Planting seeds of sustainability on Facebook

How does your garden grow? Users of GreeNet -- the Facebook app developed by two Canadian students -- constantly ask themselves and their friends that question. In this "virtual garden" a green thumb is not essential, but green behaviour counts for a lot.

Two Canadian university students hope to plant the seeds of sustainability on Facebook with an application that monitors power consumption and uses peer pressure and the spirit of friendly competition inherent among many gardeners to foster energy conservation.

Kevin Muise and Jin Fan of Simon Fraser University in Canada are hoping their application -- along with a strong dose of peer pressure, and a spirit of friendly competition -- will motivate people to save energy big time.

Dubbed GreeNet, the application offers users vital information about their energy consumption patterns. Metrics are generated using data from electricity providers.

But the GreeNet system does more than dish out dull facts and stats.

It has a powerful visual component.

The system creates a "virtual garden" based on energy usage patterns. So user participation in energy-saving activities actually causes the growth of virtual foliage and flowers within that space.

That way, application users can visualize -- in a very vivid way -- the impact of their "green" behavior.

Apart from everything else, using GreeNet is a lot of fun, its creators say. That's because users get to grow an online garden on their Facebook page, with each energy-saving action triggering the growth of virtual trees and flowers.

"It's just like actual gardening," says Muise. "You see other people's gardens growing beautifully and get the urge to improve your lawn."

The GreeNet application, designed by Muise, an M.A. student, along with third-year undergraduate Fan, placed second in interface design at the recently concluded Imagine Cup technology innovation competition.

The annual contest, sponsored by Microsoft, brought together around 210,000 young technologists from more than 100 countries.

Participants showcased solutions to real-world problems, according to Daniel Shapiro, product manager for platforms at Microsoft.

The contest, he said, encourages young people to come up with innovative projects that go beyond current mainstream initiatives.

Muise and Fan their motivation to work on GreeNet came from an awareness that global warming is one of the most daunting issues facing humankind today.

The two students also believe social networking sites, such as Facebook, are among the most effective vehicles for reaching out to the greatest number of people, and generating viral campaigns.

In GreeNet, each community member starts by planting a virtual seedling. That seedling will be connected to a monitor that tracks the member's hydro consumption.

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