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!

NYU ITP: If Products Could Tell Their Stories Class 4 2010

What role does government and regulation play in determining how stuff is made? Short answer – it depends on local, regional, state, federal, foreign governments, and international organizational administrations. In a stakeholder view of how things are made, regulation is one of the fastest changing, hardest-to-predict forces and as makers, we need to work in advance of legislation, to lead the market.

NYU ITP: If Products Could Tell Their Stories, Class 3 2010

NYU ITP class on life cycle assessment, systems thinking, and stakeholder management. Week 3: In a stakeholder management model, what role to local community groups, activist organizations, workers’ advocacy groups, and other NGOs play in determine how stuff is made?

NYU ITP: If Products Could Tell Their Stories, Second Batch!

Year 2 for the class that investigates how things are made, and how things can use their newfound technological innards to tell us how they got here.




As creators, know what’s in the stuff you make.

As interaction designers, create tools and systems so that we can access product truth.


The Million Baby Crawl: A Brand Takes a Political Stand

At Open Forum for Inhabitat:

Million Baby Crawl

Million Baby Crawl

“We cannot stand, but we stand for something,” is the rallying cry for Seventh Generation’s latest marketing campaign, an effort to give babies a virtual voice in upcoming legislation about chemicals and kid safety. In a social media marketing effort, the company has partnered with Erin Brockovich and Safer Chemicals to draw attention to the Kid Safe Chemicals Act. Seventh Generation’s message is that, “babies everywhere are crawling to Washington to say no to toxic chemicals found in our homes.” A websitea series of viral videos, and numerous social media efforts are designed to educate parents and to invite them to influence politicians in Washington, D.C.

In an effort borrowing from non profit organizations like the Environmental Working Group and The Ecology Center, Seventh Generation asks its fans to behave as citizens, not just consumers. Advocates of the brand are asked to create virtual baby avatars who then crawl to Capitol Hill, where they will “rattle” legislators for toxic chemical reform. Seventh Generation has everything to gain from the passage of the Kid Safe Chemical Act, since their product line has eliminated potentially toxic substances prevalent in more mainstream household cleaners and products. Seventh Generation has also conducted the necessary research and legwork to comply with the basic premise of the proposed legislation, and would have a head start over competitors who have not yet invested in public-facing communication about product safety. So, are Seventh Generation’s advocates comfortable with the company taking such a stand?

A glance at the Twitterverse reveals that the most passionate Green Mommy Bloggers and anti-toxin crusaders have embraced the campaign.  Whether or not the message moves from extreme greens to more mainstream consumer citizens remains to be seen. Over 10,000 virtual babies have been created on Seventh Generation’s site, leaving 990,000 to go. What do you think? Do companies with a strong environmental or social mission have a place to play in political movements?


When Hard Metrics Inhibit Success

At Open Forum for Inhabitat:

Hopenhagen  - We Had hope, Copenhagen

Hopenhagen – We Had Hope, Copenhagen

OK, so I caught your attention for a moment. In an economic cycle like the one we’re currently experiencing, it’s impossible to make any move or decision that is not tied to hard, cold, clear metrics. Increase sales by X%. Attract Y new customers. But there are times when overemphasizing numeric goals can get in the way of success.

Case in point: an enormous pro bono project initiated by the IAA and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to increase awareness of the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, called, optimistically, Hopenhagen. OK so I lost you at pro bono, but there are lessons here for anyone launching a new idea.

Hopenhagen is a communications campaign designed to reach a wider audience than the smaller niche of people who pay attention to climate talks. Leading several agencies in a pro bono project, Freya Williams, Senior Partner, Planning Director of Ogilvy and Mather New York discussed the aim of the campaign, which is to get the public to move from “coping” with climate change to one of “hope.” Through a social marketing-based petition, the campaign asks people to become a citizen of Hopenhagen. But there is no publicly stated goal for the number of signatures they are collecting. “The vision is to move beyond the sense of disempowerment and inertia that many feel,” to send a message of “hope” and optimism. The campaign’s effect cannot be measured in pure numbers, because the true impact is what that message inspires, how it reaches an audience who may otherwise tune out and how other people and organizations define the idea on their own terms.

