Reducing our carbon footprint: Transportation app inspires new “IT for Sustainability” course at UC Berkeley.
Climate change is “the defining challenge of our age,” according to Secretary General Ban Ki Moon of the United Nations. K. Shankari, a Ph.D. student in the computer science division at UC Berkeley, wholeheartedly agrees. Her research is a response to this complex challenge, with a specific focus on the intersection of climate change, transportation, and computing.
As a first-year Ph.D. student, Shankari prototyped a data-driven carbon emission reduction app called E-Mission for a class project in transportation engineering. The Android and iPhone apps collect data to help users monitor, understand—and hopefully change—their carbon footprint, while the online tool makes aggregate data available to urban planners. With her Ph.D. supervisor, professor David Culler, Shankari then turned the app development process into an undergraduate computer science course called “IT For Sustainability” at UC Berkeley in spring 2015.
Connecting local choices to global impact
Growing up in Mumbai, Shankari experienced first-hand how climate change is both a local and global issue. In India, she says, “the population density is so high that it makes is no sense for anyone to drive…but as people get wealthier, they get a car and a chauffeur and begin to drive everywhere. If everyone in India were to start driving, it wouldn’t matter what we did in the U.S. The planet would be cooked.”
Shankari is practically a model citizen for sustainable transportation advocacy: her family has one car which is powered by the solar panels on their roof, and they drive it 1/4 the amount of the average American. Before she began driving—Shankari didn’t have a driver’s license until she turned 31— she rode her bike everyday to work, even until she was 7.5 months pregnant with her first child.
Arriving at Berkeley and finding advisors
After twelve years in the software industry, Shankari decided it was time to return to school. While working as a software engineer at VMware, she became increasingly concerned that “we are running out of time to fix this big challenge with interconnected parts.” And that’s what motivated her to pursue research at UC Berkeley.
As a returning graduate student, Shankari had a unique perspective on continuing her education. “A lot of people go to grad school saying, ‘I want to do a Ph.D.,’ and then they pick a topic,” Shankari explains. “For me, I knew I wanted to work on sustainability” and that a Ph.D. was the right vehicle. To find an advisor in her research area, she first took a sabbatical from work to explore UC Berkeley’s AMPLab. She then invited a different grad student out to lunch each week to figure out who was working on sustainability. This is how she found her advisors, professors David Culler and Randy Katz.
From passion to prototype
Shankari began building the E-Mission app prototype for a class project in transportation engineering, along with Transportation Engineering Ph.D. student Mogeng Yin. The initial design generated a list of previous trips plus emissions data, then the user would confirm each trip. While the prototype worked, its accuracy was low. Additionally, the motion tracking app that originally managed the data collection (Moves) was acquired by Facebook. Wanting to improve accuracy while not giving user data over to Facebook, Shankari needed an improved platform that could also handle its own data collection. The idea for the hands-on “IT for Sustainability” class was born.
Classroom as laboratory
The concept behind the IT for Sustainability course in spring 2015 was to teach students to build out a functional app. Specifically, the class was divided into three groups that simultaneously worked on different aspects of the tool. One group worked on data collection, another on the recommender system, and another on data visualization.
The course syllabus highlights several teaching goals: “This class explores techniques by which IT can be used to improve sustainability in the physical world. We will focus on transportation, which accounts for 35% of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions in California, and 28% nationwide. We will do so by working together to develop the e-mission platform, which aims to capture detailed travel patterns of users, use them to encourage energy efficient transportation at a personal level, and make the aggregate data available for better land use and transportation planning at an institutional level.”
Learning by doing
Building such a complex platform in a classroom setting did not come without hurdles. “It’s a pedagogical challenge,” Shankari says.
“From the instructors’ perspectives, we want to teach the students how to build something beautiful, but to build something beautiful is complex. The students aren’t used to such complexity and it’s hard to ‘shoehorn’ that into the reality of working only four hours a week on a class project.”
On the flip side, Shankari values the advice and guidance she receives from her Ph.D. advisors, David Culler and Randy Katz. She says her instinct is “to just build something, because that’s what I know how to do.” And then professor Culler will ask, “what is the actual research question behind it?”
Shankari also actively collaborates with researchers across and outside of UC Berkeley. She hopes the E-Mission platform will be useful as a personal tool and at the aggregate level—for example by campuses that implement Transportation Demand Management (TDM) programs to restrict the number of people who can drive a car to work. To make this goal a reality, she is working with Sid Fagan, a Ph.D. student in Transportation Engineering, to define a user model for the E-Mission recommendation system. Colleagues at UC Davis are also interested in using the E-Mission platform for an annual campus travel survey.
Shankari sees both the E-Mission app and the IT for Sustainability pilot course as promising new solutions to the challenge of sustainable transportation.
Final Student Projects
View a sampling below of student posters from the pilot IT for Sustainability course at UC Berkeley. The project topics include user interface design, generating trip recommendations, and improving transit mode inference for the E-Mission transportation application.