Phone apps for citizen scientists: What are you packing?

By March 10th, 2010 at 5:04 pm | Comments (2)

Distant Suns IPhone App Screenshot of Orion Constellation

Distant Suns Iphone App

One of the many reasons I love to sneak up to Point Reyes is the night sky.  It’s often stunningly clear up there compared to foggy, urban San Francisco, offering a gorgeous celestial show to anyone inclined to look up. But on a recent getaway, I was bummed to find out that I’d forgotten to pack my star chart.

Blurg! How would I get reacquainted with my beloved constellations?

At the national park’s visitor center I asked the ranger where I might buy a new chart. She surprised me by pulling out her iPod Touch to demonstrate Distant Suns, an app that I can only describe as “cosmic”—even in its stripped-down, free mode.

Distant Suns is essentially a planetarium in your pocket, identifying the stars, planets, constellations, comets, nebulae, and other astronomical objects visible at your precise location at whatever time of night you choose. You can search for items you’re particularly interested in or let the “tour guide” show you the best stuff that’s up there at the moment.

I soon learned about an equally impressive sky guide app called Pocket Universe, and it dawned on me that there must be dozens of similar apps out there for all types of citizen scientists—not just star geeks like me. So…

What are you packing? Please let us know of any useful citizen science smart phone apps that you recommend. We’d like to build up a nice long list to share with everyone.

Noah app on the iPhone

Noah iPhone app

To get the list off to a good start, in addition to these astronomical apps, here are a couple more impressive, down-to-earth tools I recently learned about.

  • Project Noah (networked organisms and habitats) is, according to its website, “a tool that nature lovers can use to explore and document local wildlife and a common technology platform that research groups can use to harness the power of citizen scientists everywhere.” This app has a field guide to wildlife near your current location. You can add to its species database by photographing and “tagging” organisms you observe. And you can participate in defined missions that “range from photographing specific frogs or flowers to tracking migrating birds or invasive species.”
  • BirdsEye: An impressive and, at $19.99, a relatively expensive aid for birdwatchers, this app lets you know where various birds have been sighted recently. It also includes an audio library to help you identify birds by their calls. The New York Times Gadgetwise blog has a full review.

We look forward to getting your suggestions. Just add them as comments to this post. Thanks.

2 Responses to 'Phone apps for citizen scientists: What are you packing?'

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  1. There are a bunch of field guides for flowers at the iTunes store. Florafolio, an interactive field guide of plants found in the northeastern united states. there are a few others for particular regions of california (SMM plants, SGM plants, etc). There’s a new line of apps called WildObs but I haven’t seen them yet.

    iBird is more of a field guide – some people who download BirdsEye think they’re getting iBird. WildLab is new, trying to be another BirdsEye, I think.

    David Wescott

    11 Mar 10 at 2:14 pm

  2. Thanks for those suggestions, David.

    I forgot to mention that the “What’s Invasive” project has developed apps for Android phones and iPhones.

    This project asks volunteers to help map the presence of invasive plant species. Info on those apps is at

    Michael Gold

    12 Mar 10 at 4:15 pm

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