Apps transform cellphone users into citizen scientists

Sophie Gerrick, a fourth year student at UCLA, uses an app called Project Budburst to monitor trees as the seasons change.

Just a few years ago, coming back from an early morning hike with some pretty photos was about as productive as you could get. Now, new mobile apps make it easy for nature lovers to contribute to science too.

Sophie Gerrick, a fourth year student at UCLA uses an app called Project Budburst to monitor trees as the seasons change.

“We're at a really interesting looking tree which I happen to know is sycamore tree in this case," she says as she takes a picture of a tree with her phone. 

"[My phone] automatically finds the location for me and it’s pretty accurate,” says Gerrick.

Recording exact locations and times for every observation is a cumbersome part of collecting data. With these apps, that’s taken care of.

"I can add any notes that I want, so I’m gonna say that all the leaves have fallen and that the plant is at the end of this stage," Gerrick says.

She hits done and her phone sends the info to the Project BudBurst database -- a public database that scientists can access to see if plants are hitting growth stages at the right time. Other apps track things like air pollution, endangered species, and water conditions.

James Alamillo, the Urban Programs Manager at Heal the Bay, an organization that works to protect Southern California beaches, says these “citizen science” apps make it easier to spot suspicious patterns.

“Now you have a mechanism for collecting a lot of data, from a lot of sets of eyes, and a lot of set of users that before didn’t exist or that was unknown,” he says.

Alamillo says as improvements are made to weed out inaccurate information, more academics are getting on board. Having an army of volunteers can help them save time and money. Project BudBurst, for example, has over 13,000 users.

Sophie Gerrick says being part of that community makes her feel useful.

“Feels like I’m actually doing something, something in your spare time and feel like you’re really being productive,” she says.

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