Tracking Sustainable Behaviors

Nancy Wong, professor of consumer science in the UW-Madison School of Human Ecology, designed an energy-tracking app to make reducing day-to-day energy usage more accessible.

Drawing on parallels between food consumption and energy use, Wong’s team designed “My Earth – Track Your Carbon Savings” with approaches used in food-tracking apps that help users catalog their daily eating habits.

“We tried to categorize it into the different kinds of activities that you can do so that people can select from whatever suits their lifestyle,” Wong says.

The app is organized with five main categories: electricity, recycling, travel, food and usage. Each category includes activities as simple as recycling a milk jug to upgrading to a high-efficiency toilet that reduces the need for energy-intensive wastewater treatment.

As users check off activities, they accumulate saved carbon units. Research assistant Andrew Stevens came up with the idea of using a polar bear clinging to a small iceberg to represent the impacts of the chosen activities. The more carbon units and energy saved, the larger the iceberg becomes, Wong says.

Wong says she hopes people will use “My Earth” to identify and prioritize energy-saving activities. She was motivated to work on the app by a belief that behaviors need to be simple and understandable in order to become sustainable.

“Most of the time, I see (lack of concern for the environment) as a failure to connect individual action to that bigger picture,” Wong says. “Hopefully the app could help you understand actually whatever you do is not insignificant and this is how you can contribute.”