Despite their incredible benefits, smartphones are not without drawbacks. All of the abilities and features packed into our phones that can be used for conservation research, can also serve as major distractions. Most of us have experienced the distraction factor of smartphones, but if you are collecting data for a project and you miss the timer go off for an instantaneous count because you are scrolling through Reddit, that is a missed data point. Sounds small, but once a project has been designed and collection has begun, sticking to the plan is important for consistency.
A barrier to using smartphone apps for conservation research is that you must have a smartphone to use them. If you do not have one already, you are looking at an investment of $200-300 for a mid-range phone, depending on where you live. If a data plan is needed for your project for internet connection on the go, that is another hit to your funds on a monthly basis, depending on how much data is used. The cost of the app(s) can also add up. The cost of the Sibley Birds app I used for my trip to Washington was $20.00 on its own (thank you Google survey rewards!), while other apps I have used, like the Survey Monkey app are free, but require a monthly subscription to unlock important features or even access to excess results. Developers need to make some money too, but costs can quickly add up when you are on a tight funding budget.
Once you get beyond purchasing a smartphone and ignoring all social media while collecting data, the main issue with apps for conservation research are the apps themselves – mainly, their development and design. Ecology and conservation research tools can be a touch behind the times when it comes to technology (Jepson & Ladle, 2015, Teacher et al., 2013) – I recently met a researcher who was using an old palm pilot to triangulate the position of an animal because that was the most current device for which the software was written.
As with many fields, few conservationists have the programming skills required to develop an app from scratch (Teacher et al., 2013). Even if they have basic programming skills, an app intended for use by a large amount of people will need to have a little more design flair than an app used only by the researcher and their team. The app will also require troubleshooting and testing to ensure that it is and remains working. It must also be easy to use or learn, as users can become frustrated with a confusing or difficult app and stop using it. App reviews must also be monitored to ensure the reviews are mostly positive. If user issues are not addressed, reviews will be low, and your app may be ignored completely in the app store. Even well-designed apps can struggle to keep users invested in the app. An issue with a lot of citizen science projects (some of which use apps for data collection), is that many volunteers contribute few-to-no times, and the majority of the data coming from just a handful of invested users (Sauermann & Franzoni, 2015). Depending on the specifics of your study, this could skew or bias your results. For these and other reasons, your study and app must be well planned and designed.
If the research team has no programming skills, one avenue to take for app development would be to hire an app development company to create the app itself. These services would work with the research team to create exactly the app that was needed, and may even provide server integration and web access to the data (Teacher et al., 2013). The downside to this method would be time and money. For the creation of their app Magpie Mapper, Teacher et al. (2013) hired a service and found that development took approximately six months, and cost approximately £4300 (a little under $6000.00 according to Google). If the time frame and/or budget of a study is tight, hiring a developer may not be a feasible path.
Depending on a study’s needs, a researcher does not necessarily need advanced coding skills. There are apps already created that will assist with app development or allow you to create your project within the app they have already created. Zooniverse, INaturalist, and Epicollect5 are three examples of apps (with accompanying websites) that allow you to create a project within their respective app, so no coding ability would be needed on the part of the researcher. While this would be perfect for researchers with no coding experience, this approach may not be feasible with all studies, depending on the actual data that needed to be collected.
The final issue with smartphone apps for conservation research I want to bring up is that, as versatile as they are, apps will not be the answer for every situation. There are certain studies that will need sophisticated, or even rudimentary technology to complete. For example, if a project is being conducted on a remote region with no internet capability, using an app to turn a smartphone into a live streaming webcam will probably not work out. Likewise, due to limited waterproofing ability, smartphones and apps will not likely replace underwater cameras any time soon.
Despite their limitations, smartphone apps have incredible potential for use in conservation research. For a quick view of some current conservation-related apps, wait for my next post.
Yours in nature,
Works cited for this post
Jepson, P. and Ladle, R.J. (2015). Nature apps: waiting for the revolution. Ambio, 44(8), 827-832.
Sauermann, H. and Franzoni, C. (2015). Crowd science user contribution patterns and their implications. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 112 (3), 679-684.
Teacher, A.G.F., Griffiths, D.J., Hodgson, 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