• 12.09.11

Apps For The Environment, Powered By The Government

The EPA has a treasure trove of data that it usually keeps in the bowels of an inscrutable government website. But after an app design contest, it’s available in a variety of useful forms, right on your phone.

We live in a mobile world, and consequently, everything must have an app. And that includes government agencies. But making apps is hard for the suits in D.C. Why not instead source them out to bespectacled programmers around the world? So last June, the Environmental Protection Agency launched a competition called Apps for the Environment, to find new uses for its data, much of which either never sees the light of day, or is poorly presented or difficult to understand. It put dozens of datasets online, covering everything from air quality to hazardous waste, and said to the public: “Do what you can.” The result was enthusiastic, and varied: 38 entries, ranging from the undeniably useful, to the faintly weird, all of which can be seen here.


The overall winner was the Light Bulb Finder, an app that aims to make it easier for people to choose and buy energy-efficient light bulbs.

As we know from Al Gore, changing light bulbs is important. And according to Eco Hatchery, the developer, many people would invest in new lighting if only it were a little easier. Instead there are a lot of bulb and fixture types, and people are unsure they are getting the lighting and savings they have been promised. To use the app, type in your zip code (to calculate energy rates for your area), select a bulb and fixture type, the type and wattage of incandescent bulb you want to replace, and the hours a day you’ll use it for. The app recommends a bulb, and estimates the savings and payback period. It can even draw up a plan and shopping list for the whole house, providing a grand savings total, and letting you order the lot there and then. Eco Hatchery promises to save you at least $120 annually, just through light bulb modification.

The EPA’s runner-up went to the no-less-useful Hootroot, which calculates the carbon footprint of different transport choices. Plan to journey between New York and Bloomington, Indiana, for example, and you’ll emit 808 lbs. of CO2 by plane, and an almost identical amount with a car (808.76 lbs). The plane will take much less time (one hour, 43 minutes, versus 13 hours 4 minutes) while cycling will emit no carbon, but take at least 87 hours. Your choice.

In all, five of the submitted apps were recognized by the EPA as being truly helpful, including two student entries. EarthFriend is a trove of educational games and “fun facts,” while Environmental Justice Participatory Mapping plots abandoned uranium mine data, helping Navajo Nation residents to live more safely.

Now instead of information living on the EPA’s site, it can live in comfort on your phone. Get downloading.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.