Smart grid opportunities opening up

One of the lower-profile sub-plots within the stimulus package debate was about the use of open standards in the smart grid.  The package sets aside $4.5 billion for the smart grid.  Although that's only a fraction of the total investment needed to build the smart grid - perhaps as little as 5 or 10% - it's still a big chunk of change, and the strings attached to that money by Congress will make a big difference in the evolution of the new grid.  So it's no surprise that smart meter builders tried to weigh in on open standards earlier this month.  An early version of the House bill required that utilities must use an Internet-based open protocol (meaning IP, almost certainly); a later version required "Internet-based or other open protocols and standards if available and appropriate."  A group of electricity meter providers sent the Senate a letter complaining about the IP-only language, saying that it would interfere with existing projects.  As far as I can tell, the final language is actually a bit weaker than the flexible "IP or something else" provision (from page 30 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act):

OPEN PROTOCOLS AND STANDARDS.--The Secretary shall require as a condition of receiving funding under this subsection that demonstration projects utilize open protocols and standards (including Internet-based protocols and standards) if available and appropriate.

Earlier this week, Secretary Chu said that he wants to start deploying smart grid standards, although his actual language left plenty of wiggle room on the question of IP versus other open standards.

Meanwhile, out in the field, the battle is already joined.  San Diego Gas and Electric announced earlier this month that it will start installing 2.3 million smart meters in its customers homes.  In a country with about 7 million smart meters in operation, that's a pretty hefty deployment.  The meters will be Itron OpenWay meters, built on the ZigBee standard (which is an alternative to IP); the rollout is expected in March of this year.  At around the same time, Google announced its PowerMeter project and eMeter announced a major new deal which will allow some Houston-area customers to better monitor their electricity consumption.

We are not far, I hope, from the point when smart grid technology becomes widely available - meaning not just that there are a lot of meters installed in a lot of homes, but also that the entry costs for small-scale entrepreneurs to build applications on top of the grid will be getting lower and lower.  As far as I can tell, there are no open source software projects for extracting data from smart meters, but smart meter start-up Tendril announced a new API for its products (which are, it appears, ZigBee-based) earlier this month.  Unfortunately, the API is currently only available to Tendril partners.  But I suspect that smart grid applications will open up significantly in the next year; I imagine that it won't be long before we see Facebook and iPhone applications for monitoring and calibrating residential electric consumption.

This is great news for the environment and the green economy, of course.  I also think it's great news for the progressive economy, because it means more opportunities for liberal entrepreneurs to profit from environmental protection, and more opportunities to cycle those profits through the progressive economy.

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Building the progressive economy

As the recession deepened over the last few months, one thing I've worried about (among plenty of other things) is the toll that it would take on the progressive movement.  It's no secret that the movement runs on a shoe-string; a single hacker attack is enough to take out a pretty significant chunk of the infrastructure running the progressive blogosphere.  It seems inevitable that a wallet-emptying recession will slowly drain the spending ability of progressives, and thereby drag down our nascent institutions.

The key weakness within the progressive movement's business plan (forgetting, for a moment, that the progressive movement isn't a single, cohesive organization, and that many organizations within the movement don't have anything like a business plan in any case), is that a large part of our revenue relies on donations.  In a recession, voluntary donations are the easiest things to cut from a household budget.  A further weakness is the massive amount of money that leaves the progressive ecosystem.  In five years, ActBlue has raised $88 million; some of that has gone to necessary expenses in progressive campaigns and is money well-spent, although no doubt a significant part of that money ends up in the pockets of anti-progressive political consultants.  And some of that money does return to the progressive ecosystem, in the form of advertisements in progressive blogs, for example.  But on the whole, the progressive blogosphere leaks donations like a sieve, meaning that even the flush years don't leave us with a lot left over for recessions.

Fortunately, I believe it is possible to address these weaknesses, and to help keep the lights on during the recession.  Conceptually, it's fairly simple: diversify our business plan beyond donations, and design mechanisms to keep recycle more money back through the progressive ecosystem.  The particulars are a bit more tricky, but below I'll outline a few possibilities for implementing these high-level solutions.  Other ideas are certainly welcome; feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.

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Crowdsourcing the Obama message

This week, Chris Bowers at OpenLeft has been encouraging readers to run their own media campaign. The idea is very simple: at a fairly low budget, anyone can set up a simple Google ad campaign, targeted geographically and by keyword. Bowers has been running two ads - one against McCain, the other against Palin - in his native Pennsylvania, and thinks he can reach a lot of voters on a fairly low budget.

The commenters at OpenLeft have been ecstatic about the idea, and I think it is exceptionally clever. In addition to the first order effects - exposing anti-McCain messages to a lot of voters in swing states - the campaign could also have an indirect sway over the campaign's own messaging strategy, by demonstrating in a quantifiable way the messages that work (and receive a lot of click-throughs) and those that don't. I suppose that's a long shot with this campaign, but it's nevertheless a possibility.

