August 19, 2020 · 5 min read
Almost 5 years ago, I left my job to focus on finding scalable solutions for climate change. Without knowing what exactly I would build, I read through all the literature available to understand the situation and assess what could be done. Aside from electricityMap, one of the key ideas I had at that time came inspired from my experience working on algorithms that infer your transportation history from phone sensors without leaking your privacy. What if we could generalise such an approach to automatically infer your personal carbon footprint, using the myriad of data and sensors already available?
People want to act on climate change, but lack the tools to understand their impact. As they don’t want to spend time manually entering data, could this be a solution?
A first prototype was attempted in October 2017 during a hackathon, with the objective to cover the footprint of electricity usage, achieved by connecting to your smart meters or electric vehicle.
Last year, we decided to take up the hackathon prototype and expand it with a few more integrations and design tweaks in order to put it in the hands of users. It was a truly exciting moment to be able to see flights and trains automatically added in the app, thanks to the integration with the TripIt app.
The prototype evolved as we started beta testing with close friends and eager early adopters during the year 2019. At the start of 2020, we finally launched the app under the name “North”. Users could connect services they already use, and the app would automatically count their carbon footprint. I’m especially proud of the fact we managed to make a playful app that respects people’s privacy, as all the data stays on the phone.
We were pleasantly surprised by the positive attention received at the launch, and we feel people were genuinely happy and excited about the product. However we realised that the experience was limited to users who could use one of the integrations available. For users with no or few relevant integrations with the apps and services they used, relying on manual input became tedious. Furthermore, our open-source approach to creating integrations was challenged by the lack of stability of some unofficial APIs, which in turn threatened the scalability of our approach, and led us to do too much maintenance. Eventually we became overwhelmed with work and the community suffered from a lack of attention from our part.
We now recognize that getting access to user data is difficult and expensive. Without automated data acquisition, the user experience becomes painful: no one wants to input everything they purchase or do all the time. We also discovered that many successful competitors are showing up (almost) every day, rendering our marginal impact on climate change not as big as it could be.
We also realized that monetization would not be a piece of cake, as consumers are not ready to pay for those insights. Alternatives, such as carbon offsets or ads did not feel ethically the right thing to do.
Because of all of this, we have made the decision to sunset North by the end of the year.
In the coming months, we will do our best to help our users leave North and find the best alternative so they can continue their climate journey. To start with, we will make it possible to export your data as a json file in the next release of the North app. Existing integrations will remain open-source, and carbon-models will continue to be maintained for our next projects. In fact, we encourage anyone building such a carbon-tracker to re-use them.
I want to send a heartfelt thank you to the North contributors and users. Your feedback and your help to improve the app helped us make a better product. We couldn’t have done it without you.
As painful as it is, sunsetting North will enable us to gain more focus.
Our mission at Tomorrow is still to democratise climate action. We’re therefore sprinting towards a new product, which this time will enable organisations to understand and communicate about their climate action. We’re re-using the same thinking as North, meaning that understanding one’s carbon footprint shouldn’t be complicated: instead, it should be as automated as possible. We already have optimistic feedback from early adopters, and we’ll share more in the near future.
Again, I wish to express gratitude to everyone who worked or contributed to the project: we couldn’t have done it without any of you.