Adventures online

These days we can find the answers to pretty much everything we want to know and everything we want to do in the touch of a button. Do you want to know how to order a coffee in spanish? Just open a translate app. No hay problema. Did you forget your sisters birthday? Just go online, order some flowers and crisis averted. Don’t feel like cooking tonight? Use Foodora. Bam, tasty food delivered by bicycle!

Seemingly free internet services are ever more pertinent in our lives. The internet is so powerful, and yet is frustratingly so ineffective at helping us sometimes. There is information out there concerning veganism but seeing as most of it is provided by independent and small sources, it can be difficult to find and is often mixed in with unreliable stuff.

Services made by large tech companies like Facebook and Google feel like the natural geography of the internet, however our experience using them is manipulated by the corporate interests of large industries which may use or oppose vegan ideas and information for their own gain. We have to go down the ‘unofficial’ and independent routes to get information which is actually important for so many of us, and untainted by corporate interests. However when we venture into these independent spaces, things feel more ‘unofficial’, the information is less well organised, and much less visible. What can we do to bridge the gap between the independants and the tech giants? How can we make the world easier for vegans to navigate?

Living as a vegan

Going vegan was the best decision I have ever made, but I’m not going to lie, it was hard in the beginning. I felt alone and found it difficult to find places to eat and shop. I searched on google ‘vegan oslo’ and a number of small blogs popped up, as well as one or two cafes. ‘Great!’ I thought, ‘at least there is something.’ One day I was out with friends in Tøyen. We had just been to an exhibition opening and were thinking of going out for dinner. I whipped out my phone and searched for ‘vegan friendly cafes in oslo’. I found the Veganmannen blog, he had a blog post where he had listed his favourite vegan friendly restaurants in Oslo. My friends looked on impatiently as I tried to work out where all the places were, writing their addresses into Google maps to see how far away we were from them. They eventually said ‘Sally this is taking way too long, I’m sure they will have something vegetarian wherever we go.’ I gave in, closed my phone, and followed them to where they wanted to go. Not surprisingly I ended up sitting with a plate of fries and a side salad whilst they ate burgers and drank milkshakes.

That experience left me sour. Why was it so hard for me to find places to eat? I eventually found the Happy Cow app, but stopped using it after finding that the places listed in the app were more suitable for vegetarians or the information was often wrong or out of date. I joined a couple of Facebook groups but I found them a little overwhelming. I found some vegan forums but their websites were difficult to navigate and hard to use on my mobile.

I began looking all over Oslo for places to eat and shop. I found Røtter on the walk home from work one day and was so happy to see that they sold vegan cheese, nut milk and vegan sausages! I noticed a cafe next to my office that sold vegan pie and cookies. I spent the next few months just eating there and shopping at Røtter. It was expensive and when I went out with my friends for dinner I would usually just eat fries. It was tough, but I would rather just eat that then put in hours of work finding places online. Going back to eating animals was out of the question.

After a while I got myself a vegan boyfriend. One day we were talking about our favourite restaurants to go out to in Oslo. ‘Oh there are not so many’ I said ‘I only really know Fragrance of The Heart, Habibi and this veggie buffet place.’ He looked at me and was surprised ‘I have never heard of those places! I mostly just eat at The Kasbah.’ I had never heard of The Kasbah. ‘Isn’t it ridiculous that it’s so difficult for us to find places to eat? There should be a map with all the vegan friendly places to eat in Oslo to make it easy for people to find stuff.’ He looked at me and raised an eyebrow ‘Well, you are a web designer. Why don’t you make it?’

I thought about it. Could I make it? I know I have the skills to design something that would work. But should it be a website? An app? Could it simply be a curated google map? I would need to do some research, hire a developer, figure out how much making this would cost me, and most importantly find more vegan friendly places in Oslo. There was so much to think about.

I knew that I needed to translate this word of mouth knowledge into a data structure and design that felt as native to the internet as Google Maps. I wanted to bridge the gap from the small independant sources and the large commercial services. I knew this was my chance to use my experience working in tech to do something special. I thought about how data is mostly used to manipulate and sell things to us. This was my chance to start creating my own data which could help people, and in turn help animals.

Making apps

I wanted to make something for people who were out and about and needed to quickly find somewhere nearby where they could eat or shop. I knew that whatever I made was going to be used primarily on mobile phones, therefore I decided to create an app. This is the start of what would eventually become Vegan Oslo.

