Apr 9, 2009

N2Y4 mobile app for good competition

If you are looking for a few more good mobile apps in the sustainability realm for your smart phone, check out these ones in the N2Y4 gallery. The project writeups here by the developers are excellent so I won't try to replicate them. Visit them and maybe vote for them too?
  • Localvore: What's in season where you are? Eat local, eat seasonal and reduce your food miles. $2.99 on Apple Store.
  • The Extraordinaries -- On-demand crowd-sourced volunteerism via smartphones (not yet live).
  • Monterey Seafood Guide: this I've blogged about before. Free on Apple Store.
  • SquarePeg (they tied into the SocialActions database)
  • 3rdWhale - LBS green-business finder. Free on Apple Store. Disclaimer: I now work here as the VP of Mobility & Sustainability.

In addition, there are a number of good feature phone apps that use SMS too. Notably - my favorite organization in this space -- Kiwanja, which does a lot of good work in healthcare in Malawi. Check out their FrontLine SMS app - way cool, super useful to humanity!

Mar 19, 2009

NPR story: Go Green for students

NPR story about students given cellphones to track the carbon footprint of their commute. The students like it because they can do something about climate change. On the other hand, some comments from viewers on the web expressed concern about the sustainability of cellphone - the product. My take is it is not enough reason to not do mobile apps that promote sustainability. We all use cellphone as a necessary part of modern life so why not make it do something useful for the environment too?

Mar 8, 2009

NYTimes article on apps for more efficient travel / commute

This NYTimes article talks about various apps that are useful for commute / travel, but the following 3 paragraphs touch specifically on sustainability apps in this realm.

"For those looking to decrease rather than increase their carbon footprint, there are several car-related applications that can help. Ecorio is a free program written for Google Android-based smartphones, the first of which is the G1 from T-Mobile. The application will trace your travels and, depending on your mode of transport (Hummer or subway?), keep a running tally of your carbon footprint. By tapping into Google Transit, the program can also suggest the most efficient commuting routes (less time in traffic translates into fewer carbon emissions) and in some locales like San Francisco it offers carpooling information.

For iPhone owners, another eco-friendly but less ambitious program is greenMeter ($5.99). It can estimate the number of barrels of oil your car is consuming and produce graphs illustrating fuel economy at different speeds and rates of acceleration. (As you might expect, a lighter foot will produce better fuel efficiency.) For 99 cents there’s also AccuFuel for iPhone hypermilers who mainly just want to track fuel efficiency.

Keeping up with maintenance can also help extend efficiency — and the life of your vehicle. Gas Cubby ($4.99 for the iPhone) is a maintenance and mileage program that offers service reminders and can store vehicle records that can be exported to Excel spreadsheets."

I am not planning to review the paid iPhone apps since I am not buying apps at the moment (I'm on a student budget... sorry). But if you use it, let us know how it goes for you. Do the iPhone apps need the 3G iPhone to work effectively? Maybe when I get my hand on an Android, I'll review the Ecorio. It sounds like a nice integrated app.

Feb 20, 2009

Climate Culture - a persuasive game teaching systems thinking?

I have been curious about how well persuasive games can teach the majority of us systems thinking, and help us see what our daily lifestyle impact is on the environment. Climate Culture creators claim that the game provides "personalized advice on the amount of carbon, energy, dollars and other resources they expend through hundreds of lifestyle choices and daily actions."

What does it do?
Once you sign-up, you become one of the avatars living in this virtual island. You earn badges and accessories for your avatar, and the environment of your virtual world gets better as you become greener. You can also compare yourself to your town, your state, or connect with friends or create events. [I didn't try the latter two yet].

There is a quiz up front about what I do in terms of my location, housing situation, transportation and food choices, which inform the carbon calculator to output a rough carbon footprint. What's powerful about Climate Culture seems to be its ability to tie in demographic and lifestyle information you supply into calculating your carbon footprint (using a patent-pending tool). For example, I have the option to supply the account number of my electric bill (but not an option to say I have solar panels... sad).

Based on your current footprint, the game suggests actions you can take and more importantly, track which one you've committed to. Cool indeed. Albeit time-consuming. I wonder about stickiness - what makes people come back to such a tool. A hint may be the link to the America's Greenest Campus competition as a mechanism to draw in repeated participation.

A few caveats: Currently I can't seem to get any carbon reduction point even though I committed to a few actions... help (I use Firefox on Leopard) ! These images illustrate what I mean: first I indicate I already use solar-powered Christmas ornaments, then I checked my carbon reduction amount.

Zero. Sob. I want my credit.

