Thoughts on HICSS 44 (2011)

I just got back from the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, aka HICSS. This conference has been running for 44 years. General information about this year’s HICSS can be found here, and the proceedings will eventually be here.

This was my first HICSS, which is kinda strange seeing how long I have been in Hawai`i. It was held this year at the Grand Hyatt Kauai, which is pretty luxurious. I guess the idea is to hold it at resort that will be a draw for participants, and provide enough amenities that attendees don’t feel the need to wander off.

The first thing that struck me about HICSS is the incredible diversity of sessions going on. The conference is organized in as a bunch of tracks (high-level topics), which are then broken into about 60 minitracks. The minitracks can last a whole day (4 sessions) or be as short as a single session.

The result is a huge smorgasbord of papers. Each day, there are 15 parallel tracks, ranging all over the place: education, social networks, cyber security, location-based marketing, power systems, and many more. This can be good if you want to check out a diverse set of presentations, but to me it makes HICSS feel more like a conference of mini-conferences than a unified whole. This is quite different from a conference like Ubicomp, which is vociferously single-track so that every attendee can attend every session if they want to. Naturally, Ubicomp accepts far fewer papers than HICSS.

The minitrack I was attending (Information Systems and Decision Technologies for Sustainable Development) didn’t start until the second day, so on the first day I just went to sessions that looked interesting. Just deciding which sessions to attend is quite a task: 15 rooms * 4 sessions a day = 60 paper titles to look at!

I started with the Future Electric Power Systems (smart grid, more or less) minitrack. This minitrack was located in a standalone building at the Hyatt that is used as a nightclub. So the attendee chairs were set up in a sunken dance floor, and the presentation slides were shown on one large TV embedded in the wall, as well as 16 smaller TVs distributed around the ceiling (like one might find in a sports bar). This was kinda bizarre, but amusing.

The power systems minitrack has been running for 15 years, so the attendees seemed quite familiar with each other, and had their conference process down pat. The papers I saw were interesting, though more traditionally smart-grid-oriented compared to our Kukui Cup work. Unfortunately, the proceedings (which will be freely available) are not yet online, so I cannot link directly to papers.

  • A case study on the expected impact of PHEV vehicles on electricity consumption, using a new community in South Korea (A Case Study on the Grid Impact of PHEVs to Sample Distribution Power System by Dong Joo Kang and Sunju Park)
  • An algorithm for detecting “load pockets”, which are areas on the grid that are constrained by transmission such that generation facilities could raise their prices and electricity users would have no option but to pay the higher prices (Clustering of Power System Data and its use in Load Pocket Identification by Katherine Rogers and Thomas Overbye).
  • An analysis of locational marginal carbon intensity of generation (how much additional carbon will be emitted by increasing demand by 1 kWh in a particular location at a particular time) on the eastern part of the US. The results are somewhat surprising, in that areas that are heavy coal users might actually have lower marginal carbon intensity because if they had additional demand they would import power from generation facilities with lower carbon intensity. The presenter related the marginal intensity to Renewable Portfolio Standards, which provide subsidies for production of renewable energy. Currently subsidies are independent of carbon intensity, but the authors argue that they should be higher (pay more for renewable energy) in places where the marginal carbon intensity is high, and lower where marginal intensity is low. This would encourage the buildout of renewable generation in places where it would reduce carbon emissions the most (Locational Carbon Footprint and Renewable Portfolio Policies: A Theory and its Implications for the Eastern Interconnection of the US by Aleksandr Rudkevich, Pablo A. Ruiz and Rebecca C. Carroll).
  • An investigation into what is really happening in loads, starting with hot water heaters. The presenter argued that there has been a lot of research into the dynamics of generation, but very little in the dynamics of loads, which will be critical for any type of demand response program. In the ensuing discussion, I learned a new term: demand subscription. This is the idea that rather than being metered for use, customers subscribe to a certain amount of electricity (not sure if it is measured as power, energy, or both) and then it is up to the customer to figure out how to live within that subscription. So the utility would only communicate with a smart meter, not reaching beyond the meter to smart appliances.

I also had time to attend some talks in the social networking track by members of LILT (my former research group): Dan Suthers, Kar-Hai Chu, and Devan Rosen. I was familiar with some of the outlines of the Traces work, but it was good to see it discussed in a public forum.

The minitrack I presented in was called Information Systems for Sustainable Development. I presented our paper describing the design of the Kukui Cup. It seemed well received, with most of the questions revolving around how to get students involved and how to keep them aware after the competition in order to sustain behavior changes. Eric Paulos suggested we should provide Kill-A-Watt meters to some residents in May 2012 before they move out of the first-year dorms, and then follow up with them on whether and how they used them in their next living situation.

Two other presentations in our track that I found interesting:

  • Hendrik Hilpert, a PhD student from Göttingen University presented work on computing products’ carbon footprints automatically using vehicle mass airflow data (obtained via OBD2) fused with GPS data. This combination allows one to compute how much carbon is being emitted, while the GPS data allows the carbon to be allocated to different products that might be on the same delivery vehicle as it makes a series of stops. They even cited my older literature review in their paper, würd! (Real-Time Data Collection for Product Carbon Footprints in Transportation Processes Based on OBD2 and Smartphones, by Hendrik Hilpert, Lars Thoroe and Matthias Schumann).
  • Eric Paulos, assistant professor at CMU presented work on Citizen Energy. Citizen Energy is the idea of changing people from just being energy consumers into more active participants in the generation and use of energy. They have made a bunch of cool devices, like a Seasonal Energy Lamp. The lamp is connected both to grid power and to solar and wind turbines, and it changes the color of the emitted light depending on the source (orange for solar, blue for wind, etc), making people more aware of where their energy is coming from. These design experiments seem really complementary to the Kukui Cup, possibly providing additional ways for participants to become more energy literate. (Citizen Energy: Towards Populist Interactive Micro-Energy Production by Eric Paulos and James Pierce).

Unfortunately, our minitrack had fairly low attendance (perhaps 8 attendees at peak, of whom half were presenting in the minitrack), so I don’t know how it will fare next year. All in all, it was a worthwhile experience, but was a bit of a comedown after BECC 2010.

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