Archive for the ‘Test Drive’ Category

Citizen Science Test Drive: Flex your inner-astronomer’s muscle with Zooniverse

By May 17th, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Comment

Courtesy: NASA

Courtesy: NASA

As part of our ongoing series, “Citizen Science Test Drive,” first-person reviews of citizen science apps, platforms, tools and projects, we present a guest post from Hal Hodson, a science and technology journalist, based in London, UK.

There’s a misconception about astronomy, and it’s to do with the telescopes. Tell someone that you’ve got a degree in astrophysics and they’ll likely start asking questions about all your romantic late nights training telescopes to the skies, unlocking the mysteries of the universe, one star at a time. The Arecibo Dish, Mauna Kea, Chile’s desert-based and imaginatively named Very Large Telescope; they all lend astronomy a dramatic figure – late nights, just you and the universe.That’s not quite the truth.

Only the most masterful astrophysicists have any say in the operation of the most magnificent telescopes, although it’s true that anyone can do science in their back garden with smaller scale set up. Now the internet lets anyone flex their astronomer’s muscles online, applying their brain to help professional scientists analyze images from some of the world’s cutting edge telescopes. It’s called Zooniverse, a collection of astronomical citizen science projects which facilitates anyone with an internet connection and a computer to increase our understanding of galaxies, the Sun, Moon, supernovae, nebulae, and even exoplanets.

I start off with analyzing merging galaxies, million of stars flowing together, interacting gravitationally to form new shapes. When two spiral galaxies like our own Milky Way come together, it’s thought to result in a elliptical galaxy – a spheroid ball of stars. By picking the computer-modelled merger which best matches pictures of an actual galaxy merger, I can help astronomers refine their models.The website itself is simple, but works seamlessly. You need to make an account, but it takes 15 seconds with an email address and password. There’s no email confirmation, so you’re free to go straight to the science after sign up. Each project comes with a tutorial explaining how to use the application, or you can just dive right in. For instance, the Planet Hunters project gets you classifying light curves right away, but there is a tutorial available. (A light curve is a measurement of the light emitted by stars as their brightness varies, either due to planets or other stars crossing the stellar face, or natural variability ). Beyond just the satisfaction of contributing, you can also track your progress – how many stars you have classified, how many potential planets you’ve found.

I’m pretty excited about trying a project called “Search for exploding stars”. I’ll be finding candidate supernovas in sky surveys taken by the Palomar Observatory in California, candidates which astronomers may then follow up. But there’s a problem, the 640,000 people taking part in Zooniverse projects worldwide have polished off the Palomar data – all the supernova candidates have been found. Zooniverse informs me of this with a pop-up, and suggests I try “Solar Stormwatch“, which asks me to spot solar storms in images from Nasa’s STEREO spacecraft. The implementation of projects on Zooniverse is quite varied. Solar Stormwatch comes with a very slick interface, with great training on how to spot and measure solar storms. The galaxy merger project is much simpler, just asking me to pick best matches, requiring almost no training.

Behind all of the projects, the Zooniverse platform itself keeps track of your actions, measuring your progress across each one. Zooniverse also has a couple of outlier projects: using old shipping logs to model Earth’s climate; categorizing killer whale songs; even helping SETI look for alien signals in data from the Kepler mission. What’s so intriguing about the platform is that it harnesses your brain’s computational power and analytical ability to do things that even super computers can’t. In a world where software and hardware are doing more and more, it’s nice to know that old fashioned human brains are good for something.

Citizen Science Test Drive: Apps for birding.

By April 4th, 2012 at 1:15 am | Comment 1

The first blog post in our new series titled “Citizen Science Test Drive,” (where we present first-person reviews of citizen science apps, tools and platforms) featured reviews of three nature apps by SciStarter contributor Lisa Gardner.  Today, we bring you Kate Atkins, a regular SciStarter contributor and avid birder. Here, Kate shares her list of personal, favorite apps for birding.  If you would like to contribute to this series and share your experiences with our community, email

The best citizen science apps for birding used to be iOS-only. I’ve known many an Android birder to switch to iPhone or buy an iPod Touch because the apps on that side of the divide were so darn good. But with Android smartphones now commanding more than half of the market, the gap is starting to close.  Here’s the best of both worlds.

Finding Birds

iOS, $19.99
DemoApple Store
Figuring out where the birds are and when can be a challenge, particularly for new birdwatchers. Not so with BirdsEye from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

BirdsEye is precisely a bird-finding app, based on the citizen-driven eBird database. Want to see a specific bird? BirdsEye will show you the most recent, closest sighting and give you directions. Want to see what birds have been observed at a specific hotspot over the last 30 days? What rare or notable birds have been seen near you recently? Done and done.

Bird information is something of an aside, but it’s top-shelf sidematter: images from VIREO, sounds from the Macauley Library, and extra tips per bird from Kenn Kaufman.

While helping people find and view birds, this app also teaches newer birders which birds can be found where and when. Yes, this one is still iOS only, but an Android version is likely to materialize soon.

144409572Audubon Birds – A Field Guide to North American Birds
iOS $19.99
Android $9.99
DemoApple StoreAndroid/Google

The Audubon Birds app recently added bird-finding functionality via eBird to their existing field guide app.  Study birds at home, on the subway, or in the park, then go find and observe birds in the real world with a little help from your friends at Cornell and Audubon.

Recording Sightings

A good birder keeps field notes. A citizen scientist shares the data. Cornell’s eBird is the key crowd-sourced database, so the ability to either directly submit to eBird or to export lists in eBird format is a must-have feature for any logging app.

If you are not familiar with the project and wish to report your bird sightings using one of these apps, I strongly urge you to first create an eBird account and use it in a browser before taking the plunge with mobile data-logging.

iOS, $9.99
Android, $19.99
Demo | Apple Store | Android/Google

Very simply, this app records and uploads sightings to eBird, from your fingers straight to Ithaca. I’d like to see it more deeply connected to my eBird account, but for base functionality and total simplicity, BirdLog is indispensable.

BWDRoundedIconBirdwatcher’s Diary
iOS $12.99
DemoApple Store

A nice option if you want the bells and whistles BirdLog lacks. This app is pre-loaded with US, Mexico and UK bird lists. Add your locations via GPS, and list for them again and again. Exports to both eBird and Google Map formats so you can easily share your adventures.

The developers have carefully crafted interactions for use in the field. Big day and group count usage is well thought-out, and as your list archive grows, the more fun it will be to study your own patterns. This app makes a compelling case to trade in your notebook for your phone.

Extensive feature run-down complete with screenshots here.

Study & Skill-building

Before, during, and after birding, reference materials and study guides are key elements to the birding life. Most marquis field guides have wonderful app versions with extra illustrations, photos, audio files and links to web resources.

Each is a little different, so it’s worth some thought before purchasing one over another. I’m partial to the Sibley guide for its illustrations, audio files, and side-by-side bird comparison, but beginners may prefer iBird for its guided search.

Field guides

Birding by ear

Honorable mention

  • Nemesis Code’s Bird Codes and Band Codes apps. If you want to be a real ace in the field, these apps will teach you the 4-letter banding codes for birds. Learning these will cut your data entry time, and help you interpret bands if you see them on birds in the wild.

I use some non-birding specific apps to enhance my days in the field. If you’re as phone-fiddly as I am, and like tramping around outside, find out what my home screens hold at Birding Philly.

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

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!