This article was originally published in The Coloradoan and was written by Jacy Marmaduke. You can find the entire article and video online here.
As it turns out, being kinda broke is a big-time advantage when you’re fighting for your life in a smartphone app-based sustainability competition.
Fighting for points, I mean. Same difference.
The app is called Lose-A-Watt, and it might prove Fort Collins’ secret weapon as the city competes with 49 others for the $5 million Georgetown University Energy Prize. The jackpot will go to the city that makes the biggest cuts in residential, municipal and educational electricity and natural gas use during 2015 and 2016, compared to 2013-2014 levels.
Public engagement is a factor, too, and if the city lands the prize, the money will go toward community energy efficiency measures.
Fort Collins spent $15,000 on the app as part of its Lose-A-Watt campaign, and a group of Colorado State University students tested it out earlier this year. They’re trying to use the app to find out whether “gamifying” sustainable habits can make them more popular.
I was dying to try it out myself, so I put on my most ferocious game face and managed to snag a spot in the December 2015 EcoChallenge (read: downloaded the free app, tapped the “challenge” icon and hit “join”).
The app is really simple: Scroll through 120-some sustainable actions, called “pins,” and “buzz,” or tap, a pin every time you do the thing. Some of the pins are easy-peasy – buzz the “flip off” pin for a few points every time you switch off lights when you leave a room; buzz “brush with greatness” every time you turn off the faucet while brushing your teeth; buzz “blazing saddle shoes” when you decide to walk to your destination instead of driving.
Some of them call for a little more effort – start your own compost pile, buy an Energy Star-qualified home appliance, set up a gray water system at your house so the excess water from your washing machine can hydrate your lawn.
You get more points for typing a caption to your buzz and adding a photo, and the app has a social-network-y vibe in that every user has a profile and you can see other people’s pins in the “activity” section.
I spend enough time staring at screens as it is, so I got no thrill from whipping out my iPhone every time I left my cat in the dark, turned off my computer at the end of the workday or brought my lunch to the office.
It was cool, though, to watch myself rack up points for habits I’ve adopted from convenience or necessity. Like I said, my wallet was having a skinny week while I competed in the challenge, so brown-bagging it, keeping the lights off and driving feather-foot to save on gas earned me points on the app and made my checking account happy.
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I tried out a few new habits, too. I’d never thought to lower my thermostat when I left the house, and attempting to cap my showers at five minutes helped me get ready faster in the morning and save water.
“It plants a seed in your mind,” said Jennifer Solomon, the CSU professor whose environmental communications class test-drove the app. “Every time I leave the room, I need to turn off the lights. Every time I brush my teeth, I need to shut off the water. If I have a choice between driving and walking, I should walk. We’re curious to see how long that seed stays, and does it grow?”
The answer to that question remains in the dark, but Solomon surveyed each of her students at the end of the semester about how they used the app and whether any new habits stuck.
One clear consensus among the students: Competing with people they knew drove them to buzz more.
“I was kind of surprised by the waves of competitiveness you would get,” said Caitlyn Thomas, a CSU senior. “At first you’d be like, ‘Oh, I’m not really into it,’ and then you’d see everybody else getting into it and think, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to get as many points as possible!’ ”
“I felt pretty competitive the whole time,” chimed in junior Julia Sullivan, who won the challenge with more than 8,000 points. “But maybe that’s just me.”
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None of the six students I interviewed kept using the app after the 10-day challenge ended – not even Julia, who tallied 13 times more points than I did. That’s not necessarily a bad omen for the app’s efficacy, though. It all depends on whether constant, short-term use was enough to create long-term habits.
“Even with games like FarmVille or Bejeweled, you don’t play those for years or even months,” sophomore Cierra Carrigan said. “You play them for a couple weeks while all your friends are doing it, and then you stop. So I think it’s really important that when they develop games like this, they make them based on forming habits instead of keeping people playing them for as long as possible.”
Michelle Finchum, who works in Fort Collins Utilities’ community engagement division, said the CSU students’ feedback has changed the city’s plans for using the app. Instead of marketing the app to the city as a whole like they were initially planning, city staff is going to approach specific businesses or other groups and set up challenges for them so people can compete against familiar faces.
They’ll monitor the app’s success during the coming months to see if it’s worth a spot in the city’s 2017-2018 budget. The fee allows the city to tailor the free app to Fort Collins and create communities and challenges within it.
And now for the all-important question: How’d I do?
In five days, I buzzed 30 times, earned 614 points and saved 61 pounds of carbon dioxide and 103 gallons of water. The app tells me that’s equivalent to baking 53 frozen pizzas and filling a bathtub twice.
I got 12th place out 40 people who buzzed. I’m not sure if they make 12th-place medals, but if they do, I hope mine is shaped like a frozen pizza.
Or a bathtub. I’m not picky.
Reporter Jacy Marmaduke covers environment and breaking news for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter at @jacymarmaduke.