5 Ways Cell Phones Are Helping Environmentalism

Woman taking a picture of a fern with her phone

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Cell phones are now everywhere. Over half the world's population has one and the developing world has largely skipped over land lines and gone straight to mobile devices. In Tanzania, 97 percent of people have access to a cell phone, while only 27 percent have access to a land line. In India, more people have a cell phone than have access to toilets. The proliferation of this technology brings many benefits.

With cell phones in the hands of so many people, information can spread quickly and having such an easy means of communication lets groups of people mobilize like never before. Environmental activism is now just a few buttons away. And now that smart phones make up a large chunk of the cell phones being used worldwide, people and organizations have even greater tools for environmentalism at their fingertips.

Armed with apps, a camera, accessories and the ability to quickly communicate with people anywhere, cell phones can turn anyone into an eco-warrior. Here are five areas in which cell phones are being used to help the environment.

1. Clean Air and Water

Our cell phones may not be able to feel the breeze or survive underwater, but they can still contribute to air- and water-related environmental efforts.

Measuring Air Quality

One day, it's possible we may be able to report air quality just by walking around with a cell phone in our pocket. Embedded sensors would automatically record and send real-time air quality measurements and lead to highly accurate, crowd-sourced air pollution data. In fact, the sensors already exist, it's just a matter of getting them in our phones. So while that may be a few years off, there are apps that exist now to help you know the quality of the air you're breathing.

The Visibility app for Android phones uses your camera to measure air pollution. Created by University of Southern California's Robotic Embedded Lab, the app has the user take a photo of the sky which is then sent to a central computer that compares the luminance value of the sky to algorithmic models for time and coordinates of the photo. If the sky seems less bright, then that indicates haze aerosols. Users receive a message detailing pollution levels at that area. It works to both inform the user of the air quality around them and also to inform the scientists collecting the data about local air pollution.

Anticipating Water Availability

Companies are also developing tools that use cell phones to help solve water supply issues like collecting data from cell phone users to predict when water will be available in cities with limited supplies. NGOs are using data-tracking technology to show how water supply projects are performing and coming up with water monitoring and evaluation tools for cell phones. Mobile technologies have the potential to be a really important solution to the water crisis.

Controlling Irrigation Remotely

Farmers in India are using cell phones to operate irrigation systems from afar. Instead of walking several miles to water pumps, the farmers can use a cell phone to dial an assigned code number that remotely switches on and off the pump set that is connected to a mobile modem. Not only is this great for the farmers, but it leads to much more efficient water use. If this type of technology could be used at all of the world's farms, we could see a much lighter use of water for irrigation.

Texting as Clean-Air Activism

Cell phones can also be used by a group of people to prevent pollution from happening. In China, a large group of protestors used their cell phones to text the Xiamen government about the health risks of a new petrochemical plant. Their concerns over the highly toxic paraxylene, a well-known carcinogen, that would be produced there led to a flurry of texts and the mayor put the plant on hold.

2. Citizen Science

If you're a nature lover but want to be more involved in the discovery of things, a cell phone can be your best tool. In fact, cell phone cameras specifically may be one of the greatest things to come along for scientific research because it puts the power of observation and immediate recording and sharing into the hands of both citizen scientists and experts alike and the scientific community is realizing the potential of this crowd science.

Providing Photos for Research

Scientists are creating apps that let you take pictures of plants and animals you find when you're out in nature and then upload them to a central database where they will be analyzed for research. A new species could be discovered or new information on a known species could be collected. This type of information will be especially helpful as climate change affects habitats and species.

The LeafView Project is an iPhone app that lets users snap pictures of a plant's leaves and then upload the photos to a database where scientists can access it for research. Scientists are hoping the app can help them catalog and identify plants as sort of a worldwide plant census. It will be a tool for researchers to easily find photos of certain species and also to track changes to populations.

Accessing Data

Along those same lines, the EpiCollect app for Android allows epidemiologists and ecologists to gather and submit data for their research on their smart phones. It gives users access to databases and uses Google Maps and Google Earth for mapping and tracking that data.

