Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mobile Citizen Science Apps: Trends and Initial Thoughts


The continued rise of citizen science comes at a very interesting time.  The tools and data available to everyday people rival those of leading scientists from just a short while ago.  The Internet provides access to world-class data, and home computers give people the power to analyze it.   But now the popularity of mobile smart phones adds a whole new layer.  Now data collection and manipulation doesn't just need to happen at your desk, but anywhere you can go with a fully charged battery.

A few months ago I put together a web page highlighting many existing mobile citizen science projects looking for participants.  While many of these are high-quality applications there are still relatively few for all the promise they bring.  So I want to help this field grow. 

For this first post I'm looking at general themes seen in the most recent crop of mobile apps available for iOS and Android devices.  I think we'll see some trends in how they are being used and what types of projects are most suited to the mobile environment.  I also want to lay out what people have already done to encourage others to strike out in new areas.  That's where an upcoming post will fit in...hopefully identifying some innovative ways project researchers can take advantage of all these devices have to offer.

  • Location Services: Most smart phones and tablets include location trackers using GPS technology.  With the value of mobile devices being there ability to collect data anywhere, maintaining accurate location data is a natural.  For example, night skies are darkest in remote parts of the country and these are the best place for everyday people to spot meteors.  So the NASA MeteorCounter app is sure to collect this ground location data while recording user inputs on meteor brightness on location in the sky.
  • Guided Checklists: Ensuring that data is not just accurate but also complete is an important hurdle for many citizen science projects.  People may begin participating but may not see things through to the end or may forget key steps in the experimental process.  Researchers have tackled this by including guided checklists and fillable forms with automatic uploads to their apps.  This ensures all necessary data is collected and that answers to potential questions can be answered just-in-time as the participant is collecting it.  A good example of this is the Nature's Notebook app which has users initially set up the plants and animals they will track, and then each observation period the app walks them through each targeted species
  • Camera Functionality: Most mobile apps include various degrees of photo integration. of photo functionality.  For some (such as the CreekWatch app) the camere lets participants record the scene they are observing and document it for posterity.  This allows users to go back and refine their observation later and for project managers to review the data.  Other apps, such as LeafSnap, go one step further with the device performing it's own analysis.  In this case performing the tough task of plant species identification.  This can be difficult for untrained human eyes, so the computer runs a leaf picture through its database to find close matches, and then having results confirmed by the user.  It's like having a phenology expert in your pocket!
  • Transit and Traveling Data: Mobile devices don't just let you make observations in far-flung places, they also let you record observations in a series of places while traveling.  More than just a snapshot in time, transit data can show change over a short amount of time or provide a tracking over time and distance.  Splatter Spotter uses this capability to understand animal encounters not just in individual sites, but along entire stretches of highway.
  • Social Connectivity: One of the top uses for mobile devices are for social networking, so many apps have included social concepts to their apps.  Some use Google+ and other providers as a login and personal identifier, and others allow observations collected through the app to be posted on Facebook.  The WildObs and WildLab-Bird are great examples of both these techniques.
  • Badging: One of the more recent innovations in crowdsourcing and citizen science gaming is the use of badges.  These reward progress and offer incentives for achieving milestones in the project.  In the citizen science realm, these can be offered to participants who meet certain participation goals (e.g., report five observations, collect data on ten separate days) or to reward important finds (e.g., special badges for finding rare birds).  These have been used quite successfully by the Project NOAH app which uses them not just to improve the user experience, but to help them "compete" against the many similar biological observation apps offered by other researchers.
  • Filling Free Time:  Let's face it, mobile devices aren't just for calling and keeping track of business meetings.  They are also great for playing games on the subway or waiting for a dinner date to return from the restroom.  People just want a short distraction while they're on the go.  The GalaxyZoo mobile app fits this bill nicely.  As an offshoot of the existing Galaxy Zoo: Hubble project, they've designed an interface for ranking galaxies that users can complete in less than a minute and have it uploaded as part of the growing body of data about galactic shapes and sizes.  So don't just waste time playing Tetris, help understand how the Universe was formed.
These are my initial thoughts.  But what do you think?  I'd love to get your opinions as well and hopefully flesh some of these concepts out further.  This is all citizen science so I'm hoping we can work through this together.  If we're successful, that just means more fun citizen science apps foe everyone to enjoy.  What could beat that? 



SEE MORE IN THE MOBILE CITIZEN SCIENCE APPS SERIES:
  1. Trends and Initial Thoughts (today)
  2. Ideas for the Future (Tomorrow)
  3. Opportunities for Museums (Next Week)

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