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Creating value with mobile apps

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Linda Baker
Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Everyone has an opinion about Facebook’s IPO mess and what it means for the Zuckerberg enterprise, tech IPOs and civilization as we know it.

For Astrid Scholz, executive vice president at Ecotrust, Facebook’s botched public offering yields two lessons.

The first is pragmatic: "You can’t make money off platforms per se."  Successful digital companies, like Apple, Amazon, sell tangible products and services, she says.

Her second conclusion is more provocative.  Internet business models typically revolve around one of three things: getting more eyeballs on the page, selling things or meeting people.  But that phase of technology is running its course, says Scholz. The next phase will be to create software solutions "that actually do useful things.”

Here one catches the whiff of the moralist. After all, one person’s use value is another person’s junk. 

Yet Scholz’ point is well taken. Are Facebook, Google and the dizzying array of mobile apps actually creating value?  How can we harness the power of the digital world to activate social change — and then monetize that effot with innovative business models?

I spoke with Scholz last month as I was researching my June cover story on green transformation; we followed up with another chat this week. (The Facebook IPO was just a happy coincidence).

In the past few years, Ecotrust has been developing or co-developing its own digital tools, several focused on nurturing a more sustainable, or resilient, marine and fisheries sector.  “The questions we were asking weren’t addressed by Windows or Google, so we decided to build them ourselves,” Scholz says.

These tools include Digital Deck, a mobile technology tool that provides real-time access to catch information — collected from the boat deck — to help consumers, wholesalers and conservationists learn if fish is sustainably harvested. Another is Marine Map, a web-based open source platform that helps users, including fisherman and conservationists, visualize social ecological, and regulatory features of the marine environment.

These technologies serve a variety of data collection and consumer functions, offering marine planners fine grained information about the ocean environment and potentially offering more information to the consumer about the origins and quality of the fish they are buying. To that end, Ecotrust’s tools are similar to the "Smart Farmer" trend described in my green story, in which emerging mobile apps enable farmers to convey information to consumers and regulators about environmental and food safety.

MarineMap won a 2011 Tech Award — an international award that honors companies and nonprofits using technology to “benefit humanity.” 

Many things benefit humanity: food, water, clothes, games, even social networks. For  Scholz, one of the lessons gleaned from the Facebook debacle is that the  Internet "hasn't grown up yet."  It’s also a call to arms: harness digital technology to create a new generation of web platforms and mobile apps that actually improve people's lives.

Linda Baker is managing editor of Oregon Business.


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