Nature Apps – The Benefits

According to Statista, the number of smartphone users worldwide was 1.57 billion in 2014 and is expected to increase to almost 3 billion by 2020 (Statista, 2018). The sheer number of units available alone makes them particularly appealing for use in conservation research, add in their size, relative affordability and the technology packed inside, and they have the potential to become research powerhouses. Funding for conservation projects, especially projects that are interdisciplinary in nature (Broham et al., 2016), is often less than other fields. These benefits should be incredibly appealing to researchers, but (in my opinion) doubly appealing to students, who generally have even less funds.
When I picture a traditional conservation researcher in the field, I see someone trudging through a muddy forest, binoculars around the neck, field guide in one hand, map containing hand-noted observation sites in the other, and a backpack containing additional data sheets and tools for data collection. The researcher always appears to be slightly over-burdened and a little off-kilter as they move from observation site to observation site. My view is really a bit of myself during my undergrad research, but I doubt I was alone in my experience. I finished my bachelor’s degree the same year I received my first smartphone, so I was never able to experience its usefulness in the field. Fast-forward almost eight years, and now maps, data sheets, and cumbersome field guides can be condensed into a single device carried in my pocket (Arts et al., 2015; Teacher et al., 2013; Lwin & Murayama, 2011) – keeping my hands free for my binoculars and camera.
I downloaded the Sibley Birds app for a recent trip to the Whidbey Island area of Washington, and found it incredibly easy to use when hiking (really wished I had this during undergrad). The reduced weight was also a welcomed relief, considering the size of my normal North American bird guide, and the audio files containing numerous calls and songs was incredibly helpful as I still struggle with birding by ear.
The advanced technology already built into our phones – internet access; GPS; microphones; cameras capable of capturing images, video, and read QR/barcodes can be harnessed by applications (apps) designed with conservation in mind (Teacher et al., 2013). Citizen Science apps are an excellent example of apps that take advantage of smartphone features, particularly apps like INaturalist and eBird allow users to take photos of plants and wildlife, upload the pictures and specific location of the sighting, and then share and discuss with the communities created within the apps themselves (Arts et al., 2015). Apps like Epicollect5 and Zooniverse add an extra feature that allows anyone to create a citizen science project and collect data on any topic from all anyone with access to the app or website (Teacher et al., 2013). The apps mentioned here have the exciting benefit of getting the general public involved in scientific research through their contributions.
In the insect world, Zilli et al. (2014) created an app to identify the mating call of Cicadetta montana – the New Forest cicada, that had not been observed in over 20 years at the time of their publishing. The app asked visitors to the New Forest to record 30 seconds of sound on their smartphones. The audio files were analyzed and the users were alerted whether they may have recorded the endangered cicada species (Zilli et al., 2014).
Not only are the apps themselves useful for research, additional sensors can be used to increase the power of the apps themselves. For example, an ultrasonic microphone can be purchased for a smartphone to allow the iBat or Batmobile applications to capture bat ecolocation calls (Zilli et al., 2014, Teacher et al., 2013). Similar products are present and/or in the development process for other animals, such as birds or insects, though birds have an incredible number of songs and calls that make automated identification tricky (Zillie et al., 2014).
As with all things, there are potential downsides to smartphone apps for conservation. My next post will explore those as my Smartphones for Nature series continues. Until then, why not check out a few of the apps described here and describe your experience in the comments!
Yours in nature,
Works cited in this post
Arts, K., van der Wal, R., & Adams, W. M. (2015). Digital technology and the conservation of nature. Ambio,44(Suppl 4), 661–673.
Bromham, L., Dinnage, R., and Hua, X. (2016). interdisciplinary research has consistently lower funding success. Nature, 534, 684-687.
Lwin, K.K. and Murayama, Y. (2011). Web-based GIS system for real-time field data collection using a personal mobile phone. Journal of Geographic Information System, 3(4), 382-389. doi:10.4236/jgis.2011.34037
Statista. (2018). wide from 2014 to 2020. Retrieved from
Teacher, A.D.J., and Inger, R. (2013). Smartphones in ecology and evolution: a guide for the app-rehensive. Ecology and Evolution, 3(16), 5268-5278. doi: 10.1002/ece3.888
Zilli, D., Parson, O., Merrett, G.V., Rogers, A. (2014). A hidden Markov model-based acoustic cicada detector for crowdsourced smartphone biodiversity monitoring. Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research, 51(1), 805-827.


One thought on “Nature Apps – The Benefits

  1. Callis

    Looking forward to the additional posts on Nature Apps. I can’t disagree with you that they would have benefited you in undergrad, but I hope you’ll consider yourself lucky that you’re part of a generation that had to do things “old school!”


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