This Week in Civic Tech: Restaurant App Cuts Food Waste, Mesh Networking Connects Refugees with Home

A look back at highlights and happenings in the world of civic tech.

by / August 11, 2016
Too Good To Go (TGTG)

This Week in Civic Tech presents a line-up of notable events in the space that connects citizens to government services. Topics cover latest startups, hackathons, open data initiatives and other influencers. Check back each week for updates.

Foods 'Too Good' to Waste

The U.K. startup Too Good To Go (TGTG) may have an answer to America’s glut of food waste: an app that residents who are hungry for cheap eats can use to order restaurant food that would have been discarded. TGTG’s app, co-founded by Jamie Crummie and Chris Wilson, is available on Android and iOS in the U.K. and shows clear signs of success. Restaurants get to recover costs on excess food items, while thrifty diners and low-income residents get high-quality dishes for pennies on the dollar. The foods could be excess ingredients like meats and vegetables, or they could be complete meals like soups, sandwiches and even sushi.

The app, first developed in Denmark, lets users search through a collection of restaurants, choose available foods and dishes, and then gives diners a time window for pickup. They just need to show their receipt to receive their food. In London, costs for the rescued food items have averaged starting prices of 2 pounds (or U.S. $2.59). Users can also donate food to those in need their purchases.

“Since the launch of our TGTG app in Leeds, Brighton and Birmingham, we’ve helped divert 800 meals from bins to the bellies,” said Wilson in blog post. “In the two days since launching in London we’ve welcomed over 40,000 new users — and we can’t wait to bring you more restaurants to enjoy across the capital.”

The U.K. wastes about 600,000 tons of food a year, and in the U.S., the Department of Agriculture estimates food waste to be 40 percent of the entire food supply — the same percentage globally. With urban sprawl and the world population estimated to hit 9 billion by 2050, the founders say there is a need more than ever for sustainability. Among its facts and figures, TGTG observes that 28 percent of the world’s agricultural land is used to produce food that will never be eaten. And when wasted food begins to rot in landfills its pollutants can be 100 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide.

“Our primary goal is to raise awareness of food wastage," TGTG said on its site, "but we also want to prove that much of what is binned is perfectly safe for consumption."

German Hacktivists Open Online Access for Refugees

In Germany’s Wi-Fi deserts, civic technologists are coming to the aid of refugees unable to access basic online services or communicate with loved ones back home. Newsweek reports that the German civic tech group Freifunk has been using mesh networking to bridge connection gaps that are specifically affecting refugee communities.

Despite the country’s wealth of smart city and civic tech advancements, free Wi-Fi is still a rare amenity even in Berlin, the nation’s capital. A law by the name of “Störerhaftung” that holds Wi-Fi network owners liable for any illegal activities — like illicit downloads and hacking, and the resulting punitive measures — has shuttered access. Further complicating issues, Newsweek writes, is a lack of Wi-Fi infrastructure like broadband or public computers.

The ramifications of these obstacles have hindered Berlin’s 149 refugee shelters to provide reliable connectivity to the 40,000 refugees living in the city. In some shelters, there has only been one computer for every 100 residents. This dearth of digital options is problematic for many who are completely dependent on services like Skype, chat and email to contact family still in Syria and surrounding areas.

Freifunk, however, is alleviating some of the burden by deploying its mesh networking throughout Berlin. The technology works by setting up Wi-Fi routers throughout the city. These, in turn, empower tethered computers and mobile devices to share connections, and if one connection fails, another will automatically jump in to replace it.

The Freifunk network has nearly 620 routers (or nodes) and ranges between 3,000 to 5,000 daily users. Since the group first began working with refugees in 2012, its mesh network has increased Internet availability to more than 30 shelters in Berlin and 200-plus shelters throughout Germany.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.