Wednesday, October 9, 2013

It's the year 2013, but where are the smart meters?

My first title for this post was "What to Do When the Power Goes Out", but I changed it in homage to the IBM commercial done by Avery Brooks where he asks "It's the year 2000, but where are the flying cars? I was promised flying cars!"

On Saturday afternoon, during the CFL game between MontrĂ©al and Edmonton, the power went out at my home.  After a few moments without power, I decided to report the incident.  The power outage meant that I could not use my wi-fi connection at home, but I could access the internet via my smartphone and its 3G network.   I used the phrase "saskpower outages" for my search and found the page titled "Outages -- SaskPower" that provided an option to "Report an Outage".   Either one can begin a 4 step process to report a power outage (after asking me to verify that there this no power, and I am not trying to report streetlight trouble or an electrical emergency) or call in.  The province-wide toll-free number is also provided, however, it has not been updated on the website to include the area code for 10 digit dialing (which has been mandatory since May 11, 2013) [It is possible to make a telephone number clickable (or dialable on a mobile phone), which is done on in certain places on the saskpower website, but it is not very useful without the area code included.]

I didn't get through the form to do the online report of an outage, since I used the phone.  That I didn't get a busy signal was a sign to me that the outage was not large -- not many customers calling to complain.  I was pleased to speak with someone.  I was intrigued to learn that calls like mine were important for SaskPower to identify (and repair) outages.

Over an hour later, the power was still not restored.  The website prominently features its use of twitter to communicate unplanned outages.  On the "Report an Outage" page, the first line reads "Follow our Twitter feed for real-time alerts and updates on unplanned power outages in your area."  I went to twitter and found nothing.  So I called again.  I spoke to a different person who assured me that my outage was being handled.  When I asked why nothing was posted on twitter, he said that was used mainly for large outages affecting a lot of people.  For small ones, they communicate about it by talking to people on the phone.  I pointed out to him that such a message should be communicated on the website, at the very least.  I then went out for a walk and saw a SaskPower repair person who told me that restoration of power was imminent (which it was).

I find this approach from SaskPower to be very troubling.  If twitter is advertised as the source for information about unplanned outages, to not post details about all of the outages that are reported gives a false impression about the number (and severity) of outages that occur within the province.

Elsewhere on the website, I see the following breakdown of outages by cause:
  • Aging infrastructure / unknown: 38.2%
  • Environment / weather: 35%
  • Domino effect: 17.1%
  • Human error: 5.9%
  • Accidental contact: 3.8%
SaskPower tells me that it is working to renew and improve our system and it has devoted another page to explaining these efforts in more detail.

Yet missing from any of these pages that I have visited is any mention of smart grid technology being part of the infrastructure renewal.  I know that searching for "saskpower smart grid" will bring me to some pages about plans for upgrading the grid.  500,000 smart meters are planned to be deployed,  the web page says.  Conspicuously missing is a date.  Also strangely absent is any connection to the update of our aging infrastructure that is the leading cause of power outages in Saskatchewan.  Are these 2 web pages the product of different divisions that never speak to one another?

Interestingly, SaskPower solicits feedback from people about its webpages.  Under the heading "Express Yourself" is the phrase "This page makes me feel..." with the choices "Curious", "Unsure", "Frustrated", "Informed", "Inspired", and "Bored".  Because percentages are reported, the number of people actually expressing themselves is unclear.  I've noticed "Frustrated", "Informed", and "Bored" receiving clicks.

Back to the outage, how could smart meter technology have helped me (and SaskPower) during my power outage on Saturday?  I found an article from over 1 year ago that discussed the advantages of smart meters in dealing with power outages.  First and foremost, a smart meter can send a real-time outage alert back to SaskPower, possibly notifying SaskPower before a customer can call in.

