Utopia by Sir Thomas More

Software reviews - mobile utopias

Are apps on our mobile devices the ideal way to improve society and our own lives?

Benevity: Givatron: free on Android

One of the key tenets of More's Utopia was aphorised - or perhaps plagiarised - by much later utopians such as Louis Blanc and Karl Marx, in the form: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Humans have never yet made this work at the macro level, but as individuals, the ability to help those less fortunate than ourselves is for many of us part of what makes us human.

So if we can do all that other social stuff on our mobile phones, why not use them to give to charity? That is the idea behind Givatron, an Android app that lets you easily find and make donations of any amount to any registered charity in the UK - it contains the entire UK charity database, sourced via The Charity Service - or to most charities in North America. Its developer, Benevity, is a Canadian social enterprise, which may explain why the app initially loaded with a list of Canadian charities; it is easily switched to the UK or US, however.

Benevity also operates a number of other donation mechanisms, including workplace giving and corporate matching schemes.

There are a couple of caveats for Givatron: you will need a Paypal account, and there is a 5'per cent administration charge, although the latter is quite a bit less than charities can end up paying in overheads for donations via other routes, and even that 5 per cent does stay within the charity sector. Donors receive a tax receipt via email and can decide whether to provide their information to the chosen charity. UK donors also have the option to mark their donation as Gift Aid, which adds 25 per cent to its value at little or no cost to the donor.


MayneBridge Finance: KivaBridge: free on iOS

Kiva is part of a network of microfinance organisations facilitating a combination of microcredit and peer-to-peer lending, which is to say small-scale loans from individuals or groups of individuals to low-income people in developing countries. Other Web-based organisations working in this area include Zidisha and the Microloan Foundation.

The idea is that in somewhere such as South Asia or Africa, microcredit can save people from the alternative of going to a loan shark and make a big difference in helping them get themselves out of poverty. It can give farmers, entrepreneurs and others more chance to flourish - and of course to repay their loans. Indeed, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Bangladesh-based Grameen Bank, for his pioneering work in the microcredit area (although Grameen also has its critics).

KivaBridge is one of several mobile apps giving you access to your Kiva portfolio, thanks to Kiva's freely published application programming interfaces and its encouragement of third parties developing software to support its work - others include Kiva by Panok, KivaDroid and Kiva Search, all on Android.

All require you to set up an account on www.kiva.org to start with. You can then check your account balance, look up the details of loans you have made, opportunities for more lending, and so on. You can also search for loans, for example by country, sector or theme, and join Kiva teams, self-organising groups which join together on shared lending goals.

KivaBridge additionally lets you look up details of the field partner. These are the in-country local coordinators who work with the borrowers, and their risk ratings and default rates can vary quite a bit - as well as viewing details of the borrower's proposed repayment schedule. As with the other apps, you can select a borrower and loan. It then links into the check-out page on the Kiva website to actually make the loan from your account.


Rakstar: Home Buddy: free on Android

A later strand of utopian ideology that will chime with many readers is technological utopianism: the belief that advances in science and technology will eventually bring about a utopia.

Again, while this looks increasingly unlikely at a macro level - most of us have probably given up waiting for the promised post-scarcity age of leisure and luxury - there are still things that can be done by us as individuals.

Home automation is one such techno-utopian idea which has been feasible for decades, but has become a whole lot easier with the advent of the smartphone. Most, if not all suppliers of home automation equipment, now offer mobile apps to drive their systems, but there are also several from third-parties, such as Home Buddy. This drives the Vera wireless gateway, which then connects to your home systems via the Z-Wave protocol - other common home automation protocols include Zigbee, X10 and Insteon.

You will need to buy a Vera gateway (from £130) to connect it to, plus of course the relevant Z-Wave control systems, but then'Home Buddy can remotely'trigger pretty much anything you can automate, whether that is opening the garage doors, adjusting the central heating or air conditioning, monitoring a CCTV camera, turning on the lights, or feeding the cat.

You can control smart devices individually or set up Scenes on your Vera - Scenes are preprogrammed collections of settings, for example Lock Down, Heat Off, or Bedroom (Wake up), all of which are activated in one go.

Vera is just one of the many home automation hubs or gateways currently available on the market, most of them supported by a range of Android'and iOS apps, and many'of them with similar entry-level prices. You can find listings of these, as well as compatible smart device controllers, on the websites of the relevant home automation protocols.

Happy automating!

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