Citizen Science Test Drive: Three Mobile Apps for Exploring Nature

By March 29th, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Comment

Today, we are launching a  series of SciStarter blog posts titled, “Citizen Science Test Drive” where we will present first-person reviews of citizen science apps, tools and platforms. If you would like to contribute to this series and share your experiences with our community, email john@scistarter.com.

Here’s my review of three mobile apps for exploring nature!

I often get sidetracked after using the W-A-L-K word out loud in front of my dog. Sometimes, I am looking for misplaced sneakers or sunglasses, but today I am downloading a few citizen science apps to my iPhone in hopes of turning our midday walk into an urban naturalist adventure.

Mia joins in a citizen science adventure

Mia joins in a citizen science adventure

Mila, a fluffy herding mix, sits at attention, impatiently staring at me with her “didn’t you say we were going for a walk?” expression as I poke at the phone and the app icons appear on the screen.

For most dogs and the people attached to the far end of their leashes, a walk around the neighborhood is a regular part of the day. This is especially in urban areas where fenced in backyards aren’t common. Taking the dog for a walk around my city is one of my favorite things to do, especially on a sunny afternoon, and this happens to be a sunny afternoon. If we are going to make a transect through the neighborhood, why not be a citizen scientist along the way?

I choose three citizen science apps: SciSpyiNaturalist, Project Noah. They sound like the high tech naturalist gear I’ll need. All three center around the same idea – that with all the people on our planet wandering around looking at plants and animals, why not capture the information they see? It could be useful, or at least fun.

Five blocks with SciSpy

Tree! Crow! Some sort of vine! I take pictures and make several observations in the first couple of blocks of our walk. There is also a “pets” category, so I take a picture of Mila and add that too. In this app, one must take a picture to submit for each spotting, which means that wildlife that isn’t photogenic (like the tiny birds that I can hear more than I can see) don’t seem like good candidates to record. The interface and data entry view are easy to use even when I am entering the information with one hand while my other hand clutches the leash. I’m not quite sure if there is any scientific need for this data, but it is fun and easy to make observations and it’s getting me to look at my neighborhood in a different way. I’m on an urban treasure hunt for wildlife.

Five blocks with iNaturalist

On the maps screen, I see my blue dot wandering about and I add observations as we walk with pictures, species names, and location. On all of these apps, the location information is automatically generated by the phone’s global positioning system (GPS), which seems to be on the right block. My blue dot wanders a few more blocks and I find another couple of plants to add. Mammals seem to be scarce today unless you count people and dogs.

I discover that I need to login to sync my observations with the iNaturalist database and allow researchers to use the data. It’s a little cumbersome to do the signup process on the phone since I have to go to the iNaturalist web site, then check email for confirmation, then go back to the website and login with the app. This is a bit challenging when there is a dog tugging at her leash and we wander on.

Five blocks with Project Noah

Aha! I can join missions, which seems like a much more direct contribution to scientific research! Mila, like most dogs, seems like a natural contributor for Project Squirrel so I choose that mission. But, alas, Mila is chasing the squirrels away, and I am unable to take their pictures for the mission. The “new spotting” button comes in handy when I see pigeons wandering the sidewalk. I’m not sure if there is a pigeon mission, but this way I can capture the observation as it is happening instead of browsing the missions.

In the “fieldguide”, there is a screen that allows me to see what wildlife has been spotted nearby. Someone spotted a duck in a nearby park yesterday and the plants on a green roof. And there is a silver maple on 11th Street. A fox squirrel was spotted near the library several months ago. I wonder where he is now. Someone spotted a spider at the state capital last year.

In summary, I realize that while the three apps have their differences, all changed the way I was looking at my city. Smartphones are usually thought of as a tool to make us oblivious of the environment that we are in. When focused on the screen of the phone, we are not noticing our environment. So many of the people I pass on the sidewalk are holding smartphones. How many are uploading pictures of the plants and animals they see along the way?

So, I challenge you all to download an app that gets you focused on the environment around you and test it out for yourself. Get out your phone, spy on the wildlife, take pictures, and join the wildlife paparazzi!

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