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You Spend How Much on Gas?!? New Congressional App Aims To Fuel Policy Conversations On Energy

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, April 2 2013

Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee have taken the adage "a picture is worth a thousand words," and applied that to the process of discussing energy policy in the United States. Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the committee, on Tuesday released a new app designed to enable members of Congress to whip up data visualizations of national energy production and consumption on the spot so that they can have informed and data-backed conversations with their constituents.

The new app (awkwardly named eViz) is available for the Apple iPad and was designed by the New York City-based social brand designers Social Bomb. They've worked with big brands such as Red Bull, Fedex, HBO, Fisher Price, MTV and Orbitz, to name a few. Cousins and Sears in New York City, a data visualization company, also worked on the app. The data itself comes from the U.S. Energy Information Administration's state energy data system (which has built an API to accomodate the building of other apps as well) and from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"As more consumers harness the power of apps and tablet devices, Congress has the opportunity and responsibility to present government data and information in a creative way," Markey said in a press statement.

The app features three sections: "Extreme Weather," The Energy Visualizer," and "Fuel Efficiency."

Climatologists have fingered global warming as the culprit for increasingly frequent bouts of extreme weather. So the Democrats have included a section that visualizes the human and financial costs of extreme whether events of the past four years, and it's eye-opening whatever the cause. Tapping on the icons in each year calls up maps of the natural disasters with literal price tags associated with them. In 2008, for example, one map shows that wildfires in the summer of 2012 resulted in eight deaths and $2 billion in damages, and a drought throughout the center of the country resulted in 123 deaths and $35 billion in damage. Meanwhile, Hurricane Isaac resuted in another $2 billion worth of damages and a loss of another nine lives. And then of course there's Hurricane Sandy, which resulted in 132 deaths and $65 billion in damages.

"We hear a lot about the costs of taking action on extreme weather and climate change," said Democratic NRC spokesman Jeff Sharp. "But we're already paying for the costs of inaction, and this is what this section aims to point out."

The app's fuel efficiency calculator enables users to easily measure not only their personal impact on the environment in terms of their carbon emissions, but also the annual amount one spends on fuel, which can spark off a whole other conversation.

The most fascinating section of the app is its energy consumption and production section, which enables users to map and visualize in 3-D how much, and what kinds of energy each state has historically produced and consumed since 1960. Wyoming, according to the EIA stats, is the biggest producer of coal in the United States for example, and Nevada is the biggest producer of geothermal. California is the state that consumes the most energy, but it's also the most energy efficient overall. North Dakota and Wyoming are interesting states: While they both produce a lot of energy, they are also the least efficient consumers of energy because of their big distances and sparse populations.

These are just a few of the random factoids that the app is capable of producing. But the cool thing is that the next time you see a member of Congress speaking on energy policy, you'll be able to quickly figure out which sector of the energy industry they're trying to protect or woo to their state by using this app.

"We wanted something that members could use with their constituents," Sharp said. "So if you're a member of Congress and someone comes up to you and wants to have a conversation about energy at a supermarket or Starbucks, you can pull this out and talk about gas prices, or you can use this in a town hall and plug it into a large screen, and you'd probably have the most sophisticated, animated presentation that a member of Congress could ever think of using."

This post has been updated. The EIA's API was created after the work on this app had already commenced. The data in this app was pulled from a PDF file.