July 20, 2011

How is the UW doing in sustainability? Watch the ‘sustainability dashboard and see

News and Information

Marilyn Ostergren, a doctoral student in the Information School, uses a visual display to help organize the information about sustainability on the new ESS dashboard.

Mary Levin

Marilyn Ostergren, a doctoral student in the Information School, uses a visual display to help organize the information about sustainability on the new ESS dashboard.

How is the UW doing in fulfilling its pledges to be environmentally responsible and to make the University a more sustainable enterprise? The answer is now available at the new “sustainability dashboard.”

The site provides one-stop shopping for information on measures the University currently gathers in a variety of offices and entities around the Seattle campus. It is an outgrowth of the Universitys Climate Action Plan and also is aligned with Finance & Facilities efforts to be sustainable and accountable.

The site also is expected to be a resource for the growing number of organizations and publications that are ranking and reviewing the sustainability efforts of universities and other major institutions.

With the 'sustainability dashboard,' created by the Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability Office, the UW community can monitor its progress toward sustainability.

With the "sustainability dashboard," created by the Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability Office, the UW community can monitor its progress toward sustainability.

The dashboard was built from the ground up, says Claudia Frere, manager of the Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability Office.  Much of the work was done by two students: Marilyn Ostergren, a doctoral student in the iSchool, and Jennifer Perkins, a recent graduate of the School of Forest Resources who has been an intern in the office. While Perkins worked on refining the spreadsheets and other information supplied by various units, Ostergrens focus was on the visual display of that information.

Working on the project allowed Ostergren to tap into two of her passions, information display and sustainability. “When I found out about the Climate Action Plan, I became a volunteer (for the Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability Office), working on visual display.” The office has funded her work for a total of five quarters.

Subject cards, prepared by Marilyn Ostergren, are being used as an organizing tool for the ESS sustainability dashboard.

Mary Levin

Subject cards, prepared by Marilyn Ostergren, are being used as an organizing tool for the ESS sustainability dashboard.

The project actually began as a Powerpoint presentation, but people quickly realized it needed to be online and self-contained. Indeed, the website is still a pared-down version of the original Powerpoint.

Frere advised Ostergren to focus on information that already was being gathered, so that they could be assured of a continuing flow of data in the future. “My strategy is to look for the visual potential in data, and since most of this information was numeric, I focused on devising graphics that made the information more understandable and accessible,” she said.The site has gone through some testing with key information providers, to see if the assembly is logical, but the Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability Office is interested in hearing from others browsing the site, according to Frere.

Ostergren regards the current site as simply a starting point. “Ideally, a dashboard would play a role in motivating behavior. It exposes areas where more work is needed and helps identify gaps in our information.” As the site becomes richer and deeper, organization will become a more crucial concern: The big challenge, she said, will be that “sustainability means so many different things. It is a challenge to organize the information meaningfully, rather than just have a list of random elements.”

Ostergren notes that the site, while providing valuable measures of the UWs sustainability efforts, is not comprehensive. There are offices making significant contributions — for example, Custodial Services has made remarkable strides in adopting practices that consume fewer toxic chemicals and use less water and electricity — but these efforts have proven difficult to turn into something measurable that is also meaningful.

Ruth Johnston, associate vice president, hopes the site will be used by members of the UW community to become better informed about the variety of initiatives under way as part of the Climate Action plan, and how the University is succeeding over time on implementation.