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.

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