Feature Story

Mobile Apps With a Social Conscience

by Anne Field

A look at apps that allow you to be green, socially responsible and civic-minded.

If there are mobile apps with which you can, say, tune your guitar, it stands to reason you can find some that help you to be socially and environmentally responsible. And, in fact, there are dozens of such apps available. Here's a look at three of them:


In 2008, Hunter Research and Technology, developed an app for the iPhone to measure a car's performance using the device's accelerometer. But after about two months, "I  heard from more and more people that they were using it to improve their fuel economy," says founder Craig Hunter. He quickly realized he was on to something and decided to develop Greenmeter, a version aimed at measuring everything from fuel consumption to carbon emissions.

You have two choices. The information can be displayed with bars and charts detailing, say, how much fuel you're using at different speeds. Or you can see a picture of leaves that change color from green to red depending, for example, on how efficiently you're driving. Then, you can adjust your acceleration level until you get back to the green zone. Ultimately, the point is to retrain yourself so that you're usually not showing up red.

Underlying the app is the idea that, to be most effective, people should be able to assess their green driving habits according to a measurement "that's most meaningful to them," says Hunter. For some, that could mean how many barrels of oil they use per day; for others, how much money they're spending.

The app is meant to function like any other gauge in your dashboard. But warns Hunter, "Put it somewhere where you can see it without taking your eyes off the road." Or have a passenger serve as co-pilot.


If you see a pothole, an abandoned building, or a street crying out to have a tree planted, how can you let your local government know? Chances are, you'll have to spend a lot of time finding the right department, calling it up, and being put on hold.

That's where this app comes in. Introduced about four years ago, it provides a way to let the people in charge know immediately when you come across a problem. You just take a picture of, say, the offending building, and send it off to the appropriate agency. On the back-end, there's a data feed connected to the municipal work order or customer request management system at over 80 government agencies in Houston, Minneapolis and other places. Plus, SeeClickFix has its own customer request management system that aggregates all the data coming in from citizens, for tracking and visualizing reports.

Probably the most popular use for the app is to report "urban blight," says Ben Berkowitz, CEO of SeeClickFix, the New Haven company that developed the app. That primarily includes abandoned properties, potholes, broken sidewalks, graffiti. What's more, some reports have resulted in fast action. Recently, according to Berkowitz, an abandoned property in Chatanooga was knocked down after neighbors complained using the app. Of 210,000 issues reported, over 60% have been resolved.

The company now is working on an enhanced version that will allow city officials and citizens to answer questions people might have about city government.

Berkowitz, a web developer, co-founded the company after he tried to get his local municipality to remove graffiti on his neighbor's house. "In the process of talking to them, I realized it would be better for us to be able to publicly document the issue and communicate with our neighbors about the problems we were seeing in public spaces," he says.

Good Guide

Sure, you want to buy healthy products made by socially responsible companies in an environmentally friendly way. But it's quite a hassle figuring out whether, say, the shampoo you're reaching for makes the grade. And if you're shopping with several impatient small children, who has the time to read all the ingredients on the package?

The answer to that dilemma is Good Guide. The app lets you scan products' bar codes and instantly get ratings for about 175,000 products. You see four scores: health, environment, society, and an overall one that includes the other three. The rating system, developed by a team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley who spun off the project and created a company in 2008, uses over 1,000 criteria. They range from the manufacturers' labor policies to the presence of skin irritants. "We've taken very complex data and turned it into a simple rating system," says Dara O'Rourke, a co-founder who is a professor of environmental science at Berkeley and the company's chief sustainability officer.

The app is designed for the shopper who generally takes 25 seconds to make a decision, so it's not about users doing a lot of digging. But, if you want to, you can look deeper into the data. And you can create your own filters so you get information tailored to your concerns—carbon emissions, say, or workers' rights.

According to O'Rourke, the app has started to have an impact, too. Over 900,000 people have downloaded it and he's received emails from users to companies asking that the manufacturer change their practices, based on information in Good Guide results.

"This is the starting point in a transition to more conscious consumption and the ability for consumers to know what's in the things they buy, how they're made, and to demand that manufacturers produce products in better ways," says O'Rourke.


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