“Project Cowbell” advances UChicago Sustainability

Collaboration on a technically challenging, year-long project results in state-of-the-art data hub and visualization for University greenhouse gas emissions calculations 


The University has a goal to reduce absolute greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030.  Emissions quantification and visualization are crucial to understanding the University’s emissions profile. A greenhouse gas emissions inventory provides information necessary to strategically select and implement emissions reduction projects in alignment with emissions reduction goals.

Prior to this recent project, quantification, visualization, and reporting of greenhouse gas emissions were done annually by a manual process using a series of spreadsheets and an external web-based tool. This time consuming and labor intensive (from both a staff and consultant team) process needed to be updated in a more sophisticated and efficient way.

James Cook, facilities information manager along with Sustainability Manager, Sara Popenhagen both of Facilities Services Campus Planning + Sustainability began brainstorming in a series of casual conversations and eventually conceptualized a new and improved system. They envisioned a system where the greenhouse gas emissions calculations and visualizations would be automated and would integrate with existing systems of record on space and building energy utilization and newly acquired data visualization software to provide more frequent and timely reporting.  

To put the plan in motion, Popenhagen rounded up key players. For simplicity, she called it Project Cowbell and reasoned, “Had I used the actual name of the project, ‘UChicago Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory Automation and Visualization’ it would have been too long. I decided to call it something catchy that people could remember, while also maintaining the confidentiality of the project.  When major milestones were achieved on the project, the core project team engaged in a ‘ringing of the cowbell’ to celebrate.”

The project started in a discovery phase with UChicago IT Services Analytic and Business Information Services (ABIS) Team and then moved into a full project engagement managed by Padmaja Raghavapudi, senior project manager, Project Management Office.


The five goals of Project Cowbell were to: 

  • Automate the quantification and visualization of University greenhouse gas emissions
  • Provide quarterly informal reporting on emissions from electricity and natural gas
  • Provide more timely formal reporting
  • Integrate with systems of record 
  • Migrate historical data

To accomplish these goals, members from IT Services ABIS Team, Project Management Office, Facilities Services Campus Planning + Sustainability, and Facilities Operations all collaborated to complete a complex data modeling exercise to design a robust and scalable data model that allows for more timely business decision making.  


Historical data sources from over 20 data sets, four reporting periods, three greenhouse gas scopes, and a combined 28 years were collected and brought into a data hub to create a central repository of all greenhouse gas emissions data. This process was an enormous work effort requiring great attention to detail and could not have been accomplished on time without the support of Juliana Jovanoski, manager, business applications data; James Novack, data analyst; and Annabelle Burns, a current fourth year student in the College studying Law, Letters and Society.

The data hub houses over 1,000 emission factors and accommodates the growth of emission factors anticipated in the future. The data hub connects with systems of record, including the space information management system, ARCHIBUS, and the energy management information system, EnergyCAP.  

Data processes are automated in the data hub for the extraction and calculation of more than 100 metrics for each reporting period by fiscal year including greenhouse gas emissions from scope 2 electricity, scope 1 natural gas and steam, and various other sources as outlined in the University of Chicago Greenhouse Gas Emissions Report. Eight built-in variance indicators for property allow staff to easily identify new properties, deleted properties, and changes to property names or status.  The data hub interfaces with a visualization tool, Tableau, to display inputs and outputs for all sources, scopes, reporting periods, and fiscal years of greenhouse gas emissions.

Energy & Utilities Manager, Brian Bozell, a master of EnergyCAP and subject matter expert on University utility data, played an instrumental role in the project. His institutional knowledge was crucial, as he fielded questions for the team throughout the entire project. His timely responses allowed the team to stay on track and meet critical deadlines.


James Novack, data analyst, implemented the first-ever Tableau integration in Facilities Services, a notable accomplishment itself. He used Tableau to create the data visualization previously calculated and designed by staff and consultants in a costly, time consuming and labor intensive process. Now that the data is in the warehouse and Tableau is being used, the data visualization is available as soon as the new data is uploaded. Novack was also responsible for creating quick data tools to validate the calculations and information stored in the data warehouse. Further, he collaborated on the dashboard designs, an essential component to the project. These dashboards will be viewed by Facilities Services staff and University administration.

According to Abdul Mohammed, data warehouse manager for ITS, “Project Cowbell, by far, was the most technically challenging project in the recent past. The data set was interesting and that kept us engaged all the time. A complex data modeling exercise was completed with the business partner to design the model, combine data from various sources, and make business decisions based on them. Data structuring and systems optimization, and flattening the data were performed to support the high performing reports and dashboards with detail support and guidance from the Facilities Services team.”

He continued, “The FS team participation throughout the project was exceptional.  Rarely have we seen this level of involvement and support from the user community while executing a project, and this made the complex project work look relatively easy, and we were able to successfully deliver the product on time without any significant challenges.” 

Assistant Vice President, Campus Planning + Sustainability, Alicia Berg stated, “There was an overwhelming amount of data and formulas, so figuring out how to handle the effort in manageable bites was critical to its success.” She credits the talented, multi-disciplinary team effort for combining expertise and seeing it through from beginning to implementation. With the huge reduction in staff time taken to quantify emissions and create visualizations, Berg added, “We can now return our resources to their intended purpose-- to expand the University’s sustainability efforts.” 

Project Cowbell was highly successful, with all project goals being met. From data collection to final formal reporting, Project Cowbell has reduced processing time after the close of the fiscal year from 12-plus months to three to six months. Informal reporting for emissions from natural gas, steam, and electricity (75% of campus emissions) is now available to Facilities Services staff on a quarterly basis to ensure timely and informed business decisions. Staff can also view this information in a series of live dashboards containing relevant visualizations.

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