Mobile applications for smartphones, tablets and other gadgets can turn just about anyone into a citizen scientist. App-equipped wireless devices give users worldwide the ability to act as remote sensors for all sorts of data as they go through their daily routines—whether it’s invasive garlic mustard weed in Washington State or red-bordered stinkbugs in Quintana Roo, Mexico.

Smartphones can automate data collection and incorporate many important data-gathering functions—such as capturing images, audio and text—into a single tool that can “stamp” the date, time and geographic coordinates associated with an observation, says Alex Mayer, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Michigan Technological University. Mayer is leading a project with Michigan Tech colleague Robert Pastel, an associate professor of computer science, and a group of students to develop new citizen science mobile apps.

Their Cyber Citizens project, which began in 2011 with a grant from the National Science Foundation, is dedicated to producing mobile and Web-based tools each semester that help everyday people collect environmental information. The project enlists the efforts of Michigan Tech grad and undergrad students studying a number of different disciplines, including computer science, scientific and technical communication, and psychology. The students design the apps in collaboration with scientists at their university and elsewhere, including professional anthropologists, ecologists and ornithologists. Cyber Citizens has four apps in beta: Beach Health Monitor, Lichen AQ (Air Quality), Mushroom Mapper and Ethnographer. “All our mobile apps are for the Android platform, since it’s open, so developers have more freedom,” Pastel says.

The popularity of data gathering by lay people, greatly facilitated by the ease and convenience of mobile devices, has helped entire communities dedicated to citizen science form around efforts like Marine Debris Tracker and Project Noah. In addition, the Web site SciStarter lists more than 600 active citizen science projects around the world, one third of which are powered by mobile apps.

The Citizen Science Alliance, a leading developer of citizen scientist initiatives and a partner with Scientific American on the Whale Song Project, launched its Zooniverse Web portal in 2009 with Galaxy Zoo and has since grown to include more than a dozen other projects. Mobile apps have the potential to personalize citizen science, says Zooniverse founder and astrophysicist Chris Lintott. He says the Galaxy Zoo app made a “significant impact” on that project when it debuted in 2010 but notes that funding issues have hindered Zooniverse’s efforts to continue to support that app and develop new ones. “[Scientists] are overwhelmed with data, and need people—citizen scientists—to help sort through it,” Lintott says. “It's undoubtedly true that using mobile apps can be effective with this; the small experiments we've done show that already.”

 

The following eight mobile apps cover a variety of scientific disciplines—including marine biology, meteorology and ecology—that will bring out the scientist in you.

8 Apps That Turn Citizens into Scientists
Image: Secchi

1Secchi: Secchi is a mobile interface to the Secchi Disk project, which encourages mariners to participate in a global study of the phytoplankton in the sea. Phytoplankton support the marine food chain and scientists need help understanding the effects of climate change on their habitats.

Price: Free

Platforms supported: iPhone, Android

How it works: Participants create a Secchi Disk, which is a tool to measure water turbidity, and use it with the Secchi app. This simple piece of scientific equipment can be built using plywood, plastic or metal, painted white. Attached to a measuring tape, the Secchi Disk is lowered into the water until it disappears from sight—a process for estimating the amount of phytoplankton. The depth is then recorded on the Secchi app and uploaded to a database. Users must also indicate their location using the phone’s GPS to ensure accuracy of the observations. The measurements must be taken on sunny or partially sunny days, not on cloudy days.

Additional features: Citizen scientists using the app can enter extra information by recording sea temperature if their boat has a temperature sensor, for example. They can also take photographs of anything unusual seen on the sea surface or write notes.

8 Apps That Turn Citizens into Scientists
Image: mPing

2

mPing: Created as part of the Precipitation Identification Near the Ground project, the mPing app asks citizen scientists to report on precipitation. The goal is to aid meteorologists at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in developing and refining algorithms that use the newly upgraded dual-polarization NEXRAD radars.

