Nature’s Secrets

Mobile computers open doors to scientific discovery

September 15, 2013 

Meg Lowman, Ph.D., a forest canopy expert, is senior scientist at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and research professor at N.C. State University.

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.

Albert Einstein

New PDAs (personal digital assistants or hand-held computers) are flooding the market with their myriad sound bytes, applications (apps), and jargon. As the proud owner of an iPhone, I must admit that its ever-changing, innovative uses (other than conventional telephone-calling) are not only addictive, but seem to provide just about every service under the sun except washing the dishes (maybe that is next?).

My iPhone provides navigation, locates restaurants and even makes reservations; files hundreds of addresses; updates weather reports for any city in the world; and houses photo albums, music, a to-do list, a calendar of appointments and, of course, emails – all in one pocket-sized, battery-operated gadget.

In its emerging role as a community forum, the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences recently hosted a conference called Mobile Data Collaboration, with a theme of inspiring partnerships between industry and science to solve environmental problems using hand-held technologies. The forum, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was standing-room-only as scientists, consumers, app designers, students and industry came together to discuss the complex challenges of coordinating data gathered by mobile technologies. For example, the USDA hopes to detect invasive species by harnessing citizen scientists to photograph strange insects observed eating their trees or vegetable gardens. Project Budburst, based in Boulder, Colo., collects nationwide observations of budburst and flowering activities to document changing climatic conditions.

And new apps range from traffic congestion reports to personal health assessments.

The outcomes of this conference were threefold: that the front end of any app needs to be simple and enticing to generate widespread public use (translation: make it fun!); that the back end of an app needs to easily download data, so federal and state agencies can save time and money yet gather accurate information about environmental issues such as invasive species; and that leveraging strategic partnerships is crucial for the launch of a successful app.

In the case of USDA, the museum is an ideal partner that could expand the audience of users to include K-12 as well as more than 1 million visitors per year. For health-related apps, logical partners include the medical profession and health clinics.

With their diverse functions, PDAs are sophisticated new tools for scientific research and for solutions generated by citizens. One of my favorite iPhone apps is called iBird Pro: It stores more than 1,000 bird songs, range maps and photographs; over time, users contribute to a large data base on bird distribution. Through mobile technologies, young people who learn science predominantly via computer may rediscover the joy of going outdoors where they can combine their love of virtual technologies with real nature.

Meg Lowman, Ph.D., a forest canopy expert, is senior scientist at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and research professor at N.C. State University.

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