So here's a summary of my wish list, from a quick 20 min engagement with this app:
  • I put in my PG&E account number (with some trepidation about privacy lost), and still didn't see any reduction associated with my total carbon footprint. I know it should be lower than average since I have solar panels, and generate all my power.
  • Can't find a place to indicate I have solar panel either. Bummer. This is my biggest pride in terms of my personal commitment to carbon reduction and I would really, really like to see it reflected, and perhaps... get a badge of honor on the site for doing so. :-)
If you're hearing this, Climate Culture, please let me know when these are fixed. I'd like to spend more time on this and explore its usefulness.

Definitely sense good depth in the architecture and methodology. The graphics and the ecosystem of the game is deep, and to me, seems *really* promising. However, I fervently wish indicating "I already do this" on the recommended action actually gives me credit. It is disappointing when something simple like this doesn't even work.

Hopefully this thing works better soon, and more users jump on. We definitely need this type of games to get systems thinking out there. This is a perfect way to remember Dana Meadows, guru of systems thinking, on this 8th anniversary of her death. For those of you unfamiliar with Dana Meadows, check out her seminal work, Thinking in Systems: A Primer. I've read it twice. It is one of the best books to understand why climate change is something to be REALLY concerned about.

Developer: Climate Culture


Web browsers

Feb 19, 2009

Web 3.0 = mini apps, according to Eric Schmidt

In this 1.5 min YouTube video, Google CEO Eric Schmidt gave his thoughts on the difference between Web 2.0 and Web 3.0. It is one of the clearest definition I've heard so far. Here's the summary:

  1. Web 2.0 is a marketing term. Web 2.0=AJAX.
  2. Web 3.0 is: different way of building apps. Web 3.0 is defined by...
  • many small apps that are pieced together
  • made of small apps whose data live in clouds
  • apps that can run on any device (PC/mobile)
  • apps that are fast
  • apps that are very customizable
  • apps that are distributed virally by social networks, by email - you won't go to the store and purchase them.
  • there is low barrier of entry. Market size likely to be very large (sounds like long tail to me).
  • apps solve a lot of problems. Works everywhere.
This echoes my excitement about the future of apps, where ubiquitous mini apps, each of which has a very limited scope but does what it do well, helps us lead better, more efficient life on the go. What about you? Any thoughts?

Feb 18, 2009

Mini mobile apps the future of the internet?

"In 2009, we’ll see a groundswell of ordinary people with a great idea open up SDKs and create modest little mobile web apps that revolutionize the world." (Adaptive Path blog)

This blog post predicts that that one of the top 3 mobile user experience trends is that how we access the internet will change in a fundamental way, with 2009 leading the way in transition to mini mobile apps.

Exciting stuff indeed. Let's hope that sustainability apps become a big enough category that they will be listed in their own section under the various app stores!

Feb 6, 2009

3rdWhale - a location-based green business finder

During my honeymoon in Hawaii, I had used Yelp Mobile extensively to locate good restaurants to eat at, but was constantly exasperated at seeing un-green practices (styrofoam even for eat-in, seemingly healthy-sounding restaurants in Yelp reviews serving imported fish...). So I was really excited to find 3rdWhale, a location-based green local business finder app.

I met the Chief Beluga Officer of 3rdWhale, Boyd Cohen at the SF Green Drinks recently and learned that they have big plans to make this a really useful application. I am excited, and really hope that they succeed.

I am very aware that my daily purchasing decisions have the power to influence where businesses are headed. I am also quite picky about certain eco-criteria when it comes to restaurants and cafes. Here's an app that allows me to shop with conscience, without having to be too planful about my day.

Businesses operate within the context of community and environment. Their choices of inputs (e.g. raw materials) and their treatment of outputs (e.g. waste from operations) create direct impact. If businesses go green at a big scale, they could become a real force for change, just by virtue of their collective buying power. However, businesses will only go green if it makes economic sense or because their customers demand it. Allowing consumers to easily favor green businesses as they go around town could create the tipping point.

What does it do? 3rdWhale allows you to find local green businesses based on your current location. In its current version, this includes spa/fitness, food, ecotourism, and retail. It is only currently available in Vancouver (most extensive coverage since this is its hometown), Portland, San Jose, San Francisco, and Seattle. 3rdWhale is still skimpy on the number of businesses it covers and the usefulness of the information, but think about Yelp when it started and how its coverage has matured since...

How does one use it?
The scroll wheel is wonderful as the first screen. Not only is it intuitive (like the typical iPhone gadget), it also has a cool "walking / biking / driving" option for filtering. This gets me thinking about my choice of transportation to get to a restaurant *every time* I search. A subtle reminder that I can make choices that influence my personal carbon footprint. Tapping on the big "Show me What's Around" button activates GPS search. Results come back as a familiar Google Map with push pins. Tapping on a specific business pulls up more details. So far, I like how it works.

