I first noticed several years ago that mapping and directions apps have a tendency towards evil and will prioritise driving and getting a taxi over active travel options.
In a response to a call for evidence by the London Assembly on future mobility I noted:
“If TfL do not plan properly, active travel options, which cannot currently earn revenue for the app providers, could be deprioritised in the app user interface (shown with less prominence, not ‘front-and-centre’).”Call for evidence: future transport, Living Streets submission to the London Assembly, October 2017
I don’t really think much has changed since then. Micromobility partnerships mean e-scooter or cycle hire might show up more prominently, but there still isn’t anyone effectively championing the position of walking in these apps.
Now we have National Highways England going into schools to do deliberate evil, using Minecraft to normalise road building schemes for kids. This is not an exercise in encouraging a generation of engineers, but an attempt to build support for unpopular and environmentally damaging schemes.
As I thought back in 2017, we need to be doing two things to combat this. 1) Lobby technology companies not government and 2) Create our own better apps.
The environmental movement still appears largely blind to apps, algorithms and technology as far as I can see. This is because it is a professionalised movement organised around public affairs. It is only really interested in government advocacy and behavior change. There needs to be greater strategic understanding of the risks (and potential benefits) of technology for sustainable transport and the environment.
We do see alternative apps and services being created (this gives me hope) but they are too often small scale, not real competitors or a little too homespun. Nonetheless they could be an important tool in showing another way when trying to make technology companies do better.
If you are interested in saving the planet then please learn to code. Not just to help us create our own apps and services, but to help us understand what prejudices and objectives underpin those we already access.
There is now a petition against the gamification of environmentally damaging road building.