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 Monday, November 07, 2011
ITU Green App Challenge - Meet the developers! (#2) - Interview with Mr. Stephan Reiter and Ms. Simone Ferlin

The first ITU Green ICT Application Challenge, supported by Blackberry and Telefonica, sought to uncover innovative concept papers for climate change related ICT applications. ITU announced the Challenge’s winner and papers deserving special mention at the Green Standards Week held in Rome, 5-9 September 2011.

One of the challenge’s finalist entries comes from Stephan Reiter and Simone Ferlin, both from Germany, who developed a concept for an application entitled “Make Me Green – Delivering Context-Specific Suggestions for a Green Lifestyle.” The goal of the application is to raise awareness of the impacts made by different lifestyles on the environment and climate change. Through the implementation of a tracking system, the application provides questions and suggestions about the lifestyle of the user, generating a greenness rating that can be used to establish a comparison with other users.

We approached Stephan and Simone to discuss the inspiration for their concept and their experiences with the challenge. Here is what they had to say.

[Question] Tell us a little about yourselves and what you do.

Simone: I am originally from Brazil, but came to Germany in 2004 to study information technology in Erlangen. I was always very enthusiastic about communications and took part in a few competitions during university. Before coming to Germany, I had thought my German was good enough. I realized quite quickly however that my greatest challenges were not with engineering, but with language, as dealing with the different regional dialects proved problematic.

Stephan, with whom I share an office at LMU, where we are both working on our Ph.D., talks even more peculiarly as he’s from Austria. Besides jokes about vocabulary and grammar, we enjoy working and spending time together.   Stephan: Simone has already spilled the beans: I am from Austria. I studied computer science in Linz, then came to Munich in 2009 to work as a graphic software engineer. I however quickly decided to go back to university, to have more time for my personal interests, and to experience the academic environment from a researcher’s perspective. I also wanted to change my focus from graphics to communication networks. Simone and I are working on our Ph.D. at LMU, and also find time to participate in challenges like this one. Simone is a veteran when it comes to competitions, and she was kind enough to let me join her in this one.  

[Q] How did you find out about the ITU Green ICT Application Challenge?  

Simone, Stephan: We often receive information through our research group about the activities of other research communities. We both received an invitation to participate in the ITU Green ICT Application Challenge, and immediately saw that the topic was well suited to an idea we had discussed before.

[Q] Why did you decide to take part in the challenge?

Stephan: We had discussed this idea of an environmental awareness application before we actually knew about this challenge. So, when Simone saw the challenge announced and told me about it, we just knew that we had to present our idea. Not only because it gave us an opportunity to present our idea and make a lasting contribution to the environment, but also because competitions are always fun and challenges like these appeal to our not-so-serious-researcher hearts.  

Simone: At our university, I have volunteered in many projects related to the environment and environmental awareness. Through these projects, it became clear to me that people do not have enough information on environmental awareness, and typically don’t know where to find such information. Stephan and I figured out an idea to solve this problem. And yes, I have always been motivated to participate in competitions: It is always very interesting, and gives one the freedom to explore new ideas.

[Q] Have you developed an app before, or was this experience new to you?

Simone: Not professionally, but we had something similar to this during my time at university.  

Stephan: I  developed a few applications for smartphones during my time at university, but never professionally and usually just for coursework.

[Q] Was the application that you presented something you’ve been working on for a long time or did you develop the app for this challenge?

Simone: I had an idea that we had taken through many drafts in our discussions. It was however only when we heard about the ITU Application Challenge that we decided to present it.

[Q] How did the development of the concept for the app take place? What was your biggest challenge when designing the application?

Simone: We did it partly during our working hours. Then, as soon as we had committed to submitting the paper, we went to the basement and used the white board to synchronize our ideas. With regards to the design, we wanted to “keep it simple, stupid!” (KISS approach). We knew it was something to be implemented in the near future, and we thus had to make a few compromises to ensure we met the deadline. We also found it challenging to accommodate environmental literature and state of the art technology in the type of application required by the Challenge.

Stephan: From my point of view, the biggest challenge was to narrow our many ideas down to an acceptable and, very importantly, realistic set of features for such an application. The first draft of our application was massive and had a host of cool ideas we planned to include. We then realized how difficult this would have been to implement, and so paused to determine exactly which of these ideas we needed to focus on. The result was an app that could be easily implemented, while still remaining a high-quality, useful tool in combating climate change.

[Q] What was your motivation behind developing an app to combat climate change/promote sustainability?

Simone: I had a few ideas about how IT could relate to the environment and, since mobile technologies are becoming increasingly widespread, a mobile application seemed a good testing ground for these ideas.  

Stephan: Our approach was also a very pragmatic one: On our way home from work each day, we see people playing with their mobile phones. It's no secret that people take their mobiles wherever they go, and that they use them for entertainment as much they do for communication. The idea that mobiles could educate their users on environmental issues was very appealing to us.

[Q] Where did your inspiration for this application come from?  

Simone: I was confronted with these issues while volunteering on environmental projects, where we found that information on environmental awareness rarely reached the people needing it most. We were having to repeat much of our work, as people did not know how and where to find information on environmentally-friendly behavior.

[Q] What other activities are you involved in to help fight climate change and promote environmental sustainability?

Simone: At the moment,  I am very busy with university-related work, and have almost no time to volunteer.  I simply try to consciously accommodate the environment in my everyday life, taking the environmentally-friendly option whenever it is available (e.g. riding a bicycle to work, or properly recycling garbage).  

Stephan: I was raised as a “good citizen” who separates garbage for recycling purposes, uses public transportation and consciously considers the environment when making choices in the supermarket. However, unlike Simone, who has been active in the Bund Naturschutz in Germany, I have never been a member of an environmental organization.

[Q] What do you expect from this application in the future? Are you planning to develop it further?

Simone: From our point of view, it is a very promising concept. We are however very involved in work related to our PhDs, and I think our concept might have to wait in the drawer for some time!  

Stephan: The idea is now visible and, as we do not have the time, we sincerely hope someone else will develop it further. It would be very cool to discover a commercially successful application based on our idea.  I would definitely use it, and Simone and  I would probably have several ideas to improve it.

[Q] What is your advice to developers wishing to create apps to help combat climate change/promote sustainability?

Simone: Just do it! But before you set out, ensure that your concept is realistic, and that you know exactly what your targets are.  

Stephan: Apps can be anything from small programs to full-blown services. Even if you don't have a lot of time to invest, you can still create popular apps that provide real value to the people who use them.

[Q] Any last thoughts?  

Simone and Stephan: Where is the cake ?!  

To find out more about Ms. Ferlin and Mr. Reiter and their activities, contact them via ITU by sending an email to climate@itu.int. Meet the rest of the winners and relive the ITU Green Application Challenge by accessing http://www.itu.int/ITU-T/climatechange/greenict/index.html.

For more information about the ITU’s activities on climate change visit www.itu.int/climate.