But it is obvious that at least in my area (San Francisco Bay, where 3rdWhale just launched on Feb 4 - yay!), business-specific data is still skimpy. There is a lack of info on the rating methodology (a key reason for using this app) -- both what's shown, and what users can enter. Currently, all businesses have only 1 Whale rating (what does this mean?). According to 3rdWhale, businesses can apply to be listed on this app but must pass its screening process. Businesses can't pay to be on the list. Exactly what screening process is applied is unclear to me, but I would want to know to keep using this.

The "Write Review" option hopes to crowd-source restaurant green ratings (cool...!), but currently, users can pick 1,2,3 whales without any guideline. According to Boyd, the rating system will be more sophisticated in future releases. Since greenwashing is a big concern, I think that if 3rdWhale can create a credible ecosystem of trusted green reviews and be transparent about how they rate businesses, it could really stand out as a go-to source of green ratings for local businesses.

I am really excited to see how this app will evolve. Seems like most sustainability apps on the iPhones are still evolving. The location-aware green business finder idea is powerful, although not new. I hope execution will match the rhetoric, because for the sake of our planet, we need things like this to succeed. So I'll try to check in again in couple months and get an update.

For now, 3rdWhale, if you are listening, here's my wish list.
  • Some info on how businesses qualify for the ratings (even if only shown on the website and not on iPhone) would quiet down the fear of greenwashing in me.
  • What exactly does it mean for a business to be 1,2, or 3 whale rated?
  • A "find all" button in the scroll wheel would have been nice since coverage is still limited in some areas. After all, iPhone (esp on EDGE) is not that fast... the GPS search takes a while. Having to page back and forth to change my search criteria is annoying and hard to keep track of.
  • It would be nice to be able to filter businesses by green criteria I personally care about. Personally, I get really upset at businesses that use styrofoam take-out containers. For someone else, it may be more important to have local ingredients, or choose clean energy/ smart water users. Of course, if this is done, we would want to educate users towards biasing the bigger eco-footprint criteria first.
  • Any idea how to rate major chains? E.g. Starbucks plastic lids for consuming its coffee in-store, and the lack of recycling bin for their paper cups are driving me nuts. But would a national rating be fair if the local franchises have somewhat different sustainability practices?
  • Finally.... I am really curious what the term "3rd whale" refer to. Third wheel? That's can't be. This app is not an annoying on-looker who is tagging along while I am on-the-go! And what's whale got to do with this concept? Just curious.

Developer: 3rdWhale, who tagline is "mobilizing the green revolution"


3rdWhale™ is in beta version in the iTunes App Store now and will be releasing updates soon. Versions for Google Android and RIM Blackberry are coming soon.

Feb 5, 2009

"CO2 Tracker" - travel emissions tracker on iPhone

Yesterday while commuting on the train to the city, I decided to track my carbon footprint for the trip using the Carbon (CO2) Tracker (personal edition) application on my iPhone.

Why bother? CO2 emissions cause a greenhouse gas effect in our atmosphere that leads to climate change. Al Gore's movie, The Inconvenient Truth explains the cause and effect of climate change really well. Since transportation is a major source of emissions, it is vital every one of us becomes aware of our carbon footprint. Even though I have been immersed in sustainability for two years now, it is still hard to really figure out my personal carbon footprint by activity.

Carbon calculators are a dime a dozen, and they all return varying data. But because this app comes from Clear Standard (that I am familiar with from a corporate susty job where I had to evaluate enterprise GHG management software), I had high hopes for it. It turns out v.1.0.0 has pretty limited functionality. Here's my experience using it...

What does it do? This app uses iPhone's GPS to track the start and end point of a trip and returns an estimate on the amount of CO2 emissions your mode of travel generated. The result is in metric (kg CO2), and is only an estimate using World Resource Institute cross-sector business travel emissions factor data. Such data leverages databases that contain information on how clean or dirty different energy sources are, in different parts of the world.

How does one use it? First, create a New Activity. You can either plug in the distance (in km), or turn on GPS. If using GPS, create the new activity at the start of the journey. Turn on Use GPS, and touch the "Start" button. The GPS takes a little while to locate itself.

Once it found the lattitude and longitude, it seemed like I would need to hit the Stop button when I arrive. So I tried to browse the other parts of "CO2 Tracker" (e.g. Goals), but that apparently cancelled the trip... oops. A few minutes of repeating the above steps (which was troublesome because the GPS search took a while and filling in the form was cumbersome) resurrected my experiment. Luckily, this time round, the new trip didn't get cancelled when I hit the Home button on iPhone to browse to my podcast and play another game.

