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Review

Software apps to help combat climate change

Climate change, carbon footprints, environmental degradation – our tech-powered mobile lifestyle isn’t as green as we may think, but here are some apps that might help to turn that around.

Moves

Driving healthier mobility

New approaches to personal mobility are a key part of reducing our carbon footprint. That means more walking, cycling and public transport, as well as more car-sharing. Could mobile apps help to drive the necessary behaviour changes? Several developers believe so, and have come up with an assortment of ways to give us the nudges we need. These range from gamification and research to simply giving much better visibility into our personal transportation choices.

Indeed, this latter way is fundamental to the others, which is why many other app developers on Android and iPhone build upon the Moves app, rather than reinventing the wheel. It turns out that, while it may not be a fancy fitness-tracking wristband, the sensors in a modern smartphone make it a pretty good tracking device and pedometer. Add a bit of analysis, and the Finnish-developed app can make a fair guess at how you travelled; if it gets it wrong, you can edit the record that it calls ‘your daily storyline’.

As with anything that uses GPS and location tracking, Moves is a bit power-hungry. It does have an energy-saving setting, but the chances are you will need to charge your phone a bit more often. You also have the option to use it anonymously – your data isn’t protected against deletion then, but neither is it directly linked back to you.

An example of what can be built on this foundation is Changers CO2 Fit, a German-​developed app that you can use on your own as a ‘guest’, but which is really aimed at getting users to come together in teams and compete on their commutes. The idea is for companies to sign up as part of their corporate social responsibility and ‘employee wellness’ programmes, getting people out of cars and doing something a bit healthier instead.

Assuming you are not travelling by car (or plane), Changers calculates your CO2 savings and rewards you with points in the form of a virtual currency called ReCoins. There can also be individual goals to reach and team competitions, for example between departments or corporate locations, with the host company able to organise rewards such as prizes or charitable donations.

In a similar vein but oriented more towards understanding how mobility changes is Modalyzer. Developed at Berlin-based research institute InnoZ, it too tracks your movement; it uses its own mechanisms for this though, and stores your data under Germany’s strict privacy laws. It then makes a guess at your mode of transport, the accuracy of which can vary a little – perhaps London cyclists are faster than Berlin ones...

As well as using the tracks as they build up over time to analyse your own mobility – which modes of transport you use most often, and over what distances – you can also opt in to research projects, where Modalyzer copes much better with mixed-mode journeys than paper travel diaries can. For example, it was used in a project to track how users switch between public transport and Berlin’s city rental-bikes.

Negotiator

Free on Android, iPhone

Most of us can’t get to Marrakech for this year’s UN climate summit COP22,  but that doesn’t mean we can’t follow events there as they happen. After all, the organiser – the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – wants us to get involved with fighting climate change and to see COP22 as an open event.

The UNFCCC has therefore opened up its delegate app Negotiator to everyone. Billed as your portal to all things COP, Negotiator will let you see what the Marrakech delegates see – as well as linking to the organisation’s newsfeed and its social media accounts, it provides access to the schedule and supporting documents for the event, and to on-demand webcasts of conference sessions. There are also areas more directly relevant to the delegates themselves, such as logistics information.

Ecosia 

Free on the web

Billing itself as a ‘green search engine’, Ecosia highlights the amount that large data centres contribute to world CO2 production. Instead of chasing profits, Ecosia promises to donate a chunk of its advertising revenue towards planting trees. It claims that while half a cent per search doesn’t sound much, it all adds up – indeed, it says it has planted several million trees already.

Berlin-based Ecosia was the first German company to register as a B Corp – a social business that declares itself to be purpose-driven in an interdependent world, where people and place matter more than profit, and where it creates benefit for all its stakeholders, not just its shareholders.

The economics are a little puzzling – it uses Microsoft Bing as the underlying search engine, so the results you get from it in the UK will be broadly the same as those you’d get from Bing itself or from Yahoo, which also rides on Bing now. Quite how this frees up advertising revenue for good causes isn’t wholly clear. However, Ecosia is indeed funding forestation projects in places such as Burkina Faso, and is thereby offsetting a chunk of the CO2 emitted by Microsoft’s data centres. It is easy to set it as the default for your phone or PC browser, too.

Images of Change

Free on iPhone

Nasa’s Images of Change app shows just how much our environment has changed in a relatively short time-span. Scan around the map to find where you can see images of the same site, typically taken decades apart.

Some were taken by photographers on the ground and others by satellite, and while many are to do with global warming – such as an old photo of a glacier that’s now a sparkling lake – others show other kinds of change. Some show the growth of urbanisation, for example, or deforestation, or the impact of dams or bush fires, but most have their roots in something that humans have done.

Essentially, this is a mobile viewport on to Nasa’s Global Climate Change website and it requires an internet connection to download the images. You can then choose how to compare and contrast each pair – side by side, say, or swipe from one to the other like a roller-blind. Whether it terrifies or impresses you, the scale of human impact on the globe is quite astonishing.

Images of Change is one of several apps arising from Nasa’s climate research. Another is Earth Now, which gives you an image of our planet as seen from space. Watch the cloud patterns move, or switch to one of the Vital Signs on offer and see, for example, how the surface temperature, CO2 level, sea level or ozone level varied over the past seven days (or months, depending on the metric).

Skeptical Science

Free on Android, iPhone

Global warming isn’t happening, say the ‘skeptics’ and deniers – or if it is happening it’s just natural, not manmade, and anyway, wouldn’t it be nice to have a slightly warmer climate?

You rarely have to dig far before these statements or backing references don’t quite ring true, but it’s often frustratingly unclear why this might be. This is where the Skeptical Science app comes in: pick the appropriate claim from the menu and it will give you the scientific explanation and refutation.

Of course deniers and skeptics (or even sceptics) can be deeply fact-resistant, thanks in large part to psychological effects such as confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance, and sadly there is not much that can be done about that.

That is no reason for the rest of us to accept myths and half-truths at face value though, which is why it is so valuable to be able to pull up a fully-researched and verifiable refutation of whichever story a denier might be attempting to peddle.

Green Tips

Free on Android, iPhone, Windows Phone

Climate change, sustainability, going green, environmental responsibility… The list of ways to worry about the future is long. It’s no surprise then that enterprising greenies have created apps to help you make those decisions that it’s all too easy to agonise over.

Green Tips is just that: a reasonably comprehensive list of tips on how to save energy, money and your local economy. Some have been around for ages – take a shower rather than a bath, eat locally-produced fruit and veg, start composting – or might seem obvious, but others are more thought-provoking. For example, instead of buying a new PC, add memory to your old one to extend its life by a couple of years. It’s available for Android, iPhone and Windows.

Several others are somewhat similar, such as Carbon 3Rs, which is American and focuses on the triad of how and what to ‘Reduce, Re-use and Recycle’. There is also a handy list of what is and isn’t recyclable or compostable, though there are also local variations and limitations here, so you may need to check the app against your local rules.

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