Catalyst for Change

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

Paul Blair With Students
EcoRaft teaches children about
restoration ecology.

Irvine, Calif., Nov. 7, 2007 --  Bill Tomlinson and his Social Code research group use information technology in a slightly different way to confront environmental challenges.

The researchers are not creating cleaner fuels or more energy-efficient systems – instead, they are using IT as a catalyst to educate the public and enact social change.

Three ongoing projects in Tomlinson’s lab in the Calit2@UCI Building employ the latest technology in an attempt to change society’s habits.

GreenScanner (, an online public database of consumer opinion, gives shoppers access to information about the environmental friendliness of various products.


Paul Blair and student demonstrating the device
Paul Blair and student demonstrating the device
Graduate student Joel Ross conducts a GreenScanner user study (left);
AnyDATA tracking devices help locate discarded computer components.

The project is based on a publicly available database of more than 900,000 products, each with its own UPC code. Tomlinson, assistant professor of informatics, hopes the Web site will become a forum where shoppers can read comments on whether products are environmentally friendly before they buy.

He also expects that in the not-too-distant future, when mobile devices have faster data access, the application can be downloaded to cell phones and PDAs, giving consumers information instantly as they shop.

EcoRaft is a multi-device computer game that teaches children the basics of restoration ecology. The game has been demonstrated at venues around Southern California, including Orange County’s Discovery Science Center, and work is underway on the next-generation version. Improvements may include incorporating smaller handheld devices and infrastructure changes.

The researchers also hope to expand the project’s scope. “We would like to build a series of exhibits for different locations; each would incorporate several species indigenous to that area,” Tomlinson says.

E-waste tracking, a collaboration with Informatics Professor Bonnie Nardi, traces the movement of discarded computer components. Making the future better through technology, Tomlinson says, causes previous technology to become obsolete quickly and “this generates a lot of waste.”

Using AnyDATA tracking devices embedded in the components and visualizing the data on Google Maps, Tomlinson hopes, will compel consumers to change their habits.

“Letting people know more about where their waste went and what happened to it might cause them to reconsider some of their choices with regard to purchasing or consumption,” he says.