Map of the United States from the nonprofit website Wattime, showing the grid emissions intensity by electric grid.

Data, Driven

Data, Driven

As a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, Gavin McCormick ’05 developed an algorithm that caught the eye of Google and Facebook engineers for its potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Now the founder of two nonprofits that leverage data to help solve climate change, McCormick returned to Williams to teach a Winter Study course on so-called “climate intelligence.” Students used his technology and other data sources to develop their own climate solutions and then pitch them to industry professionals.

McCormick’s algorithm is based on a surprisingly simple premise. At certain times of day, the energy used to power your home is more likely to draw from renewable sources rather than fossil fuels. If you want to optimize your use of renewable energy, you simply need to know when to run your appliances.

In 2013, he brought his idea to a hackathon where he connected with engineers who immediately recognized its potential.

“Within a day,” McCormick says, “we had built a prototype technology that could program your dishwasher to run on surplus renewable energy and have no carbon footprint.”

A globe with a visualization of Earths largest emitting sources
A globe with a visualization of Earth’s largest emitting sources, courtesy of

McCormick went on to launch WattTime, a nonprofit that provides the algorithm to manufacturers and operators of smart appliances—a potential market of more than 20 billion devices—that can be programmed to automatically operate on a cleaner energy schedule. He then co-founded Climate TRACE, a nonprofit coalition of organizations that tracks greenhouse gas emissions using satellites and sensors. Their real-time data is accessible for anyone to identify opportunities for reduction and monitor progress toward goals.

McCormick’s most significant takeaway was how uncomplicated it was to pitch and execute an idea—and how receptive everyone was to giving it a chance.

“It all went really fast,” he says. “A few years ago, it was a student project, and now it’s this massive organization. But there was no secret sauce. It was just asking, ‘Do you want to try this? Can you figure it out? Can you do it?’ It was very freeform.”

McCormick shared his experiences in January with the biology, computer science and economics majors who took his three-week course Climate Intelligence 101: Accelerating the Fight Against Climate Change by Making it Data-driven.

The class began with a crash course in learning his software but quickly shifted to brainstorming, refining and iterating their own ideas for using data to solve climate change. At the end of Winter Study, they pitched their proposals to McCormick, climate journalist Ann Marie Gardener and neurosurgery resident and computer scientist Brian Hirshman.

“We ended up concluding that all of the ideas are worth putting resources behind actually exploring,” McCormick says. Students are either pursuing funding directly or working with Gardener and Caleb Dittmar ’22.5, a former ClimateTRACE intern who served as the teaching assistant for the Winter Study course.

Some ideas leveraged McCormick’s own technology. In one proposal, students suggested using Climate TRACE’s satellite imagery to identify aluminum plants that currently don’t operate 24/7 and pairing that data with WattTime’s algorithm to recommend new operating hours that optimize the use of renewable energy.

“I’m the inventor of these two technologies,” McCormick says about the proposal, “and I hadn’t realized you could use one to figure out the places where the other would be really effective.”

Other ideas, while seemingly simple, had the potential for substantial impact, like syncing Amazon’s delivery technology with Google Maps’ new eco-friendly routing tool. The key to their success, McCormick says, is connecting the right decision-makers across companies and industries.

Hannah Adams ’25 and Isabel Mikheev ’25, both sophomores, researched the two primary methods for building landfills. Sanitary landfills, commonly found in the U.S., are lined, enclosed pits that emit less methane and are less likely to contaminate surrounding water and air. Meanwhile, open dump sites, more common in developing countries, are largely unregulated, contain a mix of household goods and toxic waste, and emit more greenhouse gases. Adams and Mikheev proposed a carbon-offset program in which large companies reduce their carbon footprint by sponsoring the construction of sanitary landfills and trash collection programs in areas that only have dump sites.

Adams says the pair considered several ideas and iterations before landing on their proposal. The process taught her to pursue ideas, even if they’re not perfect, and they rarely are. Adams says she also realized that if you have a good idea—and the evidence to back it up—people with the power to implement it are often open to hearing more.

That confidence, above all else, is what McCormick hoped his students would take away from their Winter Study experience.

“The hard part isn’t the material,” he says. “It’s realizing the real world isn’t mysteriously different. It’s believing that their ideas are good and that people will listen to them.”

—Kim Catley is a frequent contributor to Williams Today.

Top: A map of grid emissions intensity by electric grid, courtesy of WattTime.