How Cell Phones Are Changing the Face of Green Activism



Photo by okayryan via Flickr CC

Today, mobile phones are ubiquitous. The sheer volume of the devices on this planet is staggering - in the US alone, 450,000 cell phones are discarded every day. Over half of the world's population has quick, easy access to cell phones and wireless technology. For example, 97% of people surveyed in Tanzania had access to a mobile phone, while just 27% could access a land line phone. In Kenya, only 19% of the country's 36 million people are reached by traditional banking methods...but virtually all have access to mobile phones. Knowing these facts, it isn't surprising that the devices are being used as a key tool for environmental change. Here's a look at successful projects using cell phones and mobile devices for eco-activism, the apps that help us go green, and some how-to ideas for eco-activism via mobile phones.

The Ubiquitous Cell Phone



Photo via DeaPeaJay vial Flickr CC
Practically Everyone Has a Cell Phone, or Can Get One
MobileActive is an organization dedicated to helping people use mobile devices as a tool for change. According to a report by the group, more than 3.5 billion people carry mobile phones today. And according to the EPA, just in 2005 there were 140 million cell phones put out into the market, with 126.3 million cell phones disposed of, and only 14 million recycled. That means there is a huge surplus of phones that could be put to good use through donations or a used cell phone market.

Mobile Phones Are Used Everywhere, Even More Than Internet
We may think that mobile phones are secondary to internet access, but TechSoup reports that mobile phone usage vastly exceeds Internet usage. They note, "In China in 2005, there were 350 million mobile phone users, and 100 million Internet users. In sub-Saharan Africa in 2004, there were 52 million mobile phone users and approximately 5 to 8 million Internet users." The International Telecommunications Union tells us that the US had over 40 million active users of the mobile web, and a survey by CTIA, The Wireless AssociationĀ® and Harris Interactive states that 78% of teens - that ever increasingly important demographic for environmental change - have a cell phone, and 15% have a smart phone with Internet access. More importantly, 57% of those teens with internet access use it for checking email and 48% use it for accessing social networking sites. That means mobile activism just among teens in the US has incredible potential.

Also according to TechSoup, in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and South and South-East Asia, where mobile phone use is growing most rapidly, mobile technology is leapfrogging land lines. Residents are going from no phone communication at all, to mobile phone communication. The technology that exists today can go directly into the hands of people who haven't had access to anything like it before.

The Power of Mobile Phones for Activism

Photo via Rev Dan Catt via Flickr CC Mobile Phones Make Fast, Effective Action Possible We have seen repeatedly how the use of mobile phones has helped spur rapid social activism around politics. Smart mobs can be brought together through text messages, such as bringing thousands of Ukraine activists to the streets of Kiev in 2004 to protest election fraud, and people can be spurred to action through using networks like Twitter via mobile phones, as we just saw happen in the Iranian election protests.

MobileActive reports that mobile phones seem to spur people to action more effectively that other media, including email. And while repsonse metrics for text messaging are difficult to obtain, anecdotal evidence shows that text campaigns have a response rate of 20-40%. Greenpeace Argentina has reported that 15-25% of their mobile activists give feedback to the organization that they took action on a particular message campaign.

In addition, mobile messaging can change how people view a product or shop, with one study concluding that the likelihood of a person buying a product after receiving mobile communication about it can be an average of 35% higher. This same effort, and so much more, can go towards specifically environmental causes, not just as a way to gather people but as a way to gather information that can impact species and ecosystems.

Mobile Phones Are Great for Gathering Environmental Information
As pointed out by MobileActive, cell phones are a great device for gathering information, and researchers are noticing. For example, by embedding sensors in cell phones, researchers could gather real-time, location-specific information on things like air quality, weather conditions, or traffic conditions. It would make users passive citizen scientists. While there are currently privacy issues about this kind of participatory urbanism, the possibility for sensory capabilities in cell phones for environmental monitoring is there.