Examples of these serendipitous acts occurred without direct prompting from the people who envisioned Hopenhagen. The city of Copenhagen is so inspired; they will rename the entire city “Hopenhagen” in December. “Signs will great the UN Delegates, saying ‘Welcome to Hopenhagen,’ and the city will replace all of the C’s with H’s on street signs, highways, and everywhere the city’s name appears to people attending the treaty ratification,” described Marc Alt, a green design activist who is inspired by the effect to the campaign. Even the Danish Soccer team will play as the Hopenhagen soccer team in order to support the idea.

How this translates to the hard reality of entrepreneurs, slugging it out everyday to ensure that their business survives and thrives in this economy? Create a groundswell of support for your idea by thinking big, appealing to people emotionally, and moving beyond short term achievable metrics as the primary goal. You may be pleasantly surprised with what people do to support and adopt and promote your idea.

Image rights granted by Hopenhagen for posting.

What’s in a Rubber Duck? Stuff Under Scrutiny

Rubber Duck Sniff Test

Rubber Duck Sniff Test

The Ecology Center recently launched a provocative website, Healthy Stuff, which lists the environmental toxins contained in over 900 products, anything from cars to children’s toys to women’s handbags. Rather than rely on product ingredient lists or company social responsibility reports, the data comes directly from a machine called an XRF Analyzer, which uses X-ray fluorescence to detect the presence of toxins such as lead, cadmium, mercury, bromine, chlorine, and arsenic. 
The results often surprise consumers. Of the 400 pet products chosen for testing, over one quarter had detectable levels of lead, 7 percent of which had levels higher than the Consumer Products Safety Commission allows for children’s toys. Over half of the children’s car seats tested contain one or more chemicals such as chlorine, bromine, or heavy metals. All of the baby bath toys, including rubber ducks, tested contained chlorine.  Overall 90% of back-to-school supplies contained one or more chemicals highlighted for their potential negative impact on human health.

Regulation typically allows for small amounts of these ingredients in certain product categories, for example less than 330 parts per million lead exposure for children’s toys is an acceptable risk. Yet highly concerned consumers and health advocates are taking the hard line, asking for the elimination and removal of all toxins. As SIGG recently found out, the disclosure that BPA was an ingredient in their bottle liners made prior to August, 2008 enraged the company’s fan base, even though the company insists that the bottles are safe.

What is being asked of company owners? As Jeff Gearhart, Research Director at the Ecology Center says, “Product manufacturers and legislators must take the lead and replace dangerous substances with safe alternatives.” Is this issue of concern to your company, and are you taking steps to change your manufacturing process for this heightened scrutiny?

Paying for the Experience of Making: The Bamboo Bike Studio

At Open Forum for Inhabitat:

Bamboo Bike Studio

Bamboo Bike Studio

It’s not enough to just buy green. The greenest consumers want to do more than just vote with their wallet. They may just want to roll up their sleeves and help you teach them how to make the very thing that you’re selling. Take the example of the Bamboo Bike Studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

The Studio, opened in June of this year, offers a two day, 16 hour workshop on how to build a custom bike, out of bamboo, from scratch. At $1,250, the price of the workshop may seem shocking to those that see the benefit of purchasing a $100 model from their local superstore. But the ability to create and make their own bike in one weekend is an experience for which over 60 people have paid a premium.

In fact, it follows on the trend mentioned here on Open Forum, The IKEA Effect: setting up projects with a dose of assembly required in order to garner a higher level of commitment from your consumers. “It’s a way of showing people they are capable of doing something they would never even consider doing. It makes you feel awesome,” Sean Murray, the 26-year-old co-owner of the Bamboo Bike Studio, told the NY Daily News.

The founders have grand, world changing visions. Working in collaboration with the Earth Institute and Columbia University, the studio contributes profits towards a plan to build bamboo bike factories in bamboo-rich but steel-poor areas like Africa and South America. Before they exported the idea to developing nations, the founders wanted to test out their ideas locally, in Brooklyn, and invited their customers to help. What do you think of this idea? Would your customers pay for the privilege of helping you make your products?

Green and Lean

The students in my class at NYU have been wondering what green means to people these days after so much hype and overexposure on the issue. Continuum published the results of Colorblind, their large scale green consumer study, combining ethnographic and online community research – I wrote up a post over at Core77.

