8 Apps That Turn Citizens into Scientists

These mobile tools help you become a citizen scientist, whether you’re documenting wildlife or measuring the effects of light pollution

Scientific American

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.

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