Ecobee wants you to give away your data. Here's why (Q&A)

If we want better smart homes, we need to share our info, says the company's head of social impact and sustainability.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ben Fox Rubin
6 min read

Fatima Crerar outside Ecobee's Toronto office.

James Martin/CNET

"We're still building homes like we did in the '70s, which is insane."

Sitting at a long wooden conference table in the Toronto headquarters of smart-thermostat maker Ecobee , Fatima Crerar passionately tells me about the lack of innovation in home building, leading to wasted energy and higher heating bills.

That problem drove Crerar, Ecobee's first-ever director of social impact and sustainability, to develop the company's Donate your Data program, which launched nearly two years ago. The project asks customers to voluntarily give away their Ecobee thermostat data to researchers at 17 universities, think tanks and government agencies. Using that information, workers from Cornell University, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the University of Waterloo can learn how to construct homes, neighborhoods and cities more safely and efficiently, Crerar says. Participating customers aren't compensated.

Ecobee is making the pitch for Donate your Data at the same time consumers are taking a more critical look at how tech companies use their data. Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal laid bare how easily people's digital information can end up in unexpected places and be manipulated.

Despite that negative backdrop, Crerar says it's important to request that customers hand over their data to push forward research in energy efficiency and a lot more. For instance, one study is using Ecobee sensor data to examine ways to help the elderly live independently at home longer.

Apparently, some folks agree with her: Since launching with just 100 Ecobee customers, Donate your Data now includes 40,000 homes in the US and Canada. That's a massive data pool when compared with the 10 or so homes researchers typically use for studies, she said.

Nest , Ecobee's chief rival, is doing outreach, too, by providing 1 million of its thermostats to low-income families.

In May, I spoke with Crerar, a former environmental nonprofit worker with short, raven-black hair, about her work. Here's an edited version of our conversation.

Watch this: How Ecobee's Donate your Data program helps smart-home scientists

What did you start working on when you came to the company three years ago?
We knew we had an asset. We have a ton of information about how people are actually living in their homes, and heating and cooling represents 40 to 50 percent of your home's [energy consumption]. It's a significant part of the impact that each one of us is having as a homeowner every single day. How do we unleash the power of that data to help even more? So the the idea for Donate your Data was one of those things.

What about customers' concerns about their data and privacy?
The first acknowledgement we had to make was that this wasn't our data. This was our customers' data. And so if we're going to do anything with it, we have to involve the customer. We asked our customers, would they be willing to donate their data?

We're cautious with the amount of data that we share. Right now, we only share it to the ZIP code level. None of the personally identifiable information is shared. It's all anonymized. But as an example, you can look at patterns in a given ZIP code and understand what's going on. And you can tailor programs or behavior-change campaigns based on what you're seeing.

How did you convince people to join?
It's entirely voluntary. We don't dangle any incentives or contests or gift cards in front of you. We started with 100 customers -- VIBees. These are our most loyal customers, these are like self-identified brand ambassadors. When we were building it, we learned one of the main barriers to adoption of smart home technology was this fear of what data is being collected, where is it going and how are people using it. So we start talking to you about your data, maybe we will make your greatest fears come true.

What we'd uncovered on the issues side was that you've got fantastic minds, these bright academics working in universities and labs across the nation, across the continent, who are starved for exactly this kind of information.

We talked to [customers] very simply about the opportunity to advance the science and research of how we use energy and the fact that researchers were working on data sets of 10 homes and 15 days of data, which just wasn't good enough. And all of us are counting on their success, right? We want better building codes. We want better policies set by our government. We want better programming. So we want that research to be spot on, and if you could help with that, would you join us? We opened it up, made the pitch and people opted in very quickly.

Ecobee's future of the connected home

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How did researchers collect data before this program was created?
Liam O'Brien from Carleton University ... used to send his Ph.D students on bicycles. They would ride around different city blocks. And they would knock on doors and invite people to participate in research. And then install a black box in the house, leave it there for a while, and then go and get the black box back and download the data.

In comparison, what does the data set show?
It's a very rich data set because it's captured at five-minute intervals. Now it's a two-year data set, and it gets longer every day. And so in a five-minute intervals, how's the home changing? What temperature did you want your home to be at? Did your HVAC run? Did you have a setting that you overrode and why did you override it? What are you doing? What's your home doing? What isn't it doing? All of this in one place.

So today, the data set covers the entire continent of North America, its east to west, north to south, top to bottom. And you've got all kinds of people, with all kinds of lifestyles and schedules, all kinds of homes built in different times, built in different climatic regions.

What's one of the research projects?
Indiana's facing this need to build more energy supply. They've either got to bring in more natural gas pipeline or build a new power plant. And this NGO is saying, "Hang on, before we talk about more supply, can we improve demand? Is there untapped energy efficiency opportunities in Indiana that can save ratepayers a whole bunch of money and protect the planet and reduce emissions?" They used our data set as part of their overall study. They were able to produce a paper that they can put forth to address policy that shows that, yeah, there is untapped potential in the state that would negate the need for more supply.

What's a project you worked on locally?
We did some really exciting work with the public housing commission here in Toronto. Every single neighborhood in Toronto has public housing. And like so many cities, the buildings are underfunded, and they're not in the best shape. And you've got hundreds of thousands people that count on it as a place to call home.

There's a really great group who's focused in on an energy efficiency pilot. I read about this and thought you can't do an energy efficiency pilot in our backyard without Ecobee smart thermostats. We made the contribution of smart thermostats, we worked on installation, we talked about hardware configurations that would sit in the building.

What could have just been philanthropy ended up being a case study opportunity for us. We learned a ton about user groups that were otherwise not on our radar. It was a massive volunteer opportunity. We probably deployed 30, 35 Ecobee staff four times to visit these buildings and assist with training. While we were in there, we ended up discovering insight and bringing back to the project managers. That's what's helped us build a program now for income-qualified people.

What are you hoping to achieve by sharing data?
I would tell you, we need people to be OK with sharing data. Companies are accountable to do this in a safe and reliable and secure way. We're not going to build smart cities without knowing where people are going and what they're doing and what they need and when they need it. And so it's about your home. And it's about our neighborhoods, and about smart cities.

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