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Tuesday, 23 June 2015

BushScience: Smartphone scientists


a device that combines a cell phone with a hand-held computer, typically offering Internet access, data storage, email capability etc (

a cellular phone that is not only more intelligent and productive than its' owner but would also be rescued from a flood before the owners' mother-in-law (Urban dictionary).

See also: Smartphone Drone / Zombie

A person that is constantly focussed on his / her smartphone, ignoring the environment and especially other people (Urban Dictionary)

Regardless where you personally stand on smartphones (and I realise there are some who would love to take that last sentence literally) I think its probably fair to say they are here to stay. For starters...

"Hi, my name is Richard and I have a smartphone..."

I use it everyday and have exactly the same issues with them that many other people do: short battery life, no signal when you really need it, doesn't fit in my pocket etc etc.

I use it for taking pictures (although NEVER 'selfies'!)
I use it for Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, Linked in and various other 'apps' of that sort.
I use the maps and GPS / Sat Nav functions.
I use the internet.
I text.
I even (really pushing the boat out here) use it to make phone calls!

To me, and I'm sure to many others, it is more than just a personal toy or electronic brain transplant:
I use it to receive and send e-mails regarding work.
A lot of the social media applications I use are work related; the @Riddywood twitter account, the
Bushcraft Education facebook account, this Bushcraft Education blog etc.
Many of the photo's on this blog are taken using smartphones.

They really can be effective tools as well as toys for teenagers and twenty-somethings.
I want to tell you how they can be used as a tool in real world scientific study and monitoring, and how you can be a smartphone scientist!

My Masters degree dissertation was titled "Utilisation of carrion by Silphidae (Coleoptera) in lowland heathland, UK". I know - a thrilling title if ever there was one, loosely translated I was studying how one family of predominantly carrion feeding beetles in heathland environments colonised dead stuff. I enjoyed it anyway, but I also relied on my phone extensively to gather my results.

A map of my study site overlaid with
position of 'dead stuff'' as recorded
on my phone.
It entailed placing loads of dead rabbits under shopping baskets (to stop the larger scavengers such as foxes or crows getting there first) on an area of heathland and catching beetles which came to visit using pitfall traps (plastic cups dug into the ground). A very complicated experiment - not! Below are some thoughts I had then and since oh how smart phones can be used in real world conservation science!

1 - It was essential that I was able to find my dead rabbits again - there were 32 of them in total in an area the size of over 120 football pitches (88 hectares), most of which was covered in vegetation. Remembering exactly where they all were would have been a challenge to say the least so I logged the precise co-ordinates of each location with the GPS on my phone.

2 - During my time on the heathland I saw several species that I did not recognise, by taking pictures on my smart phone I was able to identify these species when I got back to where I was staying where I had access to ID guides - remember to set your phone to geo-tag your photos, that way you won't have to remember exactly where you saw it!

For most people this is going to be the most useful or most widely used tool, to illustrate just how easy it is to get decent images from smart phones have a look at the images to the right, all of these were taken using a smart phone and provide sufficient detail to make an ID to family level at least and to species for most (ID's at bottom).

3 - But even by doing this I had missed a couple of tricks:
There are numerous apps you can download which provide ID tips for a wide range of plant and animal species, including tracks and signs.

4 - As it turned out there weren't any at that time for the species I was trying to identify but if I had known in advance what I was going to be trying to identify I could have searched for pdf ID guides, available from various websites, and saved them to my phone for viewing later using a pdf viewer like Adobe Acrobat.

5 - If getting a correct ID isn't time restrained there are apps and online communities which will assist - iSpot being perhaps one of the biggest that I am aware of. With these you can upload a photo direct from your phone and other users can help to get a correct ID. A very useful resource and one I have used many times.

6 - For some groups there are also species recording apps which feed into national recording databases - the BTO's Bird Track is a good example.

7 - During my project I noted down my observations and numbers the old fashioned way - paper and pencil. I could (if my battery life had been a bit better - take note Smart Phone manufacturers!!) entered these figures onto my phone and then transferred them to my computer to allow me to compile and analyse the data. If a more simple analysis had been appropriate I could of used a spreadsheet app like Google's Sheets and done the entire project on the phone!

This is just a short run down on how our smart phones, so often under utilised, but over used (if you understand my meaning) can be put to use in real world scientific monitoring and recording - and I really have only just scratched the surface, largely because I'm not aware myself of all the features my own smart phone has! You don't need to be an expert to use any of these features, just take a picture and upload it to where experts can see them. If you set your phone to geo-tag your photos then the job is done. Between the species record (image), location (provided by the geo-tag) and time and date (saved with the image info) a complete record can be made. Easy!

Every app I have mentioned is free to download and often there are multiple choices which will do the same job so you can choose your favourite. IOS or Android, Windows or whatever other operating system your phone runs - all have a suite of apps that will enable you to contribute as a 'citizen scientist'. And if you want to go the whole hog, there are equally as many more detailed ID apps which you can purchase, replacing the need (to some extent) for bird books or wildflower guides.

Link a range of these apps with a water-proof and / or drop proof case (and a back up battery!) and you really are set! Some of the newest phones are water proof these days which is brilliant.

When you get out there being smart phone scientists send us examples of your pictures or species you have recorded via our Facebook page or the Riddy Wood Project Twitter account @Riddywood so we can see to! Enjoy!


 Photo descriptions: Top to bottom - Red-headed Cardinal Beetle, Lesser Stag Beetle, Ant Beetle, Wasp Beetle, Rufous-Shouldered Long-Horn Beetle, Large Red Damselfly, Angle Shades Moth. 

For more pictures and more species records check out our Biodiversity pages on the Riddy Wood website.

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