Monday, June 23, 2014

Meter Hero wants to help you conserve water & energy

The first thing I notice upon entering the Meter Hero office is the bulletin board next to the door. Pinned to it are T-shirts, photos, newspaper clippings and a large poster of Milwaukee’s North Point water tower with the text, “Conserve Differently.” At a glance it looks like a display of memorabilia and success stories typical of a business or environmental organization proud of its accomplishments. McGee Young, the founder of Meter Hero, quickly corrects my false impression.

“We call this our ‘learning wall’ because it documents our failures.” He says this with as much pride as I would expect if it had in fact commemorated successes.

Meter Hero is Young’s latest attempt to create a tool that will enable people to better understand their own water and energy consumption. An online application allows users to track their own water, electric and gas usage and also to compare it with similar users. The goal is to stimulate conservation.

As the “learning wall” testifies, that goal can be elusive.

Overlooking the Menomonee Valley
In the fall of 2013 Young became one of the first entrepreneurs to be given a Global Freshwater Seed Accelerator Grant from Milwaukee’s Water Council. He moved into the newly renovated Global Water Center building and created H2Oscore, his first effort to motivate water conservation. A precursor to Meter Hero, H2Oscore used a water utility’s own data, which was translated into an accessible format so that homeowners, businesses and schools could track water usage.

Grafton Middle School T-shirt
H2Oscore was deployed successfully in four cities around Wisconsin and experienced good community engagement and encouraging conservation progress. Young discovered a weak link, however, in the water utility. With a wry smile he recalls the realization that utility companies don’t share his conservation values. “The more water we use the more money they make,” he maintains. Waste, not conservation, benefits their bottom line.

This energized Young to go back to his team of entrepreneurs and challenge them to design “a product that puts H2Oscore out of business.” The result, launched in beta form in January 2014, was Meter Hero. The new application not only bypasses the utility but also adds energy usage to the water data.

Global Water Center office
Young, who teaches environmental policy at Marquette University, sees these as moral as well as economic issues. “We will face no bigger challenge in our lifetimes than how to manage our water and energy,” he asserts. To illustrate the moral dimension, he returns to the ‘learning wall’ and points out one of the news clippings. “The highest water use in the city of Milwaukee is in the poorest neighborhoods,” he observes. “From a social justice perspective we must do better.”

I inquire about the value of being in the Global Water Center. Initially he was skeptical, he tells me. However, over time he has come to appreciate and value the opportunities it affords him to connect with people “who share an interest in water issues but who are not exactly your type.” As an academic he is not used to rubbing shoulders with engineers. He explains, “We tend to surround ourselves with those who are most like us. When we get out of that comfort zone we find our creativity improves and the ways that we look at the world expand.”

When I ask if it matters that the Global Water Center is located where it is, next to the canal in the Menomonee Valley, he pauses in reflection. Then he says, “Not yet.” But, he goes on, the impending development of the adjacent Reed Street Yards, which is intended to attract additional water related business and industry, will help. Furthermore, what really matters about the Menomonee Valley is the ongoing revitalization. “There is energy in the neighborhood that is palpable. Something important is clearly happening here and people gravitate to places like this.”

Promotion event at Outpost Natural Foods
He then suggests a challenge that faces Menomonee Valley planners is the perception that the Valley currently exists as two different and disconnected segments. “The great thing about the Valley is the fact that you have such a rich history juxtaposed with modern, ecologically sensitive new construction. On top of this there is an effort to bring natural elements into the management of the lived infrastructure—bio-swales and other stormwater retention efforts.” While similar systems are being installed in the Reed Street Yards most of the attention is focused to the west of Falk Corporation, with the new parks, industries and Urban Ecology Center.

He acknowledges that Canal Street and the Hank Aaron State Trail offer a degree of connection but he envisions some kind of transit or a trolley perhaps that will bind the two halves more deliberately.

He muses further, suggesting, “The story of the redevelopment of the Valley is such a compelling one.” Instead of bringing in big warehouses to fill vacant lots the policy has been to attract industries that will employ real people, create decent jobs, while at the same time keeping an eye on environmental sustainability. “We are investing in the community, recognizing the history but also projecting the Valley as one of the most forward-looking parts of Milwaukee,” he says. “It’s a one-of-a-kind place.”

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I've just recorded my first meter reading on Meter Hero. You can try it, too: click here.

This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.

1 comment:

  1. I would like to obtain the top photo on this page to print with an article in McGee's alumni magazine (Syracuse University). Is this possible? E-mail me at