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Coding for a Greener, Safer China

BY Rebecca Chao | Friday, July 26 2013

Coding for Green Life Hackathoners (image: Sunny Gao)

By day Sunny Gao runs Segment Fault, a social Q&A site for Chinese coders to share programming chops, akin to the English-language Stack Overflow — but a new trend in one corner of China's tech community has led his team to start a sideline in civic-minded software.

One of their apps, CityCare, is an information-sharing platform that encourages the public to identify green issues in their city and push for public service projects. Mobile users can post questions, discuss issues of common concern and see city complaint statistics. Based on evaluation of problems with highest concern, the CityCare app will send the concerns to the relevant city departments. But that's just one of 41 apps his company has built, motivated by a series of hackathons, or coding competitions, in Beijing, Wuhan and Chengdu.

Programmers at Segment Fault are among a growing number of Chinese coders who share a blossoming interest in "green" applications — services that help their cities breathe easier, check the safety of their food, and register problems with the government.

Food scares have plagued China over the last decade, from melamine-tainted baby formula to exploding watermelons overloaded with growth hormones. As rural citizens migrate en masse to cities bursting with cars, air quality concerns have become ubiquitous. And while Beijing seems more willing in recent years to divert some of this pressure on underperforming state or local officials, anything that challenges the central government is quickly whisked under the rug. As TechPresident previously discussed, citizen attempts at creating better web platforms for buying train tickets or submitting complaints to local officials have been shut down in the past, only to be countered with state-sanctioned alternatives.

That might be about to change. A series of environmentally focused hackathons, or multi-day programming competitions, are now sweeping across Asia. Co-organized by Gao's Segment Fault, InfoQ, and QuestVC, and sponsored by the Chinese search engine Baidu, "Coding for Green Life" started in those three Chinese cities in recent weeks.

Joining Segment Fault's green software offerings is Fresh Library, a mobile app that allows users to identify sources of safe, green food. Organic farms have been cropping up in China and the application connects users to these farms. Another app also entitled CityCare would provide mobile users with air pollution warnings using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. embassy air pollution index. China has its own pollution index, often more forgiving than the U.S. ratings, and has frequently berated the U.S. for publishing its own numbers, claiming the U.S. exaggerates the levels of pollution in China. For years, the country claimed it had a “fog” not “smog” problem, as Chinese citizens rolled their eyes.

"Coding for Green Life" finishes its regional tour with events this weekend in Singapore and Taiwan.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.