Mobile Phone Technology for Environmental Activism

Cell phone in grassMobile phones are becoming an important tool for environmental activists around the world. Activists are developing new technological strategies in order to do things like educate consumers about the impact of purchasing decisions, monitor wildlife and polution levels, and advocate for the protection of forests.

A report from the United Nations Foundation and The Vodafone Group Foundation Technology Partnership published in April describes the many different ways mobile phones are used for social change around the world. It's called “Wireless Technology for Social Change: Trends in Mobile Use by NGOs” [PDF].

Below, I have listed the environmental initiatives highlighted by its writers, Sheila Kinkade ( and Katrin Verclas ( I have also listed some new projects that have appeared since then.

Greenpeace ArgentinaArgentina

Using mobile phones, Greenpeace in Argentina were able to rally supporters and effectively pass Argentina's first federal forest protection law. The MobileActive blog wrote of their tree saving efforts earlier this month:

Mobile phones are nothing new for Greenpeace Argentina. The organization has used mobile phones multiple times to mobilize its now 350,000 person-strong mobile list to successfully lobby for important environmental legislation. One of Greenpeace's significant accomplishments was the passage of the Ley de Bosques, or Forest Law.

According to the Wireless Technology for Social Change report, GreenPeace accomplished this by building a large database containing both email addresses and mobile phone numbers of the people who signed a petition supporting the Forest Law. In addition, they sent out text message alerts during critical hearings, and before city council votes. They also coordinated demonstrations and meetings using text messages.

Ghana from aboveGhana

In Ghana, one project has shown that mobile phones can be transformed from typical pervasive tool for communication, to a ‘super sensing’ tool for environmental data collection. This is achieved by attaching a special sensor to a mobile phone. The sensor collects scientific information on air quality or even urban traffic patterns, which can be studied later and even layered over a google map.

Corinne Ramey wrote about this initiative on the MobileActive blog in April:

In the Accra study, seven taxi drivers were provided with a dash-mounted global positioning system (GPS) device and a tube to hang from their passenger window. The tube contained a carbon monoxide sensor. Similarly, three students were each given a mobile clip sensor pack containing a GPS device, and a carbon monoxide sensor. The taxi drivers and students were asked to carry their sensors as much as possible during their normal everyday activities. Throughout the day, the sensing system automatically logged sensor data. At the end of each day, the pilot participants dropped off their sensor packs at a central location where the data was then extracted and the sensors recharged. resulted from the participatory data collection A heat-map visualization of carbon monoxide readings across Accra, Ghana rendered atop Google Earth. Colors represent individual intensity reading of carbon monoxide during a single 24-hour period across the city. Red circles are locations where actual readings were taken.

Elephant in KenyaKenya

The Wirelesss Technology for Social Change report describes the tension in Laikipia district, Kenya, between landowners and wildlife. Farmers have been killed by wildlife, and their crops being destroyed. Elephants and other animals are being killed. A conflict prevention program that utilizes mobile phone technology, enables communication between the local community, wildlife service personnel, and land owners.

The pilot utilized ‘Push to Talk on Cellular (Phones)’ (PoC) technology, which combines the functionality of a walkie-talkie or two-way radio with a mobile phone. PoC enables communication between two individuals, or a group of people, and is particularly useful in connecting a user
group intermittently over a period of time (e.g., a working day).

South Africa

FishMS is an SMS-based service from The Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative that provides the status of global fish stocks to consumers. Users text the name of a fish they are considering buying to +27 79 499 8795, and are immediately advised as to whether the fish was sustainably harvested, or whether they should think twice before buying it. The following video shows the tool in action (the short film was shot on a mobile phone – Nokia N93).

AirtextUnited Kingdom, United States

AirText is a system that sends an SMS message, voicemail or email containing information about pollution levels in a specific borough of London. The service is aimed at people who suffer from heart and breathing problems. Similar services exist for specific locations in the United States, including Ergo (various zip codes) and ADEQ (in Arizona).

mobGasPeople who would like to know how much their personal greenhouse gas emissions amount to, can download an application mobGas to their phone, that allows them to report on their daily activities, like cooking, watching television or driving.

From the Wirelesss Technology for Social Change report report:

By helping users make connections between their daily activities and greenhouse gas emissions, mobGAS hopes to encourage individuals to make lifestyle changes. The application also offers tips on how to modify activities to decrease emissions.

FuelFrogA similar project, highlighted by Josh Catone on Read Write Web blog is called FuelFrog. It's an application that uses Twitter to help track fuel consumption by users:

FuelFrog is exceedingly simple, and immensely useful. After each fill up, users enter their miles traveled since the last fill, the price paid, and the amount of gasoline in gallons. Over time, FuelFrog will track and graph your fuel consumption data so you can do things like identify trends in gas prices in your area, see how fuel efficient your car is (is it time to put air in the tires, perhaps?), how much you're driving, and how much you're spending.

Global Voices Environment thank MobileActive and Shareideas for the report, and would be interested in reader's input on other examples of mobile phones being used for environmental activism.

Also see our recent post on Global Voices highlighting the use of web2.0 technologies for environmental activism


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