Looking Closer

What would a citizen scientist be without some scientific instruments? If you want to take your research further, they even make a tiny pocket microscope that pairs with your smart phone so you can report your observations in even greater detail.

3. Commerce

While the most environmentally-responsible thing to do is to consume less, we all have to consume a certain amount of things and smart phones allow us to do so in the most eco-friendly way possible.

Purchasing Wisely

While shopping online or buying locally is a toss up depending on what you're buying, once you've made your decision of how you're going to shop, apps like Good Guide and 3rd Whale inform you of the most sustainable products to buy and the best businesses to buy from. Good Guide utilizes the phone's camera to scan bar codes and deliver instant information on the product you're looking at, while 3rd Whale uses the phone's GPS to map sustainable businesses nearby.

Once you've located where and what you're going to buy, your cell phone can help you to purchase them without the waste. Coupon apps let you search for coupons for green products and then use them on your phone without needing to print out paper copies.

Eliminating Plastic

The GiftRocket app lets you purchase and redeem gift cards through your phone, avoiding the exchange and inevitable tossing of those little pieces of plastic into landfills.

4. Energy Savings

Saving energy has been greatly simplified by smart phones. Apps for home energy management and conserving fuel abound.

Making the Home More Energy Efficient

Home energy efficiency is often called the low-hanging fruit for helping to fight climate change and cell phones are making it easier than ever to achieve. Apps like VerdeEnergy and EnergySaver make conducting home energy audits, tracking energy consumption and making energy-efficient changes a snap.

Smart meters, smart thermostats and energy management software are all essential components to a smart home, but the thing that can pull them all together is a cell phone. Practically every home energy management software we write about has a mobile app where users can remotely adjust their thermostat from afar and save energy on the go. As homes become more connected, cell phones will be able to control all of the energy-using devices in a home remotely, from turning off lights to making it cooler.

Decreasing Fuel Use

Smart phones have also made saving fuel a lot easier. The Google Maps traffic layer alone is saving people time and fuel every day by letting them see real-time traffic conditions and avoid them when they can. Apps like EcoSpeed take this even further by deciding the most fuel-efficient route for you to take based on distance and traffic conditions and then once you're driving, it gives you tips to help you save fuel like maintaining a certain speed or easing acceleration.

Informing Drivers and Parking Faster

GreenMeter evaluates your current fuel efficiency by measuring acceleration and distance covered and then giving you information on fuel consumption, cost and carbon footprint based on the make and model of car, weather conditions and fuel type. Other apps like PrimoSpot and iSpotSwap help you to find parking spaces so you're not wasting fuel driving in circles.

5. Wildlife and Conservation

Organizations and individuals alike are able to better protect endangered animals and habitats with cell phones.

Protecting Endangered Animals

Save the Elephants uses cell phones to quickly communicate the locations of GPS-collared African elephants to farmers so that they can do what they can to avoid negative effects to their farm and ugly confrontations between themselves and the animals. Patrols at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo text their GPS locations to a central operator so that if any threats to the reserve arise, they can be mobilized in the quickest and most efficient way to stop the problem.

Enforcing Anti-Logging Laws

To prevent illegal logging in rainforests, a company called Helveta is deploying bar code technology to forest companies. The loggers stamp a bar code on trees they fell and then scan the code with cell phones and upload it to a database. Any tree that arrives at a mill without a tracked bar code is considered illegal.

Learning About Wildlife

There are also apps that can get you closer to wildlife and help you to protect them. The Wild Calls app from The Center for Biological Diversity uses push notification technology to send the call of a random endangered animal to your phone. You can hear the call, learn information about that animal, sign up for press alerts from the Center and respond to action alerts for protection of that and other species.

There is even an app to help you locate bears in Yellowstone, though we hope people use it as a way to avoid run-ins with the animals instead of seeking them out.

It's Just the Beginning

In the future, ultra-accurate microchips and specialized sensors could be embedded in our phones and automatically send location and environmental data to databases for scientists to use, but for now there are still a host of ways that cell phones are helping to fight environmental ills from quick mobilization of protestors to smart apps and there will be many more to come.

Now get out there and fight the good fight, with your cell phone.