Insights and Analysis

Be Green. There’s an App for That

April 18, 2012

By Kourtnii S. Brown

The wonderful thing about Earth Day is that this annual global celebration of our planet is largely self-organized. There is no overarching organization or government that has been implementing all the projects held on this day for the past 42 years, nor are individuals required by law to plant trees, participate in clean-ups, or host events that promote environmental causes. More than 1 billion people now voluntarily contribute to Earth Day activities each year, making it the largest civic observance event in the world.

Farmer in the Philippines uses a mobile phone

Increasingly, citizens across the globe are gaining access to technology to engage in debating and determining such things as how to protect and manage their natural resources, respond to climate change, and handle urbanization.

As global citizens, we get involved in Earth Day because we feel compelled to do our part in making a difference – and because we hear about “greening” events that take place in our community from information shared through social media. This year, the Earth Day Network boasts that there will be more than 60 events registered to take place across the Asia-Pacific region as part of their “Mobilize the Earth” campaign, including in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, some Pacific island nations, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam.

However, according to many environmentalists working in these Asian nations, there is a need for more public awareness campaigns and access to information on environmental issues that encourage civic participation throughout the rest of the year as well. They express frustration that governments in the region are not making significant enough progress in protecting and preserving the environment, and that grassroots activism needs to strengthen its call for a sustainable future and hold governments more accountable to achieving quantifiable outcomes.

Part of the solution for strengthening sustainable development work in Asia is through improving the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) at both the government and civil society levels. ICTs can be as simple as radio programs, videos, and mobile phone messaging, or as complicated as internet applications that visualize data on complex indices and survey results, plot geographic information systems (GIS), or conduct remote sensing (RS) techniques for land use planning. Regardless, people throughout Asia are now gaining better access to these different sources of information and have better means to spread it quickly.

With these new innovations, governments and policymakers are not solely responsible for collecting data and reporting on sustainable development progress. Increasingly, citizens are gaining access to technology to engage in debating and determining such things as how to protect and manage their natural resources, respond to climate change, and handle urbanization. ICTs can provide a way for the general public (in addition to policymakers and practitioners) to stay updated with the latest information on environmental issues, exchange knowledge and resources on specific topics, and expand their partner network by connecting with others in the fields of environment and development. ICTs can also act as a source of open and transparent data and analysis in order for the public to play a greater role in monitoring and attaining environmental targets in their own communities.

Information on how we damage the earth is well known. Developed societies today consume an insatiable amount of natural resources, and products derived from such resources, in order to support modern lifestyles. This appetite has created stress on our land and our oceans. The burning of fossil fuels, which is at the core of supporting such consumption patterns, is also adding unsustainable levels of CO2 into the atmosphere. Scientists are still filling in pieces of the complete climate change puzzle, but they have formed a consensus that tells us the Earth is warming, that industrialized human activity is the cause, and that if societies continue to develop in such a way, then we will face substantial rises in sea level, increasingly intense heat waves, droughts and floods, as well as threats to global fresh water and food.

However, information on how we can help save the earth no matter where we live is just beginning to gain momentum. ICTs for development (ICT4Dev) are more frequently popping up to help answer questions such as: What is my own ecological footprint and how can I change it?  How does my country’s environmental impact assessment and climate change vulnerability compare to the rest of the world?  How can I use ICTs to become an agent of change in my household, my community, my state, my country, and ultimately my world?

That’s right, “there’s an app for that.”  There are also websites that consolidate opinion, analysis, reporting, and debate concerning environmental issues in general, or provide in-depth knowledge on more specific topics, including: on sustainable development, on land use planning and management, on agriculture, on forests, on air pollution, on water quality, on climate change adaptation, on disaster preparedness, or on resilient and sustainable cities. You name it (or Google it), and you can connect yourself with the tools to help you be the change you wish to see in the world.

In Asia, ICTs are starting to be used at the local level particularly for pollution and climate change monitoring, whereby residents acquire data, transmit it to a central source, and then this information is shared with the entire community. This type of ICT not only strengthens continual community engagement in environmental work, but this knowledge sharing aids natural resource management personnel, environmentalists, and academics in collecting much-needed information for their research, forecasting, and decision-making on these issues. The data can also be used for community awareness and education campaigns on environmental protection. Some good Asian examples of community-driven use of ICTs include monitoring solid waste and sanitation in Chennai, smog levels in Beijing, and climate-smart agriculture in Bangladesh.

The pursuit of sustainable development is not just about how to ameliorate environmental degradation in developing countries, but how the entire world can ameliorate the communal situation. Be hungry for information about what climate change and environmental degradation means in your own backyard, but also value the use of ICTs to help ensure that communities and local decision-makers have the information they need to properly protect the natural world on which all livelihoods ultimately depend. The Asia-Pacific region has natural, human, and economic capital that if harnessed, protected, and invested in wisely today, can continue to be available and provide for future generations as well.

Kourtnii S. Brown is a program associate for The Asia Foundation’s Environment Programs in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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