On fairphone, and sustainable electronics

I’ve been a Fairphone user since 2013, when the first phone came out, and I’ve been a user of the FP2, the first phone the company designed fully themselves. In this post, I explain the process of updating it to extend its life, compared with buying a new one, and how hard doing sustainable electronics is.

A bit of background around Fairphone

It’s nice having things like smartphones, and handy electronics, but if you spend any time thinking about what really goes into getting them over to us, you’ll quickly realise there are some very ugly sides to doing so. Many of the minerals going into the electronics we use come from areas wracked by conflict, and conditions inside some factories making them can often be awful, and beyond the human cost, and it’s fair to say that if we do know about it, most of us are either in a state of denial or depression amount of waste created by digging this stuff out of the ground, turning it into chips and so on, and shipping it around the world to us.

Once hardware is with us, it’s often so hard to repair, that’s often cheaper or simpler to buy a new piece of hardware and send the old one to landfill than try to fix this, and the trend across the industry, is generally one that’s making this worse.

In the face of it’s, nice to know there are some companies looking at the problem, and trying to design a solution as if people, and well… the rest of the world mattered, and one of these companies is Fairphone. Coming from roots as a pressure group campaigning about the human cost of the electronics industry, Fairphone is now one of the mist interesting companies making electronics, and I’ve been an owner of both generations of the Fairphone FP1,  and Fairphone FP2 since I first heard of the company in 2012.

Aiming for sustainability through modularity and openness in phones

You can tell Fairphone is a product coming from a group of service designers – one thing I like about it is the attention to the entire lifecycle of the product, as well as how it’s used, to provide alterantive so needing to buy a new phone if you want benefit from the designers of the product learning more about how to improve it.

I’ll give a couple examples below:

Replaceable cases

If you want a phone to last, it’s common to put a handset in some kind of protective case. Of course for many phones this ruins the lines, and as a result it’s common to have a phone exposed to damage, largely to keep it looking comparative sleek and fit well in your pocket.

Fairphone’s approach is to design the phone so the outer casing already is slightly ruggedised to do the job of protecting it, and crucially, easy to replace, so when you DO inevitably drop it or damage it through wear and tear, you can buy just that part. By designing the case with this in mind, you don’t end up needing a bulky protective case that make the phone feel so much larger and awkward to handle.

It might be a stretch to refer to this as modular, but you can see this idea of having replacement parts in the cases. Over the last year and a half, I’ve managed to wear out part of my case, largely by dropping it and general abuse. So, I ended up buying a replacement case the new iterations of the FP2 are now released with. It was easy to replace at home, and it feels like the design is informed by actual user feedback since the original launch – the shape is slimmer making the phone feel smaller and fit better in my pocket, and the new case uses a different, higher quality plastic that is slightly rough, making it feel less slippery making it feel safe in my hand.


Better cameras

I think I’ve had my FP2 for about two years now, and over that time, I’ve been largely happy with it, for what I use it for – the GPS works well for way-finding and exercise, and it’s more or less fast enough to be a good working device. The camera hasn’t been great though, and the battery life has been a pain at times.

The new generation of the phone has a better set of cameras, but for existing owners like me, Fairphone have made the camera modules available to order separately.

I ordered them, and replacing them turned out to be straight forward. I know have a new camera, and new case, and the phone largely feels like a new handset, extending the useful life by at least a year or so.

You can see the difference in two somewhat similar photos below:

The limits of this approach

The camera works better now, and I’m a much happier with the case but there are limits. When it was first announced, the Fairphone was released with Android 5. This was okay, but newer versions of the Android operating system have improvements  to how your permissions and privacy work. This year, Fairphone managed to release an update to Android 6, but in many new phones, there’s a new version of the operating system with further improvements.

From what I can tell, the because of some details in the chipset used by the FP2, it either can’t be upgraded to Android 7, or it’s going to be a pain to do so. It’s not a concern right now, but shortens the phone’s useful life.

This is really, really hard

I guess the point of this post was that even Fairphone, one of the world leaders in building electronics in an open, sustainable, largely planet friendly way, have a hard time making a business out of building complex physical product this way, but it still feels worth aiming for, because well… we only have one planet left, and people matter.

If this interests you, you might be interested in the IoTMark project, that came out of the Open Internet of things Certification Mark event run this summer and DotEveryone’s efforts to make a Trustworthy techmark.

Trying out a vision statement for the Planet Friendly Web Guide

As I mentioned before, I’m part of the Mozilla Open Leadership programme as a Open Project Lead. In this blog, I’ll write a bit getting the vision statement together, and the thinking behind it.

