The climate crisis is one of the most prominent issues of our generation. Many of the world’s greatest minds are working to lessen human’s environmental impact, and some corporations have set bold goals to do their part in supporting planet Earth. This year, we announced a plan to be carbon negative by 2030.
But what can we as individuals do to improve our carbon footprints? This question was at the forefront of the Microsoft Akamai Sustainability Hack (MASH) team’s mind during our local edition of the annual Microsoft Hackathon — the largest private Hackathon on the planet. With team members from both Microsoft and Akamai Technologies, Inc., MASH sought to develop a tool that would allow individuals to calculate, track, and ultimately reduce their carbon footprint.
While many carbon footprint calculators already exist, many fail to keep users engaged and evaluate changes in their footprints over time in a way that would continue to encourage behavioral adjustments. MASH created more than just a carbon footprint calculator; their app includes a gamification element to keep users engaged and motivated to make consistent choices that support sustainability goals.
There are many factors that impact an individual’s carbon footprint, from electricity, to commuting, to personal travel and more. “I get a lot of my ideas from watching my kids, and from my kids giving feedback to me about where we could be doing better,” said Courtney Hadden, senior program manager of Corporate Sustainability at Akamai and member of the MASH team. “So, as a team, we started thinking about what things we do every day that effect the environment and what information we could capture to help make positive change in everyday lives.”
MASH chose to focus their app on the sustainability of food consumption. Many of us are unaware of the environmental impact of our everyday food choices, but with more awareness MASH aims to empower users to make small daily changes that add up to a reduced carbon footprint.
Here’s how it works: users create a personal profile and log information from their meals, receiving points for making “good choices” based on the assigned sustainability of a chosen food. Users have the option to create teams and competition groups where they can compete to win points and badges for consistently selecting the most sustainable meals. The MASH app illustrates users’ progress over time, demonstrates performance in specific categories, shows where users stand on the leaderboard compared to teammates, and even makes recommendations for specific choices users can make to continue to reduce their footprint.
The MASH team incorporated computer vision and object detection APIs in a variety of ways to analyze food choices. Users can take a picture of their food choices and the app will calculate points awarded based on the food chosen.
Can’t decide what to eat? Users can take a photo of food in their fridge and the MASH app will evaluate the most sustainable choice available.
Just went grocery shopping? Users can scan their receipt and the MASH app will use the Forms Recognizer Service to identify high- and low-point items on the list.
The hackathon team built MASH as a PowerApp, with an API layer in Azure that the app communicates with to store the user activity and awarded points in a database. The API layer will allow the MASH app to integrate with Alexa and Microsoft To Do as well as third party apps and services, including food tracking, fitness, and grocery store apps.
“We spent a lot of time learning about sustainability,” said Andy Roberts, architect at the Microsoft Technology Center (MTC) in Burlington, MA and member of the MASH team. “This was eye opening for every member of the team to learn how our food choices actually impact the environment.”
He adds, “I think a big part of this isn’t necessarily that every choice you make has to be a zero footprint choice, but a lot of it is mindfulness, just thinking through and making sure that when you are making a decision to consume meat you’re not wasting it.”
The Microsoft Hackathon invites tens of thousands of employees in more than 80 countries to solve complex challenges using technology. This year’s hackathon was entirely virtual, with participants coming together on Microsoft Teams to develop their innovative ideas.
Though hosting the hackathon virtually is a new experience, MASH felt well-prepared after already adapting to working with customers online-only through Microsoft Teams. “From our team we simply brought all the best practices that we’ve learned engaging customers since March in this remote way,” said Bob Familiar, director of MTC Burlington and member of the MASH team.
“Teams really enabled the virtual event to be much closer to what we would have experienced in person,” Andy said. It also enabled the team to work on a more flexible schedule and to engage members from multiple time zones, with two team members from Akamai based in India. “If we had done this in person we would have had a smaller team,” he said.
This year, our other local teams included The Glitter Ridders, Fluent Care, Hack for Justice, Chatiquette, ERG Leadership, and more. Their goals included bridging the language gap in health care settings, measuring the economic impact of Black-owned businesses, developing a fun approach for children to learn about Python programming language, and connecting our Microsoft employee resource groups.
Kudos to all Hackathon participants for rolling up their sleeves and bringing their new ideas to life, virtually!
To learn more about the work taking place here at Microsoft New England, visit http://www.microsoftnewengland.com/.