Platforms that make users active participants are also possibilities, and tools exist for helping people everywhere, including in developing nations, be active information gatherers. For example, DataDyne is a company committed to making data collection and mobile communication available to everyone. One of their open source products is EpiSurveyor, a data collection form generator. It allows people to create a handheld data entry form, gather data on their mobile device, and send it back in to a laptop or desktop for analyzation. Another of their projects, called MIP, allows any group to start an RSS feed to communicate information rapidly to an audience via mobile devices. More apps are on their way from countless companies that will allow mobile phone users to capture and upload information to larger scientific databases for analysis, and communicate with one another.

These uses seem like they're close but still in the future in terms of applying them to projects. But the fact is, mobile phones are being used in some amazing ways for environmental activism right now.

Environmental Activism Projects That Use Mobile Phones

Photo via TheLizardQueen via Flickr CC Using Mobile Devices to Help Wildlife Mobile phones are already assisting wildlife conservation efforts on a wide range of projects. Save the Elephants in Kenya is using GPS/GSM collars to track elephants in the area in order to help keep humans and elephants from clashing. Tensions between farmers and elephants are often high and mobile devices - specifically push-to-talk technology - allows communication among people to tell farmers and ranchers to take proactive steps against possible damage to their crops from the animals.

The Okapi Wildlife Reserve patrols in the Democratic Republic of Congo use SMS to text the GPS their locations to a central operator, who is then able to mobilize them if there is an emergency threat to the reserve. In a country with so much political upheaval, that kind of fast reaction time and mobilization is important.

Using Mobile Devices to Save Forests
Greenpeace Argentina showed the power of cell phone networking when they utilized it for advocating for The Forest Law, Argentina's first federal forest protection act, in 2007. The group was able to collect 3,000 signatures for the petition via text messaging, as well as asked the 350,000 people in their mobile phone network list to call specific legislators. The effort helped the law to pass, providing a one-year moratorium on cutting down native forests.

Helveta is a company that is deploying bar coding technology to prevent illegal logging. Forestry companies hammer in bar codes into stumps and felled trees, then use mobile devices to scan the codes and upload them via satellite or wifi to a central database. The idea is any tree that doesn't have a bar code with tracked scans is considered illegal when it reaches mills.

Using Cell Phones to Green Consumer Behavior
Using mobile technology to make consumer behavior more eco-friendly is already highly popular. When it comes to food, for instance, FishMS helps consumers make on-the-spot purchasing decisions, and also tracks trends in consumer behavior regarding fish selections. For instance, the service often sees spikes in SMS inquiries about certain fish species after that species has been in the news. airTEXT does a similar thing for Londonites who want to receive updates about air pollution levels in city. Access to this information can shift to what parts of the city people travel, and the method they use to get from one place to another. Many more examples will be discussed later when we talk about all the apps available to shoppers.


Photo via brownpau via Flickr CC
Using Cell Phones to Affect Green Politics
Crowdsourcing is a big aspect of using mobile technology to affect people's behavior. It's a way of getting a massive group of people involved in tackling an issue, rather than one or a few organizations bearing the burden. Americans for Informed Democracy's Richard Graves pointed out in last year's Bioneers conference the idea of bird-dogging. The group asks people with video on their cell phones, or with Flip cameras, to ask political leaders tough questions on camera, committing them to a certain action on a certain issue. It creates an instantly uploadable video of a political leader making, for example, promises to help the environment that they can then be held to.

Using mobile devices for things like live-blogging environmental events or reporting on actions as they roll out - especially via platforms like Twitter that help information go viral - huge numbers of people can be made aware of eco-issues, all thanks to cell phones and similar devices. MobileActive is a great resource for seeing, and using, mobile devices for social change like this.

On the Next Page: How to Use Mobile Phones for Eco-Activism, and Cool Apps That Help You Go Green

Tags: Activism | Cell Phones | Electronics