The City of Chicago uses embedded intelligence to empower energy consumers.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

April 7, 2004

4 Min Read

David Eslinger is a research engineer for the Energy Resources Center, which promotes energy efficiency through consulting, education, and outreach activities sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, the State of Illinois, and the City of Chicago. For a City project recently launched, David helped create an embedded intelligence application using the Formula One e.Spreadsheet Engine from ReportingEngines.

Q: What were the project goals that led you to choose an embedded intelligence application as a solution?

A: The idea was to create a Web site where people could access information about energy efficiency and how that applies to their homes. The City wanted to make it a really personalized experience so that the user could enter in characteristics about their home and some other pertinent information, and generate a report that would specify the energy-efficient retrofits that they could make and the associated cost benefit for those retrofits.

The way we looked at it first — because I'm an energy engineer and I don't develop Web sites very often — we created an engineering calculator within Microsoft Excel. In translating this over into the Web environment, rather than try to translate this very complicated Microsoft Excel calculator tool into JavaScript, we decided to integrate the existing tool with our Java forms with which we were extracting the user information. Now we transfer that information back and forth from Excel and have that be the engine for calculating all of the relevant report information.

David EslingerWe were actually halfway down the road to translating all of this, all the Excel engine into JavaScript, when we ran across e.Spreadsheet Engine and found that it eliminated a huge amount of development time; plus it gave me the flexibility, as the energy engineer, to go back at any time and update my Excel engine so that it can reflect new market conditions. I can update that information without having to adjust the script, and it's a single file that I have to change and then upload back to the City server. So we can maintain it without even accessing the expertise of the original Java application developer.

Q: Were there other alternative solutions you considered?

A: We don't have to integrate multiple data sets. We're only really dealing with a single set of user input: It totals maybe 50 fields, and then the engine itself that we created contains all of the other data that we are trying to use to extract the report.

And here we're dealing with a neophyte user in most every case, so they are not going to be able to download an Excel file and transfer their answers, their home characteristics, to that Excel file. So that would be, I guess, the alternative to ReportingEngines that we would have had to use. By embedding the reporting engine within the user environment, that whole process is seamless to them.

As far as the development of the application, this was invaluable. The engineering team, on my side, was able to transfer our set of knowledge over to the Web developer, at the IT site, without even having to educate one another on the different techniques we were using. We were just able to translate this Excel file and all the IT guys had to do was extract certain pieces of information out of the results page. It eliminated translating that entire Excel logic, that we had meticulously created, into JavaScript. That was a big time saver.

Q: What calculations does the app do?

A: Well the equations themselves aren't very complicated; it's simple algebra. But the tables from which we pull this information are certainly very intricate. Where there are so many possibilities in the construction of a home, we have to allow the user to input a whole array of characteristics.

And those questions are generated dynamically, so if I say I have a wood house, it asks me questions about whether I have vinyl siding, but if I have a brick home, it doesn't ask those questions, or it asks me other questions.

Q: Since you're dealing with consumers, this application probably has to be at least as "sticky" as something created for a business user.

A: Absolutely. People only get motivated for attending to energy efficiency issues in their home when they're looking at the $300 natural gas bill. So it's a very narrow window where you've got them interested in putting insulation in their homes. This time of year, when gas prices and gas usage starts to go down, we've lost them.

So the City is very interested in getting consumers to be attentive to energy efficiency issues and this is a great way to do it — match the demand with the supply of information.

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