First, here’s the statement as of 13th September

The Planet Friendly Web Guide: I’m working with web professionals, campaigners, and academics, to build tools and information resources for web professionals so that they can understand and radically reduce the environmental impact of the web

About the structure

You might notice the structure. I’m deliberately following the structure as outlined here in the Open Leaders Training guide:

I’m working with [community, allies, contributors] to [make, build, teach, or do something] so that [audience, end users, consumers, community members] can [do something different, achieve a goal]

It follows a familiar mad-libs format, much like coming up with problem statements, or similar when building digital products. I’ve taken clients through this same process for project kickoff workshops, with a few slight changes.

In more detail

I’ll unpack this a bit, and explain the parts that were emphasised in the initial vision statement.

Web professionals, campaigners, and academics

I’m initially aiming this at people who’ve I’ve delivered talks to and been able to convince to come to meetups I’ve run before. If I can’t get some of them on board, I have no chance of getting this off the ground at all.

Build tools and information resources for web professionals

One thing I’ve learned from looking at other organisations is that while it’s useful to just share information or some kind of easy to consume info product (books, courses etc), having tools to validate and help to work towards a stated goal allow a set of best practices to be built into a workflow, so it happens by default.

You see this with continuous integration pipelines, and in web performance budgets, and some agile working practices, all of which are designed to surface problems as early as possible, and variation away from an ideal state.

Understand and radically reduce the environmental impact of the web

We have a finite carbon budget for the planet if we want to stay inside safe limits for living in. The amount of change to how we live and work we need to stay within two degrees of climate change is going to need to be breathtaking – it’ll need to change pretty much every industry we can think of, including the web.

Right now, that IT has the same footprint as aviation, and is growing around twice as fast is barely registering among most people building the systems that will be built to replace the current ones we rely on.

If you don’t know how IT plays a part in contributing CO2 emissions leading to climate change your chances of reducing the negative impact is has will fall drastically.

Is this clear? How could this be clearer?

Right now, I’m expecting to start this project with taking the research I’ve been doing and putting into talks, and arrange it into a book or guide of some kind, but the end goal would to make it possible some way to automate this process – i.e. creating a tool to allow you to check a site against a set of criteria much like how linters and validators work (i.e. Lighthouse for progressive web apps, ecograder for single pages, and so on).

That hopefully should give some more context to it, but as ever, I’d love to hear back to see where or how it can be clearer.

As ever, if you’re interested in finding out a bit more about the project and my progress on it, I’ve set up a mailing list to make it easy to stay up to date, at planetfriendly.productscience.co.uk.

Joining the Mozilla Open Leadership programme

A few weeks back, after I applied to run a session at Mozfest in 2017, the Mozilla Open leadership team sent an email inviting me to apply for the Mozilla Open Leaders programme. It seemed a good way to force me to get my I applied, and was accepted. Last night was the initial remote meeting. Here are my notes, for anyone else interested in the programme, or what I’m getting up to on it.


Okay, what is the Mozilla Open Leaders Programme?

You’d be forgiven for asking – I didn’t know about it either, but I’m glad I know now – it’s a training and mentorship program, with an open syllabus of sorts to help take an existing project, and either make it easier to grow into a larger open, or otherwise source project, as long as it fits into Mozilla’s goals around the Health of the Internet.

I’ve blogged previously about an idea I’ve been thinking about, and referring to as The Planet Friendly Web – this is the idea I applied with, happily it was accepted.

So now, over the next 12 weeks, we (the successful applicants) are working through a schedule of events, and a syllabus, to apply it to our own projects, to turn them into something more visible, well known and successful.

This started last night, with a video call with a something like 37 of the successful applicants, and mentors, and running through some activities supported by content in the Open Leadership guide.

37 people? In a single remote call? And it actually worked?

I’ve spent a depressing amount of time in poorly run remote calls, and I’m really, really impressed with how the Mozilla Open Leadership team managed to run the initial session.

I’ll highlight some of the key things they did that I think were noteworthy:

  1. Clear instructions before the call about what to read, and, a requests to test the remote call software (Zoom, and it worked pretty admirably) worked before the call started.
  2. A clear agenda, with instructions on what was expected at each step, using an install of Etherpad. There were also rough time boxes so you had an idea how long each one would last, and
  3. Strong facilitation throughout, and really good time keeping. Even during the section where there the 37-odd people were put into virtual breakout rooms, it still seemed tightly run.

Wait – virtual breakout rooms?

This was a new thing for me too, but I’m really impressed by how it worked. Put simply, zoom has a clever feature where you can break existing groups into smaller virtual breakout rooms. The screenshot below show the etherpad we were working from, the remote call window, and my own notes in Workflowy I made before the call:


Screen Shot 2017-09-12 at 19.02.33.png
37 people writing into Etherpad, and it largely making sense. Wow


For certain exercises, including the vision statement, we were broken into smaller groups to keep things manageable, where the main facilitator was still able to share messages into the individual rooms, to help keep time.

