Apps and sustainability: Utility apps for the greater good


6 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Insights

Mobile Technology

Sustainability is recognised as a vital issue for people, businesses and governments, globally. To secure the planet for all of our futures, digital technology can provide support and solutions to some of the challenges we face; ranging from city-scale infrastructure to apps that help individuals find greener ways of living and sharing within their community. This article highlights some ways in which digital technologies are supporting environmental sustainability.

Originally published July 2017.

Businesses the world over currently face a huge number of challenges: the impact of Brexit and other political upheavals, changes in demography and sociology, and an increased focus – from the media and consumers alike – on ethics.

But there’s one single issue that affects us all on a far greater scale than all of these combined: sustainability. Climate change, long-term resource scarcity and ecological impact are topics on everyone’s lips – including ours. “What does sustainability have to do with app design”, you ask? Plenty.

Let’s look at the ways, both small-scale and large, in which apps are helping us to do our bit to save the planet.

Smarter ways to save the planet

Thousands of connected devices – buildings, machines, wearables, vehicles, sensors – now produce a vast pool of data that comprises the Internet of Things. This data gives us insight into how our physical world operates and, crucially, how things can be changed for the better.

Across the globe, the IoT is being used for the greater good in fascinating ways: improving our food security, reducing pollution and carbon footprints, reducing the environmental impact of climate change and weather – and even encouraging us to change our behaviour.

For instance: smart cities. A 2016 UN CITIES report showed that while cities take up around 2% of global land area, they account for more than 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions. On top of that, cities consume about 75 per cent of global primary energy and some 250 to 500 million m³ of drinking water gets lost in many mega cities each year.

Smart city initiatives across the globe are helping to resolve these issues. In a pilot scheme in Castellón, Spain, over 25 different types of sensor were installed and allowed the city to judge the quantity of waste in public bins, alerting waste teams as to whether they needed emptying. The city could track waste water pipelines to detect and resolve leaks. Other sensors detected the humidity of the soil in public parks to determine whether irrigation was needed.

A similar large-scale project known as The Array of Things is underway in Chicago. The city is installing 500 nodes on city streets – each housing environmental, air quality, light and infrared sensors – in a vast urban sensing project which has been described as a “fitness tracker” for the city. Sensors will track barometric pressure, ambient sound intensity, air and surface temperature, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, ozone, light and vibration. In addition, cameras will track data on cloud cover, sky colour, standing water, vehicle traffic and foot traffic.

To what end? To make the city healthier, cleaner and more liveable. Data will be published via the City of Chicago Data Portal and because it’s open access, citizens are empowered to participate in and shape their own experiences of the city they live in. This creates an ecosystem of urban innovation, connecting people to place in a way that’s never been possible before.

In these examples, apps are not used to connect devices together, but to monitor the swathes of data the devices collect, and to analyse what it actually means. To make this work, however, cities need to be truly “smart”. Rather than data being stored in fragmented city council computer systems, it must be compatible, accessible and ideally able to be accessed by a system that is regularly refreshing the data so as to make it useful and usable by citizens.

Administrative departments must work closer together, and a means of sharing data while abiding by privacy laws is required. Councils, for example, could work with hospitals or GPs to compare air quality data with asthma attack frequency, while taxi firms could agree to partner with local authorities to install sensors in their cars to help monitor congestion.

On a smaller scale…

It’s not just large-scale projects that prove the value of app technology in making the world a more sustainable place.

If we get smaller scale, to an individual level, there are plenty of mobile apps designed to help us lead more sustainable lives.

OLIO connects neighbours and local shops to share surplus food and other household goods, while the Recycle App allows you to set waste collection reminders for different bin types, as well as searching for local recycling and waste points. JouleBug is fantastic, too: an app that rewards you with points, pins and badges for your actions, from cycling to work to remembering your reusable coffee mug.

For drivers, apps like GreenMeter calculate your fuel efficiency and vehicle power to reduce your environmental impact. The app has been around for a few years now, but its creators estimate that in its first year alone, it managed to save around 2 million gallons of gas and avoid an extra 47,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Shoppers can use apps like Seasons to change their food buying habits by incorporating seasonal ingredients rather than imports with a bigger carbon footprint. Project Noah, meanwhile, is a nifty tool that encourages members of the public to create a crowd-sourced map of global wildlife, uploading photos of fauna and flora and taking part in “missions”, such as international spider surveys, or plotting bird biodiversity.

There are no easy answers to the question of sustainability – but humans relish large-scale challenges, and technology is increasingly the tool we use to address these complex problems. While apps on their own can play only a small part in changing the world for the better, combined with the vast amount of data and connected systems offered by the Internet of Things, they become a huge part of an ecosystem which has the potential to make a transformative impact on our future cities, and our lives.

Cover photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

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