Foursquare for flora and fauna? The ClimateWatch smartphone app

The entry on the ClimateWatch iPhone app for Welcome Swallows (Hirundo neoxena) (c) Marisa Wikramanayake, 2012

It’s a chilly cold Friday afternoon on the top of King’s Park. I have enough time for a quick glimpse at the view over the Swan River and the Perth skyline under the grey blue sky before I dash inside the Botanicals Cafe. I just manage to evade the deafening thunderstorm that then proceeds to crash down around the building. It makes me wonder, as I sit stirring sugar into hot chocolate, exactly how Richard Weatherill is planning to show me how a piece of technology functions while meandering through the botanical gardens.

The technology in question has me excited – a citizen science smartphone app. In 2010, I covered the launch of a website for a project called ClimateWatch for Science Network WA. The launch wasn’t that exciting but the project was.

It was a citizen science project – the kind of project where scientists and researchers use technology to get members of the public to help them gather, process or analyse data in huge quantities thereby getting more research done faster and presumably also a lot cheaper. Many hands make light work. Dr Lynda Chambers a Bureau of Meteorology senior researcher and ClimateWatch advisor has stated that:

“Citizen scientists play a very important role as we do not have enough scientists to monitor different areas.”

In ClimateWatch‘s case, the public records sightings of animal, bird, plant and insect species across Australia so that researchers can track not population numbers but distribution and behavioural trends and try to assess if any changes in the trends are attributable to climate change. With the website alone in the past two years, there have been over 5000 registered users and over 25,000 data points added.

When I walked away after the website launch in 2010, it was obvious that a smartphone app was needed. After two years, ClimateWatch finally has a smartphone app – the iPhone version downloadable from the App Store. The issue with citizen science apps for any sort of project is that you have to make it user friendly and easy for the section of the public that you want to contribute. It’s a question of lowering the barriers to recording or processing as much as possible.

Red Map in Tasmania does this with a smartphone app which makes sense – it’s for anglers to record marine species. They are planning to expand nationally in November this year possibly partnering with ClimateWatch so as not to double up since ClimateWatch currently does not track marine species save for whales.

Meanwhile, being part of the SkyNet couldn’t be easier. You merely download a piece of software and let it run in the background, using up any spare computer processing power to process chunks of radio astronomy data. Ancient Lives and Old Weather, both part of the Zooniverse raft of projects, use flash and java applets online to make it easy for users to help them decode papyri and note old weather patterns in ship logs.

ClimateWatch’s app was a long time coming but it does take a long time to develop an app like this AND then populate it with data that the average user can use to identify a species that they don’t know. The developers were the Frontier Group and the funding came from the John T. Reid Charitable Trusts.

So how easy is it to use? Richard Weatherill has walked up the hill and he reassures me it’s easy.  – mind bogglingly so because they have included what must be an encyclopedia’s worth of information on it.

“I don’t have a biology background but I have learnt so much by being involved in ClimateWatch and recording what I see,” he says.

Fair enough, I say to him, but are people likely to take it up if they think that there are species worth recording in urban areas? Where people are most likely to be possessing and using smartphones? My initial thoughts are that perhaps this is something more for those in the new suburbs that border the bushland and parkland areas on the outskirts of Perth’s ever expanding  metropolitan borders and even then I am not sure. I have been to these places and mobile reception isn’t always that wonderful. The only other “urban” places I can imagine using it in are along the coast and the river and in parks like Kings Park itself.

But Weatherill puts me straight and he does it nicely enough with a story.

“I went out for coffee in Victoria Park and recorded welcome swallows that were nesting in the roof of a nearby building,” he says.

“The urban areas are where we will get the most data from.

“Birds are extremely adaptable.” he says.

Next comes the question about what’s been annoying me all this time. Ever since 2010, I wanted an app for ease of recording rather than jotting things down and remembering to log them onto the site and I own a smartphone that resides in the Google Android camp. So when was the Android app coming out?

