Apps contest sees B.C. developers take on climate change with open data

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      Ryan Nadel believes that being aware of climate change isn’t enough to spur most people to take action to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions.

      For his part, the 27-year-old Vancouver digital-media producer has created a Web and iPhone application called GreenMoney. Nadel told the Georgia Straight he hopes the app will help British Columbians see the relationship between their everyday spending and global warming and encourage them to make environmentally responsible choices.

      “I take action when it fits into my lifestyle, and that’s really where GreenMoney grew out of,” Nadel said during an interview at the Downtown Eastside office of Zeros 2 Heroes Media, where he works on a contract basis. “I saw myself not making decisions because the sense of impact wasn’t really there.”

      Nadel, the founder and president of 8 Leaf Digital Productions, developed GreenMoney with Anshul Goyal, a 26-year-old master’s student from Lucknow, India, who is studying digital media at the Great Northern Way Campus. Their free iPhone app debuted in Apple’s App Store on July 11, and they plan to enter GreenMoney in the B.C. government’s Apps for Climate Action contest before the submission deadline on August 8.

      Launched in March by the Climate Action Secretariat, GeoBC, and the Ministry of Citizens’ Services, Apps for Climate Action calls on software developers to build Web and mobile applications that raise awareness of climate change. The contest has five categories—best mobile app, best Web app, people’s choice, best of B.C., and overall best app—and offers a top cash award of $5,500 among more than $40,000 in prizes.

      Between August 11 and 29, the public will have the chance to vote on-line for the winner of the people’s-choice award. The contest winners will be announced at an awards ceremony at the Vancouver Aquarium on September 16.

      James Mack, acting head of the Climate Action Secretariat, told the Straight that if the provincial government is going to meet its greenhouse-gas targets, it must inspire citizens to reduce their carbon footprints, and the contest is a way to do that. B.C.’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Targets Act, approved by the legislative assembly in 2007, commits the province to reducing its overall emissions by at least 33 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050, relative to the level of emissions in 2007.

      In March, the B.C. government launched its Climate Change Data Catalogue, an on-line collection of more than 500 publicly available data sets related to climate change. To be eligible for the Apps for Climate Action contest, entries must use at least one data set from the catalogue.

      According to Mack, the contest is modelled on the Apps for America and Apps for Democracy competitions that have been held south of the border to promote the use of the United States and District of Columbia governments’ on-line data repositories. He noted that Apps for Climate Action is the first open-data contest to be held in Canada.

      “I think the contest will be a bit of a proof of concept for us on what is the kind of value you get back in providing open-data sources,” Mack said by phone from his office in Victoria. “Definitely, some of the approaches in Washington, D.C., show that you get an enormous amount of value back from the development community when you take this approach. We’ll see what that means for British Columbia.”

      Developed over the past couple of months, GreenMoney uses Ministry of Environment spreadsheet data from the Climate Change Data Catalogue that links greenhouse-gas emissions to demographic and economic indicators. According to the data, emissions in the province totalled the equivalent of 67.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2007—that’s 15.6 tonnes for each B.C. resident—up 7.6 percent from 1997. The data also show that for every dollar of the province’s gross domestic product, 0.41 kilograms of emissions were produced in 2007.

      British Columbians can use GreenMoney to record their purchases of environmentally friendly products, such as organic soap, and their use of more sustainable transportation options, including cycling and public transit. Nadel explained that because green alternatives typically cost more or take longer than conventional choices, the price or time difference can be considered an investment in the environment. Using the relationship between economic activity and emissions, the app takes a person’s “investments” and converts them into “offsets”. Users decide on an emissions-reduction target and then track their progress as they move toward that goal.

      Right now, GreenMoney users have to manually enter information about their purchases and commutes. However, if a significant number of people download the app, Nadel plans to add bar-code scanning and social-networking features and extend the algorithms so the app works for people across Canada and the U.S. According to Nadel, University of British Columbia economist Ralph Winter has confirmed that the app’s assumptions are economically sound, if not scientifically valid.

      “In an appropriate world, GreenMoney wouldn’t work,” Nadel said. “Environmental products would be cheaper than nonenvironmental products. Perhaps it’s almost a protest in that regard, to say it shouldn’t be this way. But it is, and now that it is, let’s try to quantify that and use the pricing discrepancies as a motivator as opposed to a demotivating factor in our decision-making.”

      Software developer Herb Lainchbury organized a hackathon on June 23 in Victoria in order to bring people interested in Apps for Climate Action together to share ideas and collaborate on projects. The founder and CEO of Dynamic Solutions is developing a Web app—with an eventual Android component for cellphones—called Waterly for the contest.

      Lainchbury told the Straight he’s seen automatic lawn-sprinkler systems turn on in the rain and just after a downpour. Using their home addresses and data from the climate-change catalogue and Environment Canada, Waterly will remind B.C. residents who sign up for the service about the days they’re allowed to give their lawns a drink under their area’s water restrictions. If it rains a day or two before a watering day, the app will send out an e-mail telling users not to waste water and congratulating them on how much of the resource they’ll save by not watering.