This confusion about what to do made learning the app a little time consuming, which could discourage some users, esp those on the slower EDGE phone like me (but then I persisted since I have a blog to write). At the end of my trip, I hit the Stop button, it found the location, and told me I had emitted 4kg-CO2 for a 40km trip.

The app also allow you to set a monthly carbon budget. However, I found that I don't quite know what budget is realistic to set, so didn't use it.

Wish List:
  • The metric measurement unit is great, but an option for imperial measurement unit would make the information more understandable to folks in America
  • What does emitting 4kg-CO2 mean in layperson's term? How bad is it?
  • What is the emission factor used and why was that particular factor picked? Being somewhat literate on this topic, I have a need to know to verify the trustworthiness of the app.
  • I love factoids. Esp factoids relevant to the context I am in.
  • An explanation on why commuter rail generates more emission than bus (4 vs. 2kg) would be educational.
  • Some guidance on realistic carbon budget for various transportation scenarios would encourage me to use that part of the app.
  • Don't cancel the trip when I look at another part of the app
Developer: Clear Standards, which according to the app, is "the leading provider of enterprise software solutions to help organizations manage and reduce their carbon and energy waste."

Cost: FREE

Compatibility: iPhone or iPod touch, with iPhone software v2.0 onwards.

Jan 31, 2009

Seafood Guide on iPhone

I love seafood. I grew up on a tropical island with fresh sea or ocean-caught fish that one buys in a wet market. The uncomplicated choice of eating seafood has now (rightly) given way to so many health and sustainability concerns that I feel guilty purchasing seafood without knowing more. But it is a complicated issue. The answer to the question "is this fish sustainably harvested, and is it good for my health" vary by seafood type and seafood origin.

Sustainable seafood issues include:
  • mercury accumulation in the ocean food-chain, which plagues larger fish
  • overfishing
  • unsustainable farming practices

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has an excellent handy pocket seafood guide (one per US region). I get them at green events but they always end up lost, no matter how many copy I replace (not very sustainable habit). I've never been able to conveniently refer to it when it is most needed (while seafood shopping or ordering seafood at a restaurant). Perhaps it is due to women clothings not having pockets... or... our pockets just being too full as it is!

The iPhone version is better because my iPhone is always with me. Tap on which US region you are in, then find the fish by name using a Contacts-like A-Z interface. On the left hand side of the list is a color-coded (yay!) summary:
. I like that it differentiate the rating for the same species based on origins (e.g. farmed vs. wild-caught, imported vs. U.S.), since there is no simple answer as to which category is better. It really depends on industry practice, and the interplay of a host of ecosystem factors. Also, get answers to your burning questions on the sustainability info of your favorite seafood and accompanying fishing practices by tapping on a fish name.

Like all my favorite iPhone app, the learning curve is short, and the information returned is actually useful for my life! Another time saver that actually lets me shop guilt-free and enjoy my seafood once again.

My wish list only has one item: that the app defaults to the last saved location or the current GPS location

This app is definitely at the top tier of useful iPhone app. The data is credible, and the information very pertinent to user needs.

Developer: The Monterey Bay Aquarium.


Compatibility: iPhone or iPod touch, with iPhone software v2.2 onwards. On other mobile devices, browse to

iPhone - a mini app paradise

I have always loved everything in bite-size. From small cookies (hey look - iPhone icon cookies found on Flickr) to pithy quotes to succinct framework, things in small doses are simple to use, and add flavor to life. Ever since iPhone brought mini apps into mainstream consciousness, my digital life has been a blast. In fact, I sense a tipping point in user demographic powered by mini apps, iPhone or not.

But those iPhone apps have to be the creme de la creme of mini apps. They are so addicting, with their cool graphics and the strangely comforting touch screen. They have helped me productively use the few spare minutes here and there -- whether to do something useful, or just plain fun. Until the iPhone came along, I never exchanged stories about computer games with girlfriends, and only played computer games couple hours a year. In the past few months, lo and behold, the girlfriends circle behavior shifted. Girls with iPhones are actually recommending cool apps (mostly games) to each other. I even sat next to a girl on a flight who played mini games on her iPhone for several hours! Girls on games. Is there a tipping point or what?

Which leads me to think... wouldn't it be great if the usability of iPhone mini apps is translated to sustainability?

iPhone apps are already proving helpful to make many day-to-day activities just a little better, and a little easier -- enough to become one's best friend in the pocket while on-the-go. You name it -- there is likely an app in its 15,000 strong arsenal that will step up to the plate to do a job. Or is there? How about sustainability?

This blog is dedicated to reviewing all those cool mini apps, iPhone or not, that could help us live us lives just a little more caringly towards humanity and the environment. We can't miss this opportunity to embed sustainability in this new trend. Please use them and spread the word of the reviews here.