Price: Free

Platforms supported: iPhone, Android

How it works: Using mPing, participants select the precipitation type observed. The app focuses on winter precipitation, including rain, freezing rain, drizzle, freezing drizzle, snow, ice pellets and mixed rain. It also asks users to make observations of “none,” at times when precipitation has stopped. Users are encouraged to measure their findings, such as the depth of hail from thunderstorms with a ruler, and record data in the app. By telling NSSL what hits the ground, scientists can compare reports from the field with radar detections, and use the data to develop new technologies to determine precipitation patterns and types.

Additional features: The project was recently broadened and renamed Meteorological Phenomena Identification Near the Ground. Accordingly, the app has been expanded to accept reports of wind damage, tornadoes, flooding, landslides and reduced visibility.

8 Apps That Turn Citizens into Scientists
Image: What's Invasive

3.

What's Invasive: Invasive species often threaten native plants and animals, and experts need to know where to find them. That’s the main idea behind the What’s Invasive app, developed by the University of Georgia.

Price: Free

Platforms supported: iPhone, Android

How it works: The app displays local lists of invasive plants or animals that have been identified by the National Park Service and other management authorities. Users can help experts pinpoint invasive species by locating them and providing experts with GPS coordinates, accompanied by a photo and notes about the observation. The geotagged observations and photos are used to alert experts about the spread of habitat-destroying species. Users can also go online to whatsinvasive.com and set up their own site for invasive species data collection.

Similar apps: There are several apps of this kind tailored to citizen scientists living all over the country. IveGot1 is for identifying and reporting invasive plants and animals in Florida. SEEDN is an app for reporting invasive plants, insects and plant pathogens in the southeastern U.S., and is part an integrated invasive species reporting and outreach campaign. The Mid Atlantic Early Detection Network app is for those living in states that include Delaware, New York and Virginia as well as Washington, D.C. Observations submitted by citizen scientists using the app are uploaded to the Early Detection and Distribution Mapping System (EDDMapS), and e-mailed directly to local and state verifiers for review. EDDMapS West is a similar app for western states; and Outsmart Invasive Species is an app created for monitoring efforts specifically in Massachusetts.

8 Apps That Turn Citizens into Scientists
Image: Loss of the Night

4.

Loss of the Night: Germany’s Cosalux GmbH developed the Loss of the Night app to help scientists measure and understand the effects of light pollution on health, environment and society. Users take part in a worldwide citizen science project—called GLOBE at Night — by mapping light pollution and star visibility. The results are added to a database that scientists use to investigate the reasons for the increasing illumination of the night, its ecological, cultural and socioeconomic effects as well as the impact on human health. (For example, excessive light can cause sleep disorders in people.) The research is expected to aid in the development of improved lighting concepts and sustainable technologies.

Price: Free

Platforms supported: Android

How it works: Loss of the Night allows for the measurement of light pollution in three steps. The first is an arrow that guides users to a star, similar to a compass. The app then asks users to select visible stars in various constellations and submit their data once observations have been completed. The observations contribute to helping communities learn what works in terms of mitigating light pollution and how improved street lamps can save energy and money. Measurements from the app are sent anonymously to the GLOBE at Night database, a citizen science project launched in 2006. The submitted measurements have to include specifics, such as the observer’s age, whether they were wearing glasses or contact lenses, and current weather conditions—these aspects impact individual visibility of the stars.

Similar apps: For citizen scientists with iPhones, a similar app is available for download in the iTunes App Store. The Dark Sky Meter app, developed by DDQ, works by taking two pictures. First cover your camera phone using your jacket or a pocket and then press “dark shot” button. Then aim your iPhone to the point in the sky directly above your head and press the “sky” button. The greater the difference between your dark shot and sky shot, the more reliable the data. Unlike the free Loss of Night app, Dark Sky Meter costs $4.99.

8 Apps That Turn Citizens into Scientists
Image: Kinsey Reporter

5.

Kinsey Reporter: Kinsey Reporter, as the name suggests, is a global mobile survey platform for sharing anonymous data about sexual behaviors. The data collected with the app is aggregated and shared openly at KinseyReporter.org, a joint project of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction and the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research.

