From wristbands to thermostats, we have access to more information about our lives than ever before

by Blaine Kyllo

If you’ve driven through agricultural areas you’ve likely seen the massive irrigation systems that are used to water crops. Technology – not far removed from smartwatches and other wearable devices – is collecting data and giving those oversized sprinklers the ability to know when to water.

According to the World Water Council, 70% of our fresh water is used for agriculture. Sam George, who leads Microsoft’s work on cloud computing and the “Internet of Things,” says that by 2050 the population increase will require even more water be used to grow food. 

On the phone from his office in Redmond, WA, George explains how Microsoft and Schneider Electric are helping farmers in New Zealand reduce water use by 50% by placing sensors in the ground to track moisture levels in the soil. “They only water in areas that aren’t saturated already,” says George.

These same systems, he adds, are configured to pump water from rivers into holding tanks at optimal times, saving up to two-thirds of a farm’s energy bill. 

The sensors used by smart-irrigation systems aren’t much different from those in smartphones, fitness trackers and home energy monitors. Just as farmers can collect data about how much water is in the ground, you can get real-time data about what’s going on in your life. The trick is to turn that data into information you can use.

runner checking fitness wristbandiStock

Track steps, calories and more

The gadgets and devices we use in our everyday lives are getting more powerful and sophisticated. So are the components that go into them. 

Sensors in our smartphones and tablets and wearable devices such as Fitbits, Misfits, Apple Watches and Garmins can all measure things ranging from the direction and speed of movement of our bodies to our heart rate and our position on the surface of Earth. Smart thermostats and lighting systems can detect when people are around and automatically adjust settings based on temperature and lighting preferences.

These devices are also part of the Internet of Things, which means that they are connected to networks so the data they measure and track can be collected and analyzed. 

In a similar way, the features available through MyHydro, your online BC Hydro account, let you monitor how much energy you’re using every hour, day, month or year. 

With other devices, we can count the number of steps we take in a day, because that’s one indication of how physically active we are. Our wearables use algorithms to provide good estimates of the number of calories we’ve burned and there are connected scales that transmit data about our body weight to online services supporting healthy habits. 

Microsoft’s Sam George uses a Fitbit to track his sleep.  

Get a good night’s sleep

If you’ve ever suffered from insomnia – or had children – you know how precious sleep is. Dr. Wendy Hall knows about the dangers of fatigue and sleep deprivation. As a member of both the Canadian Sleep Society and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, she helped establish the guidelines for how much sleep kids need every night. 

When she’s working with families, the UBC professor starts by having them record things such as bedtimes, the time children actually fall asleep and the time they wake up. “Sleep diaries can be a very effective way of collecting data so that you can have some idea what’s going on,” says Hall.

She calls the process of measuring sleep “intense” and says it involves people sleeping in a laboratory where they would have electrodes connecting their heads and bodies to complex machines. To solve some problems, that data is essential. “If we don’t understand what we’re actually doing,” she says, “it’s hard to figure out how we can improve.”

George has been able to keep his own version of a sleep diary by wearing a Fitbit that tracks how often he moves in his sleep or wakes up in the middle of the night. 

The data isn’t as accurate as what would be recorded in a sleep lab, but it led him to realize that he sleeps better at night when he cuts out caffeinated beverages after noon. 

Turn data into information

Smartphones and wristbands make it easy to collect data about our lives. But if you want to be able to do something with all of those numbers, you need to turn that data into information, says sports psychology coach Richard Monette. Information is data you can use.

A resident of Banff, Monette has developed what he calls the “InnerWarrior Cycle” that helps make information useful. It’s a technique used by the Canadian elite athletes Monette works with, including skiers Eric Guay and Alex Harvey, both world champions. 

Monette believes we all have inner warriors to be revealed and that we can start by setting clear intentions. 

“The moment you clarify the intent before you get on the ice, or the field of play, your actions become clearer,” he says.

He is also coaching B.C. snowboarder Spencer O’Brien. She’ll represent Canada at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games. At the beginning of a training session, for example, a young, ambitious snowboarder might say to herself: “I want to medal at the Olympics so I will board with all my focus and energy each and every run today.”

I’ve started a Team Power Smart Challenge and want to earn a $50 reward, so my clear intention is: “I want to reduce my energy consumption by 10%, so today I will hang my clothes to dry.”

By stating that intention, I’ve committed to monitoring my progress and defined how I’m going to measure it. There’s no point in measuring something if you don’t know what to do with that information, says Monette. “You need to know your ‘why.’ Why does it matter?”