What happened to the green consumer? Sales of hybrid cars, organic food, and solar panels are on the wane, as recession fears forced the hand of the Whole Foods class. The self-described greenies were supposed to lead as early adopters, a small but growing group of committed and conscious consumers willing to vote with their wallets and drive the green business revolution. Yet a new study published by design firm Continuum suggests that this niche understanding of green behavior may have blinded us to a less faddish and more mainstream trend that fits our more frugal times.

Over a year ago, Continuum, which was one of the first global firms to adopt the Designers Accord, launched the aptly named Colorblindresearch study to understand how people were re-orienting themselves to the idea of environmentally friendly design. Using sophisticated research techniques such as in context ethnography and follow up conversations with over 7,000 people in an online community setting, Continuum focused their efforts on everyday Americans who may or may not consider themselves green. Kristin Heist, one of the designers who lead the study, explained, “part of our interest in taking on the project was in exploring who we could make sustainability more part of the mainstream. We felt like there were plenty of people chasing after the leading edge ‘green’ consumers. That was a problem, because, to be completely idealistic for a moment, if we are going to save the world, we need to make everyone a part of it.”

What Continuum did differently than most standard research studies on purchase intent was to go behind the cover story everyone tells about green. When you ask the average consumer if they are interested in products that cause less environmental harm, they tend to say yes. But when you follow them around the supermarket or visit them in their own homes, you are able to get closer to the truth. What did Continuum discover?


For most people, the environment is thought of as something out there, disconnected from daily existence, not something the average person interacts with on a day-to-day basis. As such, environmental choices that make sense are the ones that have a direct connection to every day life for themselves and for their family. Recycling topped the list of concerns, rather than more abstract and potentially more pernicious concepts like global warming or toxicity. Everyone is aware of trash and the benefits of reduced waste and recycling, it is something that is tangible that they themselves can control. Recycling is also a concept that fits the more mainstream ethic of conservation, and the more recession-friendly practice of frugality.

All of this points to the green design challenge for the next wave of innovation. Rather than creating expensive sustainable sofas or natural soda elixirs, design products and services that deliver efficiency, resourcefulness, and effectiveness, giving consumers a way to see the benefits of their actions each and every time they interact with a product throughout its life cycle.



If Products Could Tell Their Stories

I’ll be teaching a class as an adjunct professor on my favorite subject at NYU’s ITP school this winter term: If Products Could Tell Their Stories – Towards a Model of Sustainable Design.

Thanks to Tom Igoe, at ITP, for his encouragement. And precedent – his book:

Made me think – if products can now talk, thanks to  technology becoming cheap enough and small enough to embed everywhere, then products will be able to soon tell us the truth about where they derive.

I’ll be using this website to help catalogue all of the frameworks, models, thoughts, and design examples of sustainable design thinking that will drive behavior change both from consumers and manufacturers. The focus is on how things get made, and then designing in ways for people to use products so that as “consumers” they understand the impact of the consumption.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with several ITP graduates as designers and technologists, and I love the fact that the school emphasizes getting dirty with technology, taking things apart, and prototyping to get to solutions.

Here’s the course description – I’ll be posting a detailed syllabus and further discussion about what we’ll be learning.

Is there lead in my nephew’s toy? Does my new HDTV have a much greater impact on global warming than my old TV? When I finally recycle those old cell phones and computers that have been collecting dust in my closet, where will they be taken, and will anything or anyone be harmed as they are recycled? 

Without answers to these questions that people are seeking, there are limits to the role consumption can play in our shift to a more sustainable economic model. As product developers, designers, tinkerers, and technologists, we have the means to uncover these answers, and communicate the backstories of the things that we make.

The objective of this course is to explore sustainable models, methods, and practices of both production and consumption. The class explores an interaction design model proposed by Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things, in which he implores, “Designers must design, not just for objects or for people, but for the technosocial interactions that unite people and objects.” Additional content exposes students to the relationship between production, consumption, and impacts to the earth’s ecosystem and human health. Students learn how to analyze product/service systems and life cycle thinking.

Students also are asked to investigate and communicate a product backstory to an existing product. The final exercise of the course involves the creation of a new product/service system that provides a framework for users to affect and modulate the environmental and social impacts throughout their relationship with that object. Class participation is required and group projects are encouraged.