“Soon.”

How soon?

“Very soon.” he says as he grins at my annoyed expression.

We go back to the app as it is – I have a science article to write after all and an editor who no doubt owns an iPhone and is full of glee at the launch of the app. Is he sure that it is easy to use? Have they tested it? Does it take a long time to transmit information and does it swallow your bandwidth or data?

“We actually have an idea where we want to introduce it into the universities – into the undergraduate biology courses.”

I blinked. If someone had told me I could do this as part of my unit assessment, I would have swapped degrees. He continues:

“We told them to record twenty observations and some of them recorded about 200.” he says.

“We are working with some of the big universities to get this going because it’s a good way to develop the students’ interest in the environment and have them learn about behaviour and habitats.”

The list of organisations that have been helpful in some way, shape or form is also huge. The Bureau of Meterology and the University of Melbourne have been involved from the start in 2007 when ClimateWatch was first set up by EarthWatch Australia in response to the IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report. The Report collected biodiversity datasets from across the globe – Australia, though full of biodiversity hotspots, had only contributed six and there were gaps that needed to be filled.

Along the way, people involved at the Department of Environment and Conservation have suggested species that definitely need monitoring and universities have offered information and allowed trials.

Weatherill tells me that ClimateWatch is the first citizen science project of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.  Other biodiversity related projects abound in the northern half of the globe including one in the Netherlands that specifically tracks urban species and Project Noah in the US.

“See, we’re still discovering new species here in Australia,” he explains.

“That’s why we have gaps – we need to keep recording information about the species we do know of.”

And as Weatherill explains, they don’t mind repetitious data – they want to tracks trends not numbers. If enough people record a species in one location they can be sure that the information is valid and track it as a data point for behaviour and location even if everyone has recorded the same bird or animal or plant several times over.

It’s finally safe enough to venture outside so we do, Weatherill’s iPhone and my camera at the ready. It soon transpires that I am the worst person to take along on such a demonstration – I am far too excited and turn into the app equivalent of a backseat driver.

The attempt to record magpies with the ClimateWatch iPhone app (c) Marisa Wikramanayake, 2012

But it makes sense to me – if one has an app such as this and there are three magpies in front of you, then you must record them surely. He endeavours to do so and as the magpies watch quizzically and I attempt a few shots, he comes up with a negative. The connection isn’t working that well though the app is.

It strikes me that one’s personal choice of telecommunications network notwithstanding, that there might be another problem especially with birds. What if you can’t see them but you can hear them but you don’t know what species it is?

I voice this concern to Weatherill but he merely thumbs through the app and shows me that there are different sound recordings of bird calls you can play till you find the right one. Again, I am amazed but wonder how much space this app will take up on the phone.

I also realise how much of a different all round sensory experience this could make for the user. Just standing in one spot in a park and using a free app, it would seem like there was an endless supply of things to record.

That’s when I realise something fundamental – this is a game. 

There is a big question with citizen science: what’s in it for the public, the citizens? Nothing usually, save the satisfaction of having done your bit to further scientific knowledge but in some cases you get accolades for making the biggest contribution of effort or time or data. SkyNet celebrates users who process the most data.

But with ClimateWatch, no doubt just like the students in the trial, you can check how many recordings you have made and keep trying to beat it, or pick a species to track across the landscape. It’s a game for the user. It’s a flora and fauna Foursquare except that we give away their private details for them.  

Richard Weatherill using the ClimateWatch app on his iPhone to record native wisteria (Hardenbergia comptoniana) (c) Marisa Wikramanayake, 2012

So as I attempt to take a picture of Weatherill using the app to record a species of native wisteria, I have no doubts the app will take off. I’m just annoyed at having to wait for the Android version.

How soon, I ask again.

“Soon.”

Note: The article I wrote for Science Network WA can be found here – it got 1000+ hits in the first 24 hours after it was published.

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