The issues of smart meters (and the smart grid) involves more than better responses to outages and other benefits.  There are also issues around privacy that must be handled appropriately, in dialogue with an informed citizenry.  About half of all of SaskPower's generation capacity comes from coal ("clean coal" technologies notwithstanding), so any reductions that can be realized in consumption and demand through better information via "the smart grid" would be extremely valuable, for all citizens (and not just of Saskatchewan).

Are you curious about smart grid technology in Saskatchewan?  My adventure this weekend (and writing this post) has prompted me to contact my MLA (and other politicians).  I invite you to do the same and post a comment here (as will I with the responses I get).

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Questions about ENS beacons

Inspired by a recent post on about the Amber Alert text capabilities in California and New York, I became interested in the Alertus ENS beacons that have now been installed on campus at the University of Regina.

All is well at 9:52 AM!

The display permits a message of 20 characters on each of 4 lines, so a total of 80 characters are visible at once.  It is not clear the maximum number of screens a single message can occupy.  There is a potential hazard of inopportune breaks between screens of a message (I recall having taken a picture of one such multi-screen messages, but the photo is nowhere to be found) and a lack of standard start and end characters for messages.

The beacons are intended to warn about life threatening emergencies such as Tornados, Chemical Spills or Armed Intruders. They will not activate/sound during a fire alarm.

Report a fire, receive information about (other) life-threatening emergency
There are 2 programmable (according to website) buttons on the beacon, the functions of which is unclear from examining the beacon.  It seems that the beacons are only meant to transmit information and not receive any reports of problems.  Riding on the Toronto Subway recently, I noticed a passenger assistance alarm (a thin yellow strip in each car). The penalty for improper activation is a $425 ticket.
Could an emergency reporting capability, with a similar deterrent for misuse, be workable at the University of Regina?

The beacons provide a visual notification capability that the fire alarm system does not have, but the ENS beacons are not used during fires.  Could the use of both systems add to the confusion in case of a fire?  If the fire alarm system was used for other emergencies as well,  could that create a different sort of confusion?   Could it be a problem that the beacons take people out of classrooms to find out the nature of the emergency?

Alertus  has desktop software that allows campus computers to receive emergency notifications.  I have installed it on my computer, but is this software installed on all (smart) classroom computers?  Getting back to the Amber Alert post  on, should an emergency notifcation systems also include mobile devices (non-desktop)?  Should students register their cellphones to receive these messages on their phones?

It seems that these sorts of systems have come about recently in response to various tragedies in the States.  There seem to be a few different approaches to emergency notification.  Other alternatives I've found include e2campus and rave.

This discussion makes me wonder about the history of the development of current fire alarm systems.   They represent an important piece of infrastructure on campus.  Whereas I formerly only heard the alarm siren, I now hear crystal-clear announcements about what is going on and what to do.  I wonder what will happen to these systems as the need to address a wide array of potential emergencies becomes more pressing.

Friday, September 20, 2013

thermostats, mental models, and physics

Six degrees of separation is "the theory that everyone and everything is six or fewer steps away."  In Saskatchewan, one or two steps in usually all that are needed.  Why do I bring this up?   As I started to put together a post about Activity 3.5 in Rogers, Sharp, and Preece's book (pages 86-87), I found that their reference (Kempton, 1986) makes reference to McCloskey, whose work is also referenced by Halloun and Hestenes (1985), which is described by Bain in the book that I wrote about yesterday. McCloskey wrote about the persistent models, or explanations, of physics that may people hold.

Kempton's discussion of folk theories of home heating gives me the chance to show my age and make a reference to Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber, a character played by Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live, who once said "You know, medicine is not an exact science, but we are learning all the time. Why, just fifty years ago, they thought a disease like your daughter's was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft. But nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach."

Activity 3.5 deals with how we use mental models in everyday reasoning.  One part deals with increasing the temperature in order to cook food quicker. Not too surprisingly, I found some thoughtful discussion of this misconception. The other part of the activity deals with what happens when you turn up the heat on a thermostat: if a house in winter is too cold, do you turn up the thermostat as high as it will go, or do you set it at the desired temperature? Kempton describes the valve and feedback theories of thermostat operation. Neither is completely accurate, but the feedback theory is closer to the actual operation of the thermostat.  Interestingly, from the perspective of conservation and reducing consumption, the valve theory more readily explained the benefits of lowering the temperature setting at night.