Price: Free

Platforms supported: iPhone, Android

How it works: Using Kinsey Reporter, participants can submit an anonymous report of sexual or intimate activity within 24 hours of an event. The report can be about the user or someone else they’ve observed. The resulting surveys—or reports of information shared by many individuals—cover sexual behaviors and events, sexual health issues, violence reports, public displays of affection and other experiences. Users can submit reports on different events as often as they’d like but they can only select among the provided tags when answering a question. To protect anonymity, the reports only use approximate locations selected by survey participants.

Additional features: The app’s design was improved in the latest version, which also includes an integrated feed for Kinsey Reporter Twitter updates, Kinsey Confidential podcast and blog, and Kinsey Institute YouTube movies. Kinsey Reporter developers made additional improvements to the app’s anonymity protocol and added more user-friendly geolocation preferences. Reports are aggregated over time and are not published until a sufficient number of entries have been received from the same location.

8 Apps That Turn Citizens into Scientists
Image: Marine Debris Tracker

6.

Marine Debris Tracker: Marine Debris Tracker can be used to find and log marine debris items on beaches or in the water. The app is a joint effort of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Division and the University of Georgia’s Southeast Atlantic Marine Debris Initiative.

Price: Free

Platforms supported: Android, iPhone. (Note: An updated version of the app is available for Android devices. The last update for iPhones was released in 2011, but a newer version is planned for next summer.)

How it works: The app records the location of debris via GPS, and allows the user to review the data and submit it to the Marine Debris Tracker Web site. Users are initially required to create a user name and password to view and download data from the site. All downloadable and mapped data with GPS coordinates is visible to the public anonymously. Marine Debris Tracker comes with a preloaded list of commonly found marine debris items, split into several categories. Examples of debris that citizen scientists can report include beverage bottles, clothing and shoes, car tires, building materials and fishing gear.

Similar apps: iPhone users looking for similar citizen science apps should check out Creek Watch. The app allows users to snap a picture and report on any waterway they come across. By monitoring the health of local waterways, including water amount and trash, participants can help watershed groups, agencies and scientists track pollution and manage resources.

8 Apps That Turn Citizens into Scientists
Image: NoiseTube

7.

NoiseTube: NoiseTube was created with the purpose of turning smartphones into mobile noise level meters. The NoiseTube research project began in 2008 at the Sony Computer Science Laboratory Paris in partnership with the Free University of Brussels to study the public’s exposure to noise in everyday environments.

Price: Free

Platforms supported: iPhone, Android

How it works: The app allows citizen scientists to participate in the collective noise mapping of their city or neighborhood. NoiseTube has three features: measure noise, localize it and tag it. Tags include the level of annoyance and the source of sound, such as an airplane. The collected data is wirelessly sent to the NoiseTube server in real time. Once the data has been uploaded to NoiseTube’s Web site, users can check their sound trajectory on Google Maps.

Additional features: Citizens concerned with noise can visualize their measurements on a map and contribute to creating collective, city-wide noise maps. For example, a user can see the sound exposure of a person during a walk in a major city. Participants can also compare their experiences with others, and decide whether to make them public or not. The findings benefit governments and city planners who can better understand local and global noise pollution using these maps and statistics. Meanwhile, researchers benefit by having access to collective noise data.

8 Apps That Turn Citizens into Scientists
Image: Project Noah

8.

Project Noah: Project Noah is a tool for nature enthusiasts who want to explore and document wildlife. Noah is an acronym for “networked organisms and habitats” and is designed to help labs, environmental groups and various organizations gather important data for research projects. The project launched out of New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program in early 2010, and is backed by National Geographic.

Price: Free

Platforms supported: iPhone, Android

How it works: The app has three main features. Using the Spottings feature users can choose a photograph of a plant or animal, then select the category, confirm their location, add tags and submit the information. With the Location-Based Field Guide, citizen scientists can see what kinds of plants and animals have been spotted nearby and learn more about them. This option allows search using a map view, list view or grid view of most recent “spottings” based on the user’s location. The third feature, Field Missions, allows users to contribute to ongoing research projects. Users can choose a variety of missions, such as photographing squirrels and tracking migrating birds.

Additional features: The current version of Project Noah includes video support, so users can see videos of their favorite spottings. This version also comes with multiple photo support for viewing an entire series, an easier way to accept species suggestions with a few taps, and tagged lists.