Torontonians Propose Surprising Hacks to Reduce Transport Emissions

During the Toronto Climathon, a 24-hour marathon session in downtown Toronto, students, entrepreneurs, big thinkers, technical experts and app developers from a range of academic and professional backgrounds came up with innovative new solutions to bring down the city’s carbon emissions.

HotPopRobot, the Toronto Climathon’s youngest team, scooped the event’s first prize as well as the Climate Hero prize for the largest emissions reduction with a surprisingly simple and implementable solution to reduce the city’s carbon emissions. The team included technology enthusiasts Artash (10) and Arushi (7) along with their parents Rati and Vikas Nath.

The hackathon was part of an unprecedented global climate action initiative that saw some 60 major cities across six continents such as Shanghai, Paris and Sydney take part in a challenge organised by the European Union’s climate innovation partnership, Climate-KIC.

The effort took place from Friday October 28 until Saturday afternoon and featured a kick-off speech by Ontario’s climate change minister, Glen Murray.

“Everything is connected to everything else, which is why hacking and the internet and coding are so important because you really are the people who can connect everything else and can see the ecosystem and complexity of ideas, and understand the role of technology and information and how that brings everything together to solve problems,” Murray told participants, most of whom he said would be “touched by climate change in a much more profound way than those of us who are in the second half-century of our life.”

The Power of Big Data

Organisers MaxQ Accelerator, Canada’s first space-data startup accelerator, and Lighthouse Labs, which educates and transforms budding software development talent, provided the participants with data sets from sources such as NASA and the City of Toronto’s Open Data Team.

MaxQ Accelerator president Brodie Houlette commented: “I’m so pleased with the results of the Climathon. We set a very ambitious target to show city planners that the use of big data can provide real and actionable solutions. The rapidly increasing supply of satellite data is a particularly huge opportunity. Every team came up with a solution that could achieve significant reductions for the Toronto region and we look forward to working with the City of Toronto and other municipalities to see if they can be implemented.”

Each participating city had set a local climate change challenge for teams to respond to. Participants in Toronto were challenged to use big data in an attempt to reduce carbon emissions from the city’s transportation grid – including public transport, private, commercial and other vehicles – by 5 percent, while keeping the solutions revenue-neutral. Transportation alone was responsible for 34 percent of Ontario’s carbon emissions in 2012.

City-level action to address climate change is needed at speed and scale, and is already offering major opportunities for jobs and growth in the innovation sector. Cities currently contribute more than two thirds of global carbon emissions and are rapidly growing, with 70 percent of the world’s population expected to live in cities by 2050.

A recent report by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate published earlier this month revealed that over the next 15 years, USD $90 trillion will need to be invested in sustainable infrastructure ranging from transport systems to water sanitation and everything in between.

Winning Solution

Some of the Toronto Climathon teams built fully working smartphone apps and online applications to combine satellite and ground-level data and achieve efficiencies in Toronto’s transportation system, deciding on the winning ideas was a major challenge for the jury. In the end, it was the simplicity of the Nath family’s well-researched solution that won them the first prize: just plant more carbon-absorbing trees.

The HotPopRobot team combined Toronto street tree map and traffic pattern data with their own measurements. Artash, Arushi and their serial-entrepreneur dad Vikas, counted the number of trees along busy streets and used a home-built infrared pollution sensor to calculate emission levels.

Based on the data, the team determined that an increase of Toronto’s tree population at street level and in open areas by 300 percent would achieve the 5 percent carbon reduction required by Toronto’s Climathon challenge.

“We also found out that some of the main streets, for instance King Street and Queen Street in downtown Toronto have widely different street tree densities. It would be possible to increase tree density on King Street by 90 percent to bring it at the same levels of Queen Street – with huge climate emissions reduction benefits,” said Vikas Nath.

The Nath family also pointed out that each additional tree would yield $7.95 of immediate economic benefits to Toronto, and at a benefit-cost ratio of $1.35 to $3.20 the project would be economically feasible. “There is also abundant space in Toronto to plant more trees – starting at the street levels to tree intensification in open spaces,” Nath added.

Public Transport

Although the Nath family’s solution could offer a very effective way to achieve a 5 percent reduction of Toronto’s transport emissions, more drastic measures will ultimately be needed to achieve the emission reductions required under the Paris Agreement. Almost all countries in the world have signed up to the historic climate accord, which envisions a zero carbon economy by 2050 to avoid climate change from spinning completely out of control.

The Toronto Climathon’s second prize went to the GasBusters team, which developed a cost-effective program that could see employers provide public transport passes to employees. The hackathon’s third prize went to team QConnect which proposed a personal carbon tracking system that could provide benefits such as a free Netflix subscription to users with significant carbon reductions.

The People’s Prize, awarded by the other participants, went to the TTEZ team and their fully functional iPhone app. TTEZ developed an application that combines data sets to predict the most carbon friendly routes in Toronto.

Software Applications

Other teams that built ready-to-go applications included RideAlong with a carpool app for parents, to be used within school communities. Team 6Map built a working system that incorporates carbon emissions data from NASA into google maps using the Skywatch interface as a tool for policy makers and consumers.

Team MacAcer spoke to a Toronto bus driver about his frustration of occasionally driving an empty bus. The team built a working software model of stop button system at Toronto bus stops, with the aim of allowing bus drivers to avoid stretches without passengers and decreasing carbon emissions in the process.

“It was fantastic to see how some of the teams were able to build completely functional applications over the course of the Climathon. Canada has some of the best technology talent in the world, and successful real-world problem tackling hackathons like these are a great reminder of the incredibly growth that we can expect in Canada’s software development sector,” said jury member Rachel Greenspan, general manager at Lighthouse Labs Toronto.

Other ideas came from TeamTuring, which analyzed the data in Ontario’s climate action plan and wants insurers to encourage newer and electric cars through lower premiums, ultimately resulting in lower costs for both insurers and consumers while reducing emissions. The BookThisStreet team created a new data set based on news reports to prove that construction causes congestion – which in turn increases carbon emissions –  and proposed a data-driven platform for city planners.

Global Connections

The global Climathon event took place for the second consecutive year and is organized by Climate-KIC (Knowledge and Innovation Community), the European Union’s public-private partnership to address climate change through innovation with the aim of building a zero carbon economy.

“The teams here in Toronto also exchanged ideas with participants in other cities in Europe, the United States and Australia via Skype and social media, which was incredibly inspiring to witness. Creating new connections between the best and the brightest is part of what Climate-KIC is all about, and it is a key element of the global response to climate change. The Climathon was also a great opportunity for Canada to further boost its international profile as a nation of forward-thinking innovators,” said Peter Koekoek, a Toronto-based member of Climate-KIC’s communications team.

Presented by MaxQ Accelerator and Lighthouse Labs, the Toronto Climathon was supported by the business law firm Blakes, technology startups Skywatch and Promethean Labs, the Canadian Open Data Exchange (ODX) and the Toronto-headquartered global hacker community HackerNest.

Also see our full press release about the Climathon results.