January 1, 2008
A new software tool helps citizens visualize their cities’ eco-efforts.
In 2006 New York unveiled PlaNYC, a document laying out the city’s green initiatives in 158 boldly written, amply illustrated, and crisply designed pages. But how many New Yorkers have actually waded through it—or its 18-page six-month update? There are mountains of environmental reports published every year by local, state, and federal governments, and few end up on anyone’s nightstand. “Who has time to read all of these?” asks Colin Grant, cofounder and CEO of Visible Strategies, a sustainability consultancy and software developer based in Vancouver, British Columbia.
To help cities and companies get their environmental messages across to an increasingly receptive public, the company has developed a Web-hosted program called See-it that renders complex plans as simple interactive graphics. The Live Earth concert series used See-it this year to track its climate footprint across eight venues, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, recently signed on to promote its green program. For Albuquerque, See-it (short for Social, Environmental, Economic-Integration Toolkits) organizes citywide data into a live status report that the average citizen can quickly understand. At the center of the screen is a planet divided into three general areas of focus (ecosystems and agriculture, the man-made environment, and the economy and culture) and encircled by concentric rings of in-creasing specificity (goals, strategies, and actions). If you’re interested in Albuquerque’s plans for its buses, for example, follow the “Greening Our Travel” goal to the “Vehicle Efficiency” strategy, where you can read about the fleet’s ongoing conversion to alternative fuels. You’ll also find a graph that evaluates the plan’s progress (on track!) and a form to send feedback to a city manager. “It has forced us to take a good hard look at what data we have and how we measure our success,” says Danny Nevarez, who works at Albuquerque’s Environmental Health Department.
Of course, the program is only as good as the data behind it, which the city itself provides. Some status reports on Albuquerque’s site (at press time it had not yet launched publicly) tout targets that were met years ago, giving the city high marks without challenging it to meet new goals, a practice that Grant discourages. “Everything in See-it, in a perfect implementation, would relate to a long-term vision.”
For Visible Strategies, that vision includes more data—a lot more. The company is releasing an up-date this spring that will allow See-it programs to communicate with one another, amassing their results across a global network. “Our intention is for this to become a true World Wide Web of sustainability, with literally every corporation, every entity, and every organization,” Grant says. He even has a version in the works for individuals to track and share their own green goals. “When we engage with communities, people say, ‘I want to be part of this. I want to be able to see whether I’m reducing my ecological footprint. And if I can’t do that, how can I relate to a government plan?’”