OpenIoT: Chris Adams on the fun side of the coming apocalypse
One of the interesting, and more socially engaged, tech startups present at OpenIoT was AMEE who do interesting things with environmental data, in the hope that technical solutions can help drive the will, and ability to prevent crises from over-population, peak resources, and global warming. Gavin Starks gave a fascinating and terrifying keynote on Sunday, and in the afternoon I met with Chris Adams (@mrchrisadams) on the terrace at Google Campus
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a Book of Things: So what does AMEE (pronounced like “Amy”) stand for?
Chris Adams: It stands for “Avoiding Mass Extinctions Engine”.
aBoT: Oh yes… did Gavin (@agentGav) mention that today?
Chris: We tend to… depending on the crowd… if it’s a really geeky crowd we’ll tend to let it slip, but with some of the larger companies who are clients, it can scare them off a bit. So we tend to just refer to ourselves as “AMEE” in the same way you might have any other semi-anonymous large acronym-for-a-name company.
aBoT: The actual tagline is “Environmental Intelligence Everywhere”…
Chris: That’s pretty much it. AMEE has been going for a while. We incorporated in, I believe 2008, but it’s been going for a few years before then when Gavin and Andrew Conway, and a few other people who are at the company initially set it up. But the official organization with funding was from about 2008.
aBoT: So, who have you been funded by?
Chris: Our investors as USV (Union Square Ventures), Amadeus, and the O’Reilly Alpha Tech fund. The guys on our board are the same guys as for Tumblr, Twitter, Zynga, Foursquare, Tripit… so generally a pretty good pedigree. One of the reasons I actually joined was seeing the board. They’re not bozos, they know what they’re talking about. You know, you’ve got board-members whose blogs you’d actually read as a developer. Which is a very strange but interesting position to find yourself in.
aBoT: That’s quite nice, because a lot of the people that we talk to in the sort of “fun products” startup side of things are hackers who are funding it with consultancy money that they’ve earned, or crowdsourcing or so on. So actually going the more traditional startup route and getting funding is interesting. How have you found it?
Chris: Well the thing to bear in mind is that AMEE started with that. We did start with a large government project so the “Act on CO2” calculator stuff. That was where AMEE really became a company that hires people and pays salaries. We initially started with some consulting money because they didn’t really know how to calculate this stuff. So we were building that platform to make it happen.
As we’ve grown, we’ve had investment in different rounds from the different companies. So, in many ways, we’re quite similar to many of these other startups. You’ve got to prove that you’re actually doing something, in the parlance, you’ve got to have some “traction” before you get some interest from the big boys.
aBoT: One of the things that Russell Davies said today in his keynote, almost as a slight slap on the wrist is that everyone is talking about data, and perhaps we should also talk about things, because otherwise we’re just talking about the internet. So how do you see AMEE as an Internet of Things company as well.
(I am slightly trolling as well, but hopefully in a nice way ;-)
Chris: Gavin, one of the founders of AMEE, showed a factory demo we did, in his keynote this morning, and we’re basically taking energy feeds from a factory in real time and we’re giving you the reading per batch of coffee. So it’s the kind of thing you’d put on a bag of coffee, so immediately you’ve got a self-describing bag of coffee there, which is one aspect you could look at.
aBoT: So you’re not producing “things” as such, but you have the knowledge and data to help self-describing things like Spimes…
Chris: We don’t pretend to be the people who have the best ideas, but we do think we the people to make possible all those interesting, cool ideas. So examples might be.. the first job I did when I came here was, I built a little app that speaks to 4sq and speaks to AMEE to work out the carbon footprint of travelling between your various checkins. So if I’m in London and I turn up in San Francisco, or in Barcelona, you can probably make assumptions about how I’ve been travelling. Without that information, there aren’t that many places that you can get that data from.
aBoT: That’s something that Dopplr (a social travel planning webapp) did…
Chris: Yeah, Dopplr were one of the first initial people to actually use our service
aBoT: Ah, did they use you for their carbon footprint calculation?
Chris: Yes, we provided the details for that. Then Nokia bought Dopplr, and they’ve… somewhat withered on the vine. It’s a shame, they were amazing guys, one of the people that got me excited about the web in the first place. They’ve been using our tools, so you can think of us as a spiritual child of some of the ideas behind Dopplr.
One thing we do at AMEE is we have some time we call “innovation time” which is a 10% “hacker time” we can work on something we think is cool. So in a given month that’s 2 or 3 days. So “Ask AMEE”, that search engine that Gavin showed, came out of that. So you can ask “What’s the carbon footprint of this hamburger?” or of “a kilo of beef that I’m buying at a supermarket”. We’ll do some Natural Language Parsing. And that came out of a couple of guys thinking “Wouldn’t it be cool…?”
So we have been doing some stuff like that. We’re not the people building physical IoT devices, but we do make it possible for people to build cool things. And we’ll happily shout about it if people do get things made.
aBoT: When you were talking about integrating AMEE into Dopplr, I wondered whether the calorie-counting websites could also calculate the carbon footprint of your food.
Chris: This is actually a cool thing you can do with healthcare stuff at the moment. There are tools like runkeeper, that we’re working with. So you can ask questions like “How far would I have to cycle to pay off having my bike in the first place” in terms of the carbon cost of producing it. And there’s embodied energy in the actual bike… so every mile I cycle is a mile I haven’t been driving, so if you can work out those distances, you can work out things like “When do I come back into the black?” on your transport. That’s one project that I’m hoping to work in my upcoming innovation time.
Because you have to have some fun ideas like this because… if you think about Gavin’s talk… it can be depressing, some of this stuff. And you need to find a way to make it fun too. We did a hack on Minecraft… so every time you cut a tree, or burn something, it pumps carbon into the atmosphere, smog comes down, water levels come up. And when you grow more trees, things go the other way. So we do try to have some fun with it. It’s a terrifying subject, but it’s important. We’re hackers, and we’ve got to hack our way out of it.
aBoT: You mentioned earlier that AMEE were looking for a designer…?
Chris: We’re hiring for developers and designers at the moment. There’s loads of information on amee.com/jobs. Right now it’s 4 developers, and one really strong designer.
aBoT: What platform is that?
Chris: The main internal platform is Java, but we’re looking for Ruby on Rails developers right now. So generally, if you care about code, and maybe you have an opinion on Rails or anything like that, they’re the kind of people we’re looking to hire. You don’t necessarily have to be a real environmental bod – we’re more interested in having smart and curious people. So if you’ve been campaigning about the environment for the last 10 years… that’s a bonus, but if you haven’t it shouldn’t preclude you from applying or wanting to join us.
Basically, we want to engage people outside this beautiful bubble of Internet of Things and sustainability nerdery!
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