3) Measurement of impact of customer-engagement through enhanced sensing city to promote energy savings.

4) Measurement of impact of urban form on energy consumption.

How could your findings be valuable to industry or city planners?

 The URBE project’s results will certainly improve urban planning by offering to citizens, planners and public decision makers the necessary information for structuring, monitoring, and evaluating the realization of the post-carbon city, starting from the campus level.

The project’s knowledge transfer strategy will involve dissemination of our findings among all the target stakeholders, including local planners, building designer and construction, energy managers and building facility managers.

The identification of socio-economic policy measures to direct citizens toward greener behavioral patterns will be translated in guidelines for effective urban policy development and urban regeneration processes, including multiple benefits of energy efficiency measures and local renewable energy sources integration into the urban texture.