      For Lainchbury, building Waterly is a way to support the province’s first steps toward open-government practices, as well as to increase people’s awareness of their impact on natural resources whose availability is being affected by global warming.

      “I think a lot of the media focuses on the negative aspects of climate change and playing to people’s guilt,” Lainchbury said by phone from Victoria. “I want to appeal to people’s sense that they’re doing something constructive and, hopefully, actually make it somewhat fun.”

      When Luke Closs first heard about Apps for Climate Action, he was intrigued. Then the Vancouver software developer, who works for Socialtext, scanned B.C.’s Climate Change Data Catalogue and found that much of what it contains either doesn’t pique his interest or isn’t in open formats that can easily be used by app makers.

      So Closs decided to make a wiki version of the catalogue. He aimed to facilitate discovery, sharing of, and collaboration around data sets, but he didn’t end up completing the reimagined catalogue.

      “I kind of have a little bit of criticism about the B.C. data catalogue, because a lot of the stuff in there isn’t data,” Closs told the Straight by phone from his home in Vancouver. “There’s PDF press releases about biodiesel buses and stuff like that, and, like, biodiesel propaganda that’s got nothing to do with open data. One of their data sets is the entire Vancouver open-data library. So it’s kind of weird.”

      Still, Closs said he’s “really proud” of the provincial government for putting on Apps for Climate Action and publishing the catalogue. He’s submitted VanTrash—a Web app that reminds Vancouver residents of their garbage, recycling, and yard-trimmings pickup days—to the contest. Closs hopes VanTrash, which he and Kevin Jones launched in September 2009, will draw people’s attention to the city’s nascent program for collecting compostable food scraps and encourage them to send less waste to the landfill.


      VanTrash is a garbage collection reminder service that uses open data from the City of Vancouver.

      According to David Eaves, a Vancouver-based public-policy consultant, the Climate Change Data Catalogue has “improved over time”. As a sponsor and judge for Apps for Climate Action, he advised the B.C. government on the rules for the contest and the setup of the catalogue.

      Eaves, a member of the Vision Vancouver executive, helped draft the council motion that led to the City of Vancouver launching its open-data catalogue in September 2009. He told the Straight by phone that open data gives citizens the chance to turn a “public asset that might be underutilized” into something that can improve their community.

      Eaves defines "open data" as data that’s publicly available, machine-readable, published in multiple formats, and licensed for sharing and remixing. He hopes the contest will lead to the creation of a B.C. government–wide open-data catalogue containing information on myriad subjects.

      “The biggest piece that needs to happen is this really big culture shift inside government that needs to take place around recognizing that data is a strategic asset and that there are people out there who care and who want to participate and want to engage,” Eaves said. “If this experiment helps shift that culture, then I think as citizens we should be thrilled.”

      In January, an alliance of environmental groups, including the David Suzuki Foundation and ForestEthics, released a report on climate change stating that mean annual temperatures in B.C. are projected to increase by 3 °C to 5 °C by 2100. Prepared by forest ecologist Jim Pojar, A New Climate for Conservation also noted that minimum temperatures in January and maximum temperatures in July are predicted to rise by 5 °C to 10 °C by 2080.

      Although Nadel designed GreenMoney to help people take into account the environmental impact of their day-to-day decisions, he’s also hoping the B.C. government will realize it has to make the tough choices needed to rein in the province’s greenhouse-gas emissions.

      “There’s a great concern about raising taxes and a hesitancy to do that,” Nadel said. “But it’s clear that the best, most effective way to change people’s behaviour and to bridge the attitude-behaviour gap is economic mechanisms. So we have to get over that. We have to get over that resistance to using economic tools to effect change in regards to environment issues.”

      You can follow Stephen Hui on Twitter at twitter.com/stephenhui.

      Comments

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      2 Comments

      TheParadigmShift

      Jul 29, 2010 at 3:44pm

      Propaganda to keep the masses delusional and misinformed about so called "global warming"...there's an app for that!

      The Hockey Stick vs. Ice Core Data

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFbUVBYIPlI

      Sam!

      Jul 30, 2010 at 4:59pm

      Sigh. "I take action when it fits into my lifestyle" pretty much sums up the attitudes most of us have. "Let's not change what we do, but change the way we do it", we say, hoping against hope, that capitalism and its buddy consumerism can help dig us out of the hole that it has dug.

      NOT buying things, green or not, is good for the environment. NOT having a "smart" phone, that sucks power, green or not, is good for the environment.

      We already know that organic soap, recycled products and all the eco-choices out there are good, or less bad than the traditional alternatives. Why do we need to have this proven to us, by a machine, which is intensive in labour and materials and which will become obsolete garbage in a year or two, creating more waste and the requirement for a new material-intensive product?