Yet, 2011 is 25 years removed from 1986. Furthermore, the data upon which Kempton based his work is from 1976 (more than 35 years ago). In my house, I have a high-efficency furnace with a modulating gas valve: the value theory makes a comeback! Yet, these high-efficiency forced-air home heating systems are not installed everywhere. I found, through google scholar, a recent paper that cited Kempton. In the Applied Ergonomics journal, Revell and Stanton (2013, in press) look for examples of feedback, valve but also timer (set thermostat higher for longer operation) and switch (thermostat is merely an on/off switch) theories in the UK. Rogers et al. seem to promote the switch theory ("thermostats ... instead function based on the principle of an on-off switch").

Revell and Stanton talk about the importance of regarding the home heating system as a system instead of individual devices.  More transparency related to the operation of the home heating system could allow residents to relate their actions to their goals and to understand when those cannot be met by the home heating system.  This, in turn, could reduce consumption and enhance comfort.

There are plenty of opportunities for design here.   Solutions must also acknowledge the difficulties and expense of upgrading these home systems and provide support to people using the heating systems that they have in place.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

a "promising syllabus" for Computer Science

This semester, I am teaching a Human-Computer Interaction course (with topics outlined in the 2008 ACM/IEEE Computer Science Curriculum) and using "Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction" (3rd Edition, 2011) as the text. I use the local version of moodle to manage the course.

Last month, +Tim Maciag told me about Ken Bain's book entitled "What the Best College Teachers Do".   I eagerly read it in preparation for the current semester, and it has provided a lot of food for thought.  I learned that the best teachers try to create a "natural critical learning environment".  I am buoyed by Bain's comments that good teaching can be learned and I am ready to take on this "serious and important intellectual and creative work."

Many years ago, I did a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test and found that I was an INFP (Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving) - and the same still holds. This is not the dominant type amongst computer scientists. Looking at Capretz's report on "Personality types in software engineering" (published in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies in 2002), ISTJ (Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging) is most prevalent. What this means is that I may often have a different perspective from that of my colleagues. As I get older, I am more apt to embrace this difference. In Bain's notion of the "promising syllabus", I see a new opportunity to express my vision of a computer science course that is learner-centered.

There are three parts to the "promising syllabus" (so-named because it makes promises to the students):
  1. promises or opportunities for students taking the class
  2. what students would do to realize those promises
  3. how instructor and students would "understand the nature and progress of learning"
I was most sure about the first part, the promises and opportunities, as I used a quote from J. C. R. Licklider's Man-Computer Symbiosis (1960) that had inspired me.  I wrote to students that "we are now living in those most creative and exciting years in the history of mankind and this class will help you to engage in them fully."  In the promises, I touched on all six categories of L. Dee Fink's categories of significant learning: foundational knowledge, application, integration, human dimension, caring, and learning how to learn.

As I moved onto the second part, what students would do to realize those promises, I was less certain but still enthusiastic. I gave a tentative schedule of readings in the text and broadly how they related to the topics in the curriculum. I am using quizzes in moodle to give students some direction in their preparation and some automated feedback. Aside from preparing (by keeping up with the readings), I've also indicated participating (including involvement in design of assignment rubrics and exam questions), writing (blog posts), and designing (the focus of the course project).

Writing the third and final part, understanding the nature and progress of learning, was even more difficult. I wrote about formative and summative evaluation - of interfaces and of students' learning and thinking in the class. I included, from Bain, a submission at the end of the semester where students could reflect upon the nature and progress of their own learning and thinking and outline their areas of strength and weakness when it comes to the material. I am least certain about that element, but time will tell!

This syllabus feels right to me. I am hopeful that my students and I will use it as the foundation for a great semester.