Move from measurement to motivation

Monette also believes in the power of asking ourselves questions – the right questions will lead to answers and those answers are powerful. “The beauty of an answer is that when you come up with an answer, you create a reality in your mind,” he says. “That’s the way our brains are designed.”

This is also where the data becomes so important. We’ve collected it with our devices, we’ve turned that data into information by knowing what we want to do with it and now we have something to do with it. The phrase Monette uses is: “You treasure what you measure.” Keeping track of something, he explains, gives it importance and value. 

That value is critical, according to Dr. Richard Stock, a behaviour analyst who teaches at Capilano University. “For something to be motivating it has to have value,” he explains from his office in North Vancouver. And the greater the value, the bigger the impact on behaviour. 

Many of us value taking 10,000 steps every day to maintain a healthy weight. Some people are further motivated by competition and challenge friends and family to see who can record the most steps. In the same way, BC Hydro’s online electricity-tracking tools let you compare your electricity use to similar homes in your neighbourhood. Electricity in B.C. is affordable compared to other regions so people are also motivated to conserve energy for environmental reasons.

However, money is still one of the most powerful motivators, says Stock. It’s universally valued and it’s a measurement we understand. Stock mentioned his BC Hydro bill and the bar graph that shows electricity use. 

“The kilowatt hours means nothing to me, but I like to see that my use this month was lower than last month,” he says. Trying to get the bar lower, by turning down the thermostat, for example, has value.

putting clothes in the dryeriStock

Make the invisible visible

“When we talk about savings, we lead with dollars,” says Fatima Crerar, on the phone from Toronto. “Because dollars are real and dollars leave you with satisfaction knowing that this is working.”

Crerar, a senior manager at Ecobee, the Canadian company that manufactures smart thermostats, is talking about the energy reports that are delivered to customers with information about how much they’ve reduced their energy use by using an Ecobee product. These ENERGY STAR® devices control the heating and cooling of homes, saving some customers nearly a quarter of their annual costs. Smart thermostats adjust the home environment when they sense you’re at home or away and they can be controlled remotely with a smartphone.  

The company also makes sensors that can be placed in other parts of your home so you can adjust the temperature to where you are. The sensors “measure temperature and detect occupancy in the rooms that matter,” says Crerar. 

In using BC Hydro’s online electricity-tracking tools, I’m making the invisible visible. And I have a goal in mind. Last year, I spent about $1,700 on electricity, so if I deliver on the 10% Team Power Smart Reduction Challenge, I won’t just get a $50 reward. I’ll also save another $170 on my BC Hydro bills over the year or even $255 if I cut my usage by 15%.

So put those fitness trackers, online tracking tools and home  energy monitors to good use. No matter what data you’re collecting or what progress you’re monitoring, know what you’re going to do with the information, ask yourself why it matters and find the value in the change you want to see.

Make the switch

Keep your toes toasty. Buy slippers for everyone in your home. Then lower your thermostat by two degrees to save 5% on your heating bill. Lowering it five degrees could save 10%. Save as much as $72 a year.

How wearables work

It could be through your watch or a wristband, your smartphone or smart running shoes. But we can all measure ourselves. Wearables, the term given to electronic devices that we wear, use sensors to collect data about our lives. These include altimeters and GPS, which detect geographical position, and accelerometers and gyroscopes that track motion and movement intensity. This data can be transformed into more meaningful information such as steps taken and calories burned. Heart rates are measured using light sensors, which can detect blood flowing under your skin.

fitbit with fitness app on a phoneiStock

Turn consumption data into information and action

BC Hydro makes it easy for you to turn your energy consumption data into usable information that you can act on. It starts with logging in to your account at myhydro.com, where you can view, in a table or bar graph, just how much electricity you’ve used. You can see your consumption over the month, week, day or even down to the hour.

There are settings so you can make comparisons against the amount of energy you used the same time last year or against the average energy being used by similar homes in your neighbourhood. You can even plot your consumption against the average outside temperature. 

A built-in forecaster provides you with an estimate of what your electricity will cost that month and you can set alerts to be notified when you cross certain energy-use thresholds. 

Equipped with that information, you can make decisions about what to do. This winter, you’ll know at a glance when your baseboard heaters have kicked into gear during a cold snap. If your electricity use has been high, you can choose to wear a sweater the next time the temperature drops, instead of turning up the thermostat. 

Make the switch

Take shorter showers. It’s tempting to take a long, hot shower when the weather is cooler. But hot water is expensive and energy costs add up. So consider changing your morning routine. If everyone in a four-person family cuts their showering time from 10 minutes to five minutes, imagine how much water and energy you could save over a year.