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