Screen Shot 2017-09-12 at 18.40.43.png
Virtual breakout rooms for remote activities. I had no idea this was possible

After each exercise, we ended being successfully being pulled back into the main ‘room’ with the 37-ish people in there, largely successfully. I’m really, really impressed with Zoom for this, and I’m definitely planning to find a way to use the tool more for remote working with people.

More of this for the next 12 weeks

Given the program has people from all around the Americas, Europe and Asia, I’m expecting I’ll be spending a lot of time in zoom calls and hangouts over the coming weeks.

I was a bit worried initially, but I’m now really quite excited and looking forward to the coming weeks, and meeting some of the other cohort in London for Mozfest.

I’ll write a short follow up post to to cover the first thing we did, and what I’ll be working on next. If you’re curious about the programme or this whole Planet Friendly Web thing, leave a comment or contact me directly.

If you’re curious about this Planet Friendly Web thing, you can sign up to the low traffic mailing list on the project website, to learn a bit more about it and see a couple of talks I’ve given on the subject.



So, we ended up at a democracy themed hackday thing

Earlier in August I wrote a post about the BPB, a German institute focussed on promoting democracy, and WhoTargetsMe, a project to bring more transparency to election campaign advertising on Facebook. After sharing the post online, I had a few people contact me about forming a group to work at an Democracy is Everything, a hackathon at Factory Berlin, in Mitte in Berlin.

Here’s how we got on, and some notes for other people thinking extending a project at a hackday like this in future…

I’ve been going to hackdays and hackathons since 2007, (although to be fair, much less frequently after I entered my thirties, five years ago…), and the format has usually been something along the lines of:

  1. think up a project, usually at the hackday, or maybe a little bit before it starts
  2. meet people, see who you can imagine building something with
  3. work out who is supposed to be doing what
  4. realise how little of what you’ve doing will fit into the time available and update plan
  5. build much less than you thought, and think how to present it
  6. present it
  7. curse self at missing key points in in the minute or two you have to present it

This one was different a in few interesting ways:

Wait, I need to apply?

While I’ve seen a few events where you pay to go to an event like this (which I think is at best pretty cheeky if you have sponsors), this is the first event I’ve been to where you needed to apply to go, and have an idea beforehand.

While this makes an event less approachable for individuals and takes the focus away from meeting new people, it had some interesting effects. It forced me think more about what could be done in the time available, and what the ideal makeup of a team to do this might be, in a way I haven’t had to before.

Extending a existing project

This is also the first time I’ve worked on an extending an existing project, rather than try to come up with a new one, and also one where I hadn’t ever met the most visible project author.

This added another new dynamic: whatever you think you can do in the time available, you need to have some idea of how useful it would be to the maintainers of the project if you want it to last beyond the hackday. I’ll touch on this later.

What we did

If you’re not familiar with whotargets.me, it’s a browser extension that counts the political ads in your Facebook feed, and based on this information, gives you some charts and analysis about how different political parties target you to for your vote during an election. By using it, you help build a dataset of how political parties are using the Facebook platform to advertise voters. This dataset can then be used to help inform public discourse, and eventually policy. 

Here’s how the site looked before the hackday:

Screen Shot 2017-08-26 at 15.12.27.png
What am I downloading, and what does it do?

This wasn’t immediately obvious when you first visited the page though – you were prompted to download a browser extension without understanding what it was really going to do. Germany is known for different attitudes to personal data to the UK, and this seemed a big turn off to a number of Germans we showed it to, so we had a couple of main goals for the hackday:

  1. Make it work in Germany
  2. Make it clearer what it does

I’ll explore these in more detail below:

Making it work in Germany

WhoTargetsMe originally comes from the UK, which has a much more centralised tradition of campaigning than Germany – a nice example of this is the story where a conservative campaigner told me how Tory MPs are essentially barred from even retweeting without central HQ’s permission. I think this is also an artefact of how election financing in the UK places hard limits on online spending in local campaigning, but in in 2016 at least, doesn’t really have limits on national campaigns.

This centralisation is different to Germany, partly because Germany is split into a series of Länder (it’s not totally accurate, but it can help to think of them as states), but also because there are comparatively more parties and decentralised campaigning as a result. Fortunately for us though, in Germany online campaigning with Facebook is less established, so it’s not unreasonable to think that campaigning will start out similarly centralised at first, because that’s where the expertise and budget to run a campaign might be in the main parties.

In the long run through, it’s likely that as campaigning digitally becomes more commonplace, you’d have many, many more advertisers to keep track of – I know in Kreuzberg/Friedrichshain where I live, at least one party in this area is already  experimenting with Facebook ads like this.  To this end, we did a fair amount of research in the group for this, and found a load of useful datasets to help with matching ads to politicians and parties, but we didn’t pursue this further during the weekend event for time reasons.

I’ll explore this in a future post, which I’ll link to when it’s online, as I think it has an impact on projects like this in the long run.