I spent a few weeks working on an initial design for the app and drew mockups, sketched out how it might work, and thought about branding. I wanted the app to look slick and cool. I didn’t want to push the vegan message too much in the app as I wanted it to look appealing to people who might not call themselves vegan. I designed a turquoise colour scheme and a logo which was based on a map pin.

When I told people about my idea they laughed in my face. People didn’t think that a vegan app would be popular and some people questioned whether a girl like me could actually take on such a project. Even some vegans were dubious. But nevertheless the more I worked on it, the more I knew I had a great idea.

I eventually had all my designs ready and found some developers who would be willing to make it with the small budget that I had. After some weeks of development work, and a lot of life lessons about working with people in another country I finally found myself at the point where I was sat in front of my laptop hovering the mouse over the ‘publish’ button. I had spent the past two months working my ass off on this project, aside from all the technical stuff with the app, I had physically been all over Oslo looking for places to include in the app, as well as making a website and social media profiles to promote it and somehow held down my 9-5 at the same time.

I hit publish. After that moment everything has moved so fast. We started the app with 30 places and less than 1000 users. The press wrote about the app, more people found it and started recommending it to their friends, the places that we featured in the app posted about us online and the ball really started rolling! 

I was shocked at how popular it became. It was just a little iPhone app but people loved it and everyday I would get messages from people thanking me for making their life easier. I knew I had to make it for Android too, but how? I had blown all my money on developing the iOS version. I also found out that there were more vegan friendly places in Oslo than I could keep up with. It became apparent that this job was way too big for one person to handle, I was stressed and didn’t know what to do.

My prayers were answered when I met a lovely guy called Christian Ihle. He reached out to me and told me he loved Vegan Oslo, and that he wanted to help me make a Vegan Oslo android app. My boyfriend, Nick Hagger also stepped up to help out with adding places to the app. A dream team was born. After we made the Android app we stepped up our game and decided to expand the concept so that the app covered more cities, we changed the way the whole app was set up, did a redesign, and so Vegan Oslo became Vegan Norway. 

In the space of two years the three of us have achieved a lot. We now cover Oslo, Trondheim, Stavanger and Bergen. We have a found ourselves with a little team of volunteers which help us find places to add to the app. We are (slowly but surely) adding features and updates to the app, and we have increased our user base to over 11,000 with over 500 vegan friendly places listed. As well as our work on the app we have spoken at events, organised pop up restaurants, written articles, blog posts and so much more. It’s been a blast!

Moving forward

Our project has made veganism visible and accessible in Norway. It has inspired so many people to go vegan, and helped so many others try vegan things every now and again. We have also helped so many businesses to create greener options, helped them promote their vegan products and shown them that there are over 200,000 people in Norway who choose not to eat animals.

I sometimes think back to my experiences before I had the app; when I only knew two places in Oslo that had vegan food. I think back to that day when I went to the exhibition opening in Tøyen with my friends. If I had the Vegan Norway app back then I would have been able to find somewhere close by that had great vegan options in less than 30 seconds. I’m so glad that people who have just turned vegan, are new to the city, or are just on vacation, can have access to so much information simply by downloading our app. I love getting emails and messages from people who are using the app, reading about their different experiences with it absolutely makes my day and makes all our hard work worth it. Looking at how much we have achieved in such a short amount of time and the impact it has had makes me so excited for what is coming next.

This project is a labour of love; through making the Vegan Norway app we have learnt so much about business, technology, and veganism. Rather than devising a plan to make the most profit possible, we believe that building a business around core ethical values is more our style. We might not have a big corporate office, lots of money or the resources to innovate as fast as other technology companies, but our passion, drive and creativity is boundless. Our team has become almost like a little family, we support each other, learn from each other, and celebrate our achievements together.

For me personally, Vegan Norway has empowered me to make the world a better place. There have been many instances in my life where I have felt powerless and insignificant. Power is intrinsically linked to wealth and I have never really had any money. Honestly, I still don’t have any money but what I do have is information and data. Sure, it might not be much in the grand scheme of things but I do have a significant amount of data about vegan places to eat and shop. Data which I have curated myself, on a platform that I have made myself. Our data and platform cannot be tampered with or controlled by external corporate interest, it is simply ours. 

Information is power but the real power is in the way we use and understand it. As we move forward we are focusing on ways our app and the data we have collected could empower people to make more compassionate choices. We hope for a fairer and greener future for everyone, and we will do what we can to achieve it.