Smartphone App Tracks Invasive Species

by Cathy Boyle

in Mobile Apps,Mobile Research,Smartphones

Eric Graham, Associate Development Engineer - CENS, What's Invasive Community Data Collection

A day in the park doesn’t necessarily mean that nature lovers are off the grid.  With nearly 4 billion mobile users worldwide, odds are good that along with a picnic, park visitors will have a cell phone with them.  The What’s Invasive team is leveraging those odds for science by asking park visitors across the US (and currently as far as Denmark) to help them find and track invasive plant species.

The National Park Service of the United States puts the concept of invasive plants into perspective in this way: “invasive plants displace native plants by out-competing with them for water, light, nutrients, and space. As native plants are lost, native animals that rely on those plants for food and shelter are threatened.”

What’s Invasive is a mobile App (available now for Android and soon iPhone) that extends the reach of scientific observation by giving the average park visitor the knowledge and ability to find, document and record the exact location of invasive species within a park.  One minute after inputting the data, the App uploads the findings to a database accessible by a variety of environmental organizations and scientists.

Eric Graham is an Associate Development Engineer at the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing (CENS) and is also a key player in the development of What’s Invasive.  Through an email exchange, he explained to me why park visitors with mobile phones are ideal for tracking invasive species, how the data will be used and how to go about finding an App developer for yourself.  He also shared his thoughts on what other environmental Apps are worth checking out.  Here is a condensed and edited version of our email discussion:

Q: Why are you using mobile phones as a method of monitoring/detecting invasive species (as opposed to other methods)?

A: The first step in combating invasive species is detection.  A rapid response is often needed as the second step to avoid having the invasive reproduce which would require a greater effort for removal.  Detecting weeds involves creating weed maps from surveys using professionals with GPS equipment.  For 
instance, the Santa Monica Mountains commissioned a weed map and paid 2-3 professionals thousands of dollars over the course of 2 years to walk all the trails.  This process produced a map, but by the time it was finished it was 2 years out of date.

Leveraging the thousands of people who own smartphones and who visit parks to snap pictures of weeds in a top-10 list would not only help maintain an up-to-date weed map, it would also help educate parks visitors.

Q: How does the method of using mobile phones in the hands of average people compare to other methods of observation?

A: Some weeds are easier to identify than others.  Weeds tend to be different from natural vegetation and so most are conspicuous and easy to identify. Our contact in the Santa Monica Mountains examined user-collected images using the What’s Invasive system and determined that 90% of the photos were 
correctly identified.  However, some species are so similar to native vegetation that only trained botanists can tell them apart, and so this is more difficult.

Q: How do you plan to use the information you collect to combat these invasive species?

A: The data collected are freely available the instant that they are collected and can be downloaded by anyone.  We are working with EDDMapS to get these data automatically inserted into their
 database where they can be used by officials combating weeds.  We are not in the business of combating invasive species, but are trying to make these data as widely available as possible to the people and organizations who need them.

Q: Are there other institutions, organizations or social groups that are tapping “citizen scientists” in similar ways?

A: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is the master of this and their citizen science programs are abundant, all focused on birds.  NASA’s Be A Martian and Galaxy Zoo are great, too.  There are also websites that help individuals find projects of interest to work on:  Volunteer Match and and Science for Citizens.

Q: How would others go about finding people to help them build Apps that might make a social impact?

A: There are a TON of programmers out there who are building Apps.  If an organization wanted to build an App but did not know anyone doing this, then they could try to contract out through Elance or contact their local university computer science department to help support those students.  I

Q: What mobile Apps or mobile projects do you think are the most useful or interesting in terms of environmental observation, monitoring or education (aside from What’s Invasive, of course.)

A: Project Noah and WildLabs have Apps that just require a photo upload, so this is easy and fun to participate in.  Ease of use makes What’s Invasive and the soon to be released Project Bud Burst Apps also good choices and they also collect more information than the previous two mentioned so they have more scientific value.  CalFlora is going to put out an App where you can track plants, but you need to know the genus/species and then collect a lot more information that they want, so it will be very useful for scientists but less user-friendly for your casual citizen scientist.  The interplay between collecting scientifically useful data and ease-of-use is something that we are trying to get right — but there are 
many approaches.

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