In any case, I'd be interested to see if someone could take this idea to the next level, and make the decentralized media campaign idea a bit more social.  For example, would it be possible to set up a website which allows people to set up all of the parameters for a Google Ad campaign - the keywords, the geographic target, and the message/link which appears - and then to aggregate all of those campaigns on the website in some interesting way?  There are a lot of different ways to do this - e.g. breaking down ad campaigns by state, tag-clouding the chosen keywords, and showing aggregate click-through and impression statistics.  This kind of aggregation could be augmented with comments (suggesting refinments and tweaks to existing campaigns) as well as team fundraising pages, allowing site visitors to support one campaign or another monetarily.  It's also possible to maximize and quantify the impact of a campaign like this by targeting all of these ads at an action-oriented microsite, which takes a user through the steps of signing up for Obama's email list, giving a small donation to the campaign, signing up for, and so on.

This sounds, to me, like a good example of a simple business idea that could be modestly profitable, since after all the main point of this project is to sell Google ads.  Technologically, this should be a relatively simple mashup of a community platform like Drupal with the Google Adwords software development toolkit.  With relatively low costs, it should be possible to set the transaction costs - on top of the raw costs for the campaign itself - at a sufficient level to generate relatively decent profit margins.  Besides the constant problem facing any social web platform - will anyone show up? - the only difficulty, as many OpenLeft commenters have already alluded to, is whether such an endeavor would run afoul of campaign finance rules, and whether or not Google Ad purchases would be considered campaign contributions.  My guess is that this kind of project would have to be organized as a 527, or under the auspices of one.

If something like this doesn't take shape between now and Election Day, it's probably a worthwhile organization to develop, even so.  Beyond the immediate need to go on the offense against McCain, as Chris points out, it's important to help develop and test messaging for Democratic candidates up and down the ballot, in an environment that's not controlld by the campaigns themselves.  More than that, with Google beginning to sell offline media ads in newspapers, radio and television, there's no reason to restrict an ad campaign to Google Adwords (although it's much more gratifying, as real-time metrics are available.)  Any takers?

Disclosure: My company worked on a small technical/design project for Open Left last year.

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NetSquared Mashup Challenge

Liberal entrepreneurs - especially those of the technologically savvy variety - will be interested to hear that the NetSquared Mashup Challenge just got going.  The Challenge is a $100,000 contest seeking innovative projects which combine multiple data sources (i.e., mashups) to promote social change.  NetSquared is a project of TechSoup, the non-profit technology folks.

The Challenge is now in its third year, and it has an interesting structure.  Applicants are only required to write out their ideas, without doing too much to prove that the ideas are implementation-ready.  Those ideas are then voted on by NetSquared members, and the top twenty teams get an all-expenses-paid trip to San Jose for the NetSquared project, as well as a shot at a slice of $100,000 and collaborations with web experts capable of putting the ideas into practice.  This fairly low barrier of entry has results - already there are about a dozen applicants.  One project that caught my eye was the Social Actions project, which promises to "free peer-to-peer social change campaigns from the social action platforms on which they were created", apparently by allowing social network organizers to readily find out about other campaigns across the social network-o-sphere.

For more on NetSquared, check out the project's YouTube video:

I am thinking about submitting an application to the contest, although I haven't fully decided what to work on.  One idea I have kicking around is a project to mashup corporate securities filings with state and federal labor relations records, in order to help labor organizers identify new opportunities for unionization.  But that's just a thought, I haven't really worked on it.

At any rate, if you're in the mood to shoot for a slice of $100,000, feel free to use the comments to trade ideas and thoughts about mashups for good.  It'll be great to see what kinds of ideas we can come up with!

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More on blogging for profit

This is a bit of a quick hit, and perhaps a bit dated as well, but I think it's too fascinating to pass up.  About a month ago Chris Anderson (author of The Long Tail) wrote a post exploring media revenue models, which is to say, revenue models for businesses which produce a lot of content, and hope to somehow make some money off the whole enterprise.  The post touched off a bit of a mad dash by commenters and other bloggers to name as many revenue models as possible.

There are a few revenue models which come to mind immediately - subscriptions and advertisements, mainly.  But there are also some fairly obscure models which are nonetheless potentially very lucrative.  Those models include selling access to an API, having the audience create something of value and monetizing it, live events, customized content feeds, and consulting, which essentially amounts to using your blog as a big advertisement for your business.

Naturally, all of this has got me thinking of my posts from last summer about sustainable blogging, in particular with regards to cost per action advertising on the blogosphere and blog profitability.  After all, a blog is a classic case of a media outlet which gives away a lot of content and needs a good monetization strategy.  Follow me across the jump for more.

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