Mercury News

Mercury News

Apps and tech tools for making the world a better place

This article was originally published in the September 5, 2014 edition of the San Jose Mercury News.

Link to the original article

By Patrick May

Use an app. Save the world. Or at least make it a better place.

Here are a few interesting projects in and around the Bay Area where new mobile technology and data-mining techniques are allowing everyday citizens to become Super Heroes.


Let’s start with the no-brainer: using technology to find good homes for wayward dogs and cats. While this app is not available for the masses, it is available to anyone willing to devote spare time to helping the four-legged homeless around the Bay Area. AdoptMe is an app that volunteers at two Silicon Valley animal shelters use to post photos and stories on Twitter about pets up for adoption. ( AdoptMe )

Here’s how developer Cynthia Typaldos describes her app that volunteers have started beta-testing at Humane Society Silicon Valley and the Peninsula Humane Society: “This will enable volunteers or anyone working in a shelter or rescue group to easily take a photo of the animal, write a 10-word story, then push a button and put that animal’s story out on Twitter; eventually, it will also be on Instagram and Pinterest.

“In the past, ” she says, “the shelters would take animals to the local supermarket and mall to try and find homes for them. This is the virtual equivalent of that. AdoptMe brings the animals to life.”

Typaldos says that by sharing pictures, and eventually videos, of an animal at play, resting, interacting with its handlers or with other animals, the pet becomes more real. With the help of written comments, a dog’s personality starts to emerge, even on Twitter. And this, she says, “helps him get adopted more quickly by having his story told, not just by a static photo but with little stories.”


OK, so parking may not be sexy. But a new browser tool from TransForm, an Oakland advocacy group trying to create more walkable communities through smarter transit planning, will soon give residents a stronger voice in how their communities are being developed.

The database, set to debut this month and funded by federal and local grants, allows the public and local planners to improve the municipal quality of life by reducing the number of cars out there. By demonstrating that factors like proximity to transit and free bus passes at one apartment building is resulting in fewer cars in its parking garage, that information could help guide parking at new proposed developments. And over time, that would hopefully translate to fewer vehicles on the road.

GreenTRIP’s Ann Cheng says they used paid and volunteer staff to do an expansive audit of used and unused parking at a slew of multi-unit properties around the Bay Area. To get a true picture of that supply and demand of parking spots, “we went from midnight to 5 a.m.,” she says, “to see what parking is used in a variety of places.” The results have been integrated with other data, including various transit incentives that many properties offer their residents, such as subsidized bus passes.

Says Cheng, “with the database, you can see how much parking is actually being used at projects with incentives versus those without. This way you can see how things like free transit passes or just being located close to a BART station can result in less need for parking.”


This app for iPhone and Android can be used simply for one’s recreational birding escapades. But it’s also an increasingly powerful crowdsourcing — or so-called “citizen science” — tool that combines bird sightings from thousands of individuals worldwide. Once that data is crunched by big computers, it can be used to help conserve threatened migratory bird habitats.

The Nature Conservancy this spring launched a new program in the Central Valley near Sacramento, using data from BirdLog users that has been culled and analyzed by powerful computers at Cornell University. That data, in turn, is used by the conservancy to help create “pop-up habitats” for the state’s migratory birds whose wetland landing spots have been dramatically reduced over the decades by farming, development and drought. The conservancy’s Mark Reynolds, lead scientist for the group’s Migratory Bird Initiative, says the app exploits several key trends.

“This app lets us use citizen science along with Big Data to solve problems,” he says. “The massive data set of a half-billion records at Cornell, all driven by folks like me who have a passion for watching birds and want to collect this information in the field, provides a tool that lets us create habitat when and where it’s most needed.”

The conservancy takes that data to work with rice farmers, paying them to tweak their growing cycles just enough so that crucial wetlands are there as landing spots when the birds pass through.


Last but not least, technology is being used to make Mountain View a better place.

Public Square is a web-based tool that allows people to crowdsource solutions to problems in Mountain View.

Public Square is a web-based tool that allows people to crowdsource solutions to problems in Mountain View. ( Public Square )

As its rollout begins, this new Web-based tool from the local open space and smart-growth advocates at Greenbelt Alliance could serve as a compelling conduit among community members in this Silicon Valley town of about 75,000 people.

Matt Vander Sluis, program director for the alliance, says Public Square will allow “residents to identify things they’d like to see improved in their community, connect them online, and even tie them into support from groups like ours.”

Just Google “public square mountain view” and check out the buttons that let you “Share Ideas,” “Gather Support,” “Share Resources” and “Make it Happen.” The home page recently featured one user’s pitch for a city-sponsored “Sharing Roads and Sidewalks Civility Roundtable.” Another user encouraged others to join an upcoming candidates’ forum to talk about rising housing prices in the city.

The online tool, which Sluis’ group hopes to expand soon to other cities, allows anyone to stand in the middle of this virtual town square and propose ideas to improve life in Mountain View. He says if a user can get 50 other people to join in on a proposed project, Greenbelt Alliance will help them organize a “happy hour or other meeting to help them get the idea off the ground.”

Source: Mercury News reporting

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