Making it clearer what it does

If you look at the whotargets.me front page for Germany or for the UK, you’ll see more info on what the whotargets.me browser extension is, and what it does – I’ve taken a screenshot below (the actual wording from the hackday has been tweaked a bit, but the general idea is the same):

Screen Shot 2017-09-02 at 23.14.15.png

Getting a different point of view

The screenshot above is clearly a different style to the previous look for the site with the black and white photo of the Reichstag (the German equivalent to the House of Parliament).  In using illustrations like this instead, we were trying to capture some of the mood of democracy being a messy process driven by ultimately by people, rather than faceless institutions, and make the project feel more approachable than before.

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 19.34.41.png

These are largely thanks to the illustrator on our team, Judith Carnaby, who was introduced to me by Alice Rose, who helped tidy up the copy and some of the React code in the plugin itself. The two of them being much more comfortable in German than me, and us having a native German speaker in Katarina Rasch really helped here.

Explaining how the data is used

In Germany, people tend to be a bit more wary about how data that might identify them is used than the UK – it’s not clear how it’s used, they often will flat out refuse to use a service. So, we also ended up writing some more about how it works once we had a chance to speak to Louis Knight-Webb (one of the co-founders of the project) over slack at the hackday.

There’s few more details being finalised, but that this info should be available on the main site soon, with some helpful diagrams – in the meantime, this should be visible in tweaks to copy throughout the app that should make it clearer what is happening with adverts, and what data is used in them.

If you want to extend a project at a hackday like this in future

First of all, it is possible, and all in all, I feel it worked out pretty well – I’d totally do this again, rather than try to re-invent the wheel. There’s a few things worth bearing in mind though.

Access to at least one member of the original team is important

I had about 3 hours of skype calls with Louis before starting the hackday to understand the existing project, and we spent quite some time talking about was realistic to attempt in the time we had. We cut back a lot of scope in these calls, and without them I’m pretty sure we’d have wasted a lot of time trying things that we’d realise only later weren’t feasible.

During the hackday itself, we had a slack channel open which Louis was in, which also helped massively – at one point on the Friday night, we realised were going in pretty different directions to the rest of the how the project was communicated, and catching it comparatively early saved some awkward moments the following day.

Louis made himself very available, but if I was doing this again, I’d probably sort out some pre-agreed time slots to answer questions, as being on call over a weekend might not be everyone’s idea of fun…

Typical hackday style rules about pitching change

If you’ve been to any hackday style event, it’s common to see “Pitch-Driven Development”, where you might start with a what you aim to present, then work backwards, only building the bits that will be in a presentation. Doing this in theory saves time spend on login systems, proper backends, and so on, in favour of visible features, that increase the chances of your presentation impressing judges and winning. The implication here is that if you don’t win, your effort was more or less wasted, and it has no life beyond the hackday.

In our case, we had a real working product that we were trying to adapt to a new region, so even if we didn’t catch the eye of the judges, it would still need to be useful, so this didn’t apply in the same way.

At the same time, part of the value of events like this is the coverage for a project if your team DOES win, and the doors it opens to help meet people who can help the project later. So, if you make it all about your contribution to a project than the project itself, you run the risk of everyone you present it to missing the bigger picture.

Finally, there’s the ethical aspect – misrepresenting what you actually achieved during an event when there’s at least some expectation of it being a fair competition isn’t cool, and will almost definitely come back to bite you.

Videos over presentations in future?

Quite late in the day, we realised that the visible changes to the site may not be all that easy to show during the ridiculously short two minute window we had for presenting, so we ended up with some frantic last minute changes to what we showed off.

If we were to do this again, and if we were confident we could show a video, I’d probably rely on putting together a video of what we had made for our two minute slot, rather than put together a short lived presentation for the judges. If we did this, we’d be able to make more use of it after as support material in blogposts too.

Worth a spending a weekend

In the end, I’m pretty happy with what we got together during the Friday and Saturday we had, and it was a lovely surprise to come third place.

Big thanks to Alice, Judith, Kat, Nick, Louis, Brian, and the rest of the whoTargets.me team 👍🏽

Triumphant faces – some of us even picked up some useful swag out of this hackday…

How you can find out more about Who Targets Me

If you’re in Germany and you’ve read this, I think you should visit whotargets.me, and try installing it on your browser to help us build a decent dataset to add some transparency to how political ads are used in elections.

If you’re technically inclined, the code repo for the browser extensions is on github.

There’s an official write up on the whotargets me blog, added by Louis.

If you read German, this microsite on Buzzfeed about WhoTargets.me and Dark Ads (these political ads this project was all about) is also a good resource.

If you’re in Berlin and want to chat to one of us, I live in Berlin, but Louis is in town all of this month, and probably the best person to speak to about the project  – he’s @LouisKnightWebb on twitter.