5 Social Apps for Social Good that Make Foursquare Seem Silly

At Open Forum for Inhabitat:

Think that mobile social apps are a waste of time and energy? What if you could use them to make the world a better place?  Inhabitat took a look at mobile-based applications and systems designed to promote positive social good. Here are five rising social impact apps to watch. 

Project Noah

Project Noah

The Extraordinaries 

Unable to fit volunteering into your jam-packed schedule, but you still want to contribute towards a cause? The Extraordinaries launched an app that breaks large scale volunteering efforts down into micro-tasks that you can complete, right on your smart phone, and now online. The app has a huge breadth of micro-volunteering opportunities. Anything from Big Cat Rescue – helping to catalogue animal rights abuses to The Sierra Club – helping to map trails in California. As one user expressed, “I love this app! When I feel like fiddling with my iPod I can make my playtime helpful to someone. No more wasted time! It’s a stellar example of using technology for social good.”


Karma points donations are starting to show up in Twitter feeds and Facebook streams everywhere, and is a favorite of marketing guru Joe Jaffe. The free app works like any location-based social game, but instead of earning virtual badges or winning prizes, members earn karma points donations and get to choose which charity receives their donation, and then broadcast their good works to their peers. Sponsored by brands like Kraft and Citi, Causeworld is looking to connect shopping and buying with location-based, real-time cause marketing, turning us all into mini-philanthropists.

Frontline SMS

Frontline SMS is a service created to allow citizen activists to monitor and track post election violence in Kenya (Frontline SMS and the web portal Ushahidi finds additional use in disaster recovery). The service has been used by non-governmental organizations in both Haiti and Chile to track down urgent messages in order to coordinate disaster relief. Volunteers as disparate as a Swiss graduate student in Boston, an engineer for Haiti’s biggest wireless company, and a social media innovator at the State Department used the service to find survivors, develop a communications protocol, and rapidly rebuild cellular infrastructure. Recent case examples such as the Haiti coordination are best practices for how government, talented volunteers, and citizens can rapidly self-organize to support people in need.


mGive is responsible for routing more than 90 percent of all funds raised to date through the mobile donations, and works with more than two hundred nonprofit clients, including the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and the United Way. By not limiting the payment system to a specific kind of phone or service, mGive has wider market penetration than a comparable iPhone or Android based app. During the recent fundraising drive to support Haiti, you may have responded to the Red Cross call to text funds using the “90999” SMS short code. The Red Cross raised over $24 MM via mGive to help the Haiti recovery effort.

Project Noah

Project Noah started as a student project at NYU’s ITP school, the free mobile app allows citizens to become scientists. The goal is huge in its mission – to become the common mobile platform for documenting the world’s organisms. Users snap photos of local birds, plants, trees, and other species, and can either identify the organism or leave the classification up to the crowd. Project Noah conducts specific research projects in the form of field missions. Who wouldn’t want to join a mission called “Project Squirrel” – inviting you to contribute squirrel observations, or “The Lost Ladybug Project” – to understand ladybug species distribution. Join a mission today!

IBM Smarter Planet Internet of Things with Soft Jazz Piano

5 minute video involving several leaps of faith for the future of the internet of things. To be fair, one of the narrators at the end admits these are the baby step years for the internet of things.

Internet of Things defined as the point when data about things is greater than data about people.

You might be sending text messages, but the sidewalk you’re walking on has sensors, and the water mane and the bus and the trains – all of these independent systems have the potential to one day talk to each other, and autonomicly self-organize.


The smarter planet potential:

  1. Produce greater efficiency, as we learn to coordinate systems of systems and better use the resources of the earth.
  2. Generate greater insights, watch new forms of social relations emerge for how we can organize to live on this planet.

What’s The Eco Impact of an iPad

Op-Chart in the NYTimes on the weekend of the iPad launch – a lifecycle analysis of the iPad, timely for discussing the core element of analysis in LCA – the functional unit.

Daniel Goleman, author of Ecological Intelligence and Gregory Norris, LCA software expert at Harvard authored the “chart” comparing e-readers. The authors compared the Kindle, the iPad and a book by determine the functional unit as the reading of 1 book, and measured the “payback” of how many books one would have to read on an e-reader to = the ecological impact of a regular non electronic book.

With respect to fossil fuels, water use and mineral consumption, the impact of one e-reader payback equals roughly 40 to 50 books. When it comes to global warming, though, it’s 100 books; with human health consequences, it’s somewhere in between.

All in all, the most ecologically virtuous way to read a book starts by walking to your local library.

As an avid library user, even I find this conclusion smug. It makes me want to stop going to the library, and buy an iPad. The students also felt that this statement encouraged people even further to make the jump and buy an eReader, because 40-50 books seemed like a reasonable goal for someone buying such a device.

In class however we determined several other “functional units” of the iPad that were not analyzed in the LCA:

_Use of a bazillion non e-book apps.
_Listening to music.
_Watching hulu. Nope can’t do that because of the flash problem.
_Making art with digital fingerpainting apps.

And then we also identified more emotional/cultural uses that we would never be able to measure in an LCA:

_Showing off/bling status/class status.
_Give us ideas future world-saving (or at least world-distracting) apps we will build.
_Provide ideas for making SPIMES that would be materialized only on the iPad screen.
_Acquiring something to put in our Gucci bag designed specifically for the iPad.

And all of this points right to the limits of LCA. If you believe the device has the potential to change the culture for the better in the future (only 1/3 of students believed so), how do you account for the ecological impacts today?