Oceanforce: app designed by London school kids gamifies plastic recycling

Amelia Heathman

Climate action has been one of the dominant themes of 2019, thanks in large part to 16-year-old Greta Thunberg who has been campaigning across the world on the effects of climate change. But Thunberg isn’t the only teenager taking a stand against environmental destruction and trying to do something about it.

Five teenage girls from St Marylebone School in London - Clara, Macy, Zipporah, Iona and Zadie - have created an app that aims to tackle plastic pollution. Called Oceanforce, the iOS app encourages people to scan items to discover the different components of plastic they contain before suggesting where to recycle the item. You can gain points for each item you record as recycled and record them on a leader board against your friends and family. The app also aims to educate its users on the scale of ocean plastics and the global initiatives working to combat the problem.

Oceanforce came about through an Ocean Plastics workshop held by cloud-based software company Salesforce and the non-profit Apps for Good, which works with schools in England and Scotland to encourage students to engage with tech by attempting to solve problems.

The team launched the app at the recent opening of Salesforce UK's Ohana floor, a space in Salesforce Tower for non-profits and foundations to use for events for free.

During the workshop, the students heard from representatives from Greenpeace discussing the effect of plastics in the oceans, before working together to create a prototype for the app. “It was so inspirational to hear about the things that were going on,” said Zadie. “The weight is on our shoulders as a generation and I think we needed the workshop [to focus on the environment] because we’re going to have to change the world.”

Following the workshop, the students were asked if they wanted to take their designs further and turn it into a real functioning app with the help of Salesforce’s lead solution engineer Niccolo Zapponi and Apps For Good’s head of engagement Freddie Norton (Salesforce employees are encouraged to dedicate one per cent of their working hours to volunteering). For the past 18 months, they have been working in partnership with the two organisations to make their vision a reality.

So why the idea to gamify plastic recycling? “Our app is targeted towards our generation. We thought we’d make a really simple app that was easy to use and educates people. The fact you can compete with your friends and it’s a way to problem solve was important,” says Iona.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about community – everyone getting involved, scanning different items and creating a massive database. It’s a fun way to do something good for the environment,” adds Zipporah.

During the design process, the girls had a project manager, a designer and a programmer at their disposal so they were able to experience what goes into the tech they use every day. They said they loved seeing the behind-the-scenes process, working on the privacy policy, the aesthetics of the app, as well as designing the logo. The students’ teacher, Maria Parkes, says it was amazing to see them working together.

“It’s really important that the girls are experienced and exposed to the tech industry and see themselves as part of it. Unless their parents work in the industry, they have a narrow view on what jobs are out there and what they could be doing,” she adds.

Salesforce’s Zapponi says he was impressed with the way the girls worked and hopes to use this experience to improve how the company functions. “We need to leverage these young minds within our company. It’s so important to have that voice at the table when we make decisions – we don’t want to stop being innovative because we’re not considering the young mind and how they think.”

How the Oceanforce app looks (Oceanforce)

He hopes to use this as an example for Salesforce to expand its volunteering programme. “It’s incredible but we do short term things which are valuable but not as valuable as committing to a long term project. That’s something I’ve learned through this and I’m hoping we can carry on doing with the St Marylebone School, with Apps for Good, and other organisations.”

As for the students, has it changed their ideas about tech? Clara, who studies computer science at school, says it isn’t necessarily her career path but it has been interesting to take part in the project. “Getting into a STEM project has been so interesting and an amazing opportunity as well,” she says. “it’s definitely opened up my eyes to a whole new world.”

“I wouldn’t be scared to go into STEM now because I have a foundational understanding of it,” agrees Zipporah. “It opens up my career pathways and gives me a backup option.”

But most of all, one of the biggest takeaways from the group is the confidence they’ve gained from the project. During the process, they had the opportunity to speak at a Salesforce conference as well as an Apps for Good dinner, picking up important communication and presenting skills along the way.

“I think people, especially women, can feel restricted when speaking their views because you don’t want to be mean or disregard what they’ve done,” says Macy. “Through this, we’ve learned we have to say truthfully what we think is right or wrong and what we would prepare to change. That is something that I feel has been really beneficial.”

Their advice for the next big topic Apps for Good and Salesforce can tackle with tech? Gender equality. “Coming from an all-girls school, I think it’s so important about doing womens’ stuff and raising awareness about inequalities in the workforce. I feel that is something I would love to see more going on with,” says Iona.

Oceanforce is available to download from the Apple App Store now

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