Apps for a better world, from the U.S. State Department

U.S. innovation powers the world. And U.S. assistance enables creative solutions to overcome local challenges.

The United States is a global leader in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) research and development. It offers unparalleled opportunities for quality education and business. Data transparency and the rule of law — key U.S. values — foster an open environment with space to create and innovate.

People working on laptop computers (American Institute in Taiwan)
Delegates to the 2022 Global Initiatives Symposium in Taiwan try out Harmony Square, an online game designed to raise awareness of the power of disinformation. (American Institute in Taiwan)

Even U.S. foreign policy reflects this spirit of innovation. Through programs and mobile applications, the U.S. Department of State offers new ways to celebrate diversity, monitor the environment, protect cultural heritage and even combat disinformation.

ZephAir, the air quality app

ZephAir provides reliable, real-time data on air quality in cities around the world.  Users receive location-specific recommendations for reducing exposure to air pollution, one of the leading causes of death worldwide. ZephAir collects data from monitoring sites at more than 70 U.S. embassies, consulates and partner organizations. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing began monitoring and reporting on the city’s air quality in 2008, eventually prompting China’s government to strengthen air-quality monitoring standards.

Screen image of ZephAir app with wind symbol and mountains in distance (State Dept.)
The new U.S. Department of State app ZephAir provides updates about air quality around the world. (State Dept.)

Smart devices for inclusion

Diversity, equity and inclusion are important components of U.S. policy at home and abroad. In the app world, designing smart devices with accessibility in mind has a real impact.

In Armenia, the State Department sponsors the development of Let’s Talk, a new app to help people with speech disabilities communicate independently. The first of its kind in the Armenian language, the app will allow users to easily form sentences using a combination of text and images on their device. Press a button and the app transforms it all into spoken audio.

An Armenian speech therapist is designing the app in partnership with an American professor she met while participating in the Fulbright exchange program in the United States. They entered their project proposal in a 2021 global funding competition and won a State Department grant to develop the app.

Tomb gamers, not raiders

Lara Croft and Indiana Jones, fictional characters you might know from video games and adventure movies, race to find treasures before villains can steal or destroy them.

In real life, too, the trafficking of stolen or forged art and cultural property is a big problem. It benefits transnational criminal organizations and terrorist groups, erodes the legal art market, and harms international relations. At the local level, trafficking and the subsequent loss of cultural heritage also threaten economic livelihoods tied to the tourism sector.

Through bilateral cultural property agreements (PDF, 480 KB), the State Department partners with countries to protect important cultural objects and prevent trafficking.

To raise awareness about the need to protect cultural heritage in an innovative way, the State Department and Global Game Jam Inc. launched a global video game development competition (“game jam”) in 2021. Game jams democratize problem-solving and mobilize young people to work together toward a common goal.

Still image from game with climate-related drawings and text and ethnic symbols (© Purunmachu)
Still image from the Purunmachu game (© Purunmachu)

A 2021 awards ceremony at the USA Pavilion at World Expo 2020 Dubai recognized 116 international teams for submitting video game prototypes that incorporated storytelling related to cultural heritage protection. The winning team — with members from Iran, Peru and Sweden — designed the Purunmachu game. The game is set in the ancient culture of the Chachapoyas people in the Andes mountains of Peru. Players explore the rainforest and are confronted with the dilemma of taking sacred objects for themselves or preserving them for the future.

The team won the chance to attend and present their game at the 2022 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. (You can play their game and all the Cultural Heritage Game Jam games for free!)

Combating disinformation

Developers are also designing video games to educate players about another global threat: disinformation. The online game Harmony Square helps players recognize and resist common disinformation tactics that malign actors use to undermine democratic institutions and societal trust.

Drawing of man and woman holding signs while demonstrating (© Harmony Square)
Still image from the Harmony Square game (© Harmony Square)

Dutch company DROG and the University of Cambridge developed Harmony Square with funding from the departments of State and Homeland Security. It was nominated for two awards at the 2021 Games for Change festival: Most Significant Impact and Best Learning Game. (You can play Harmony Square for free in English or in 10 other languages.)