In a parallel universe, I am a field biologist. In another, a paleontologist. In yet another, an ornithologist. And several very useful applications now available for the iPhone have recently re-kindled a yearning to live these parallel lives.
Mobiles Go Wild
The utility of mobile phones for field science keeps getting better and better. Behind this are three inter-related trends, the advances in which can largely be attributed to the iPhone.
- The first is the long-running convergence of mobile technologies. GPS, compass, and camera are now integrated on a single hand-held device that not only offers broadband Internet, but also adequate storage capacity for storing data for offline use.
- The second is richer user interaction. Beyond large, high-resolution screens, a combination of diverse gestures allow interaction directly through the visual interface. The result makes it possible to provide user experiences that go way beyond the classic constraints of keypads and standard buttons.
- The previous two trends yield a device that can be purposed many different ways, which is what makes the third trend–application programs–so powerful. App programs give software developers a means to create applications that use the advanced hardware features and rich user interaction for special purposes that phone manufacturers could never produce on their own. (For that matter, even fathom on their own.)
The result is a wave of new applications that promise to revolutionize–among other things–scientific field work. In the forefront is the iPhone, but I expect that Android devices–with their more permissive developer model–may show similar promise. Nevertheless, the iPhone can take credit for setting a new high bar for the current wave of mobile devices. Consequently, there is an emerging treasure trove of high-value applications for doing field science. Let’s take a look at a few.
These are a few of the iPhone apps that I find to be essentials for planning and conducting explorations in the natural world. If you have some suggestions for me to add to this list, please leave a comment. An asterisk (*) notes an app that does not require live Internet.
- Geology UT* is one of several similar Geology apps, each using a different US state’s set of public domain data. The app uses on-board GPS with its own map to help you find out quickly what the US Geological Survey knows about the age and composition of the surface wherever you may be. I use the Utah version extensively while I search for fossils or wonder about the age of an outcrop.
Because the app stores all of its data on the device, this is also a good example of an app that works in the field without a data connection. Tap any area of the map that you might want to know about, and it presents details that normally require a browser when using Google Earth and a kml file on a computer.
- Geotimescale* is a simple reference app, providing a visual guide to the age old question: “What on earth does Cenozoic mean?”
- Google Earth is an excellent tool for understanding the terrain. Using the on-board GPS lets you quickly see where you are. Various layers, including Panaramio photos, further enrich the virtual exploration experience. And similar to the desktop app, Earth features tilt, which allows you to virtually explore the terrain relief of an area before heading out.
For example, here is a tilted view showing Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef National Park. In the bottom right (at the ‘s’ in technologies), there is a trailhead for a trail that follows the ridge across from the rock “cathedrals.” Although this screenshot was not done on site–there is no data connection in this part of the Utah outback–you can see how studying it can help you to understand the landscape you intend to explore.
I should also note that the desktop application is an essential companion to the mobile version. I often start investigating on the big screen, especially since the USGS makes various .kml files available for many areas of the US.
- GPS tracking apps enable you to record your tracks so that you can know where and when you were at a given time. That’s great for when you find something that you want to come back to later. I have yet to settle on a single one, since they each provide different features (for example, some can download the topo map for a given location).
- Compass* is a default application that Apple introduced with the 3Gs, eliminating yet another piece of equipment to carry.
- Pocket Universe* satisfies my long-running desire to know the night sky. Books always frustrated me., mainly because I have a hard time mapping them to the sky. “pUniverse” tells me which constellations and planets are visible on a given date, at a given time, from a given location. That’s handy, but the application uses the iPhone’s compass and GPS in what pUniverse calls “planetarium mode.” Imagine simply holding up your phone and seeing a labelled map of the night sky in any direction. Tap any labeled celestial object to find out all about it. This is the kind of app that makes you feel smarter than you are without your phone.
- Weather happens, and meteorological surprises can be the difference between a great excursion and misery. There are many, many applications to let you know what’s in store. I use the free (ad-laden) app Weatherbug, mainly because I have yet to research and find a better tool.
- iBird Explorer Pro*, at $29.95, will likely remain the most expensive app I have ever purchased. There are several lighter-weight versions of iBird Explorer, but I’m an avid admirer of birds–I had to have the full catalog of North American birds.
With this app, you can quickly narrow down a species by its shape, family, markings, colors, habitat, and flight style, and range (with options to filter using the data and your current location).
Content is an age-old trade-off with field guide books. For example, each bird’s range map in my trusty old Peterson’s guide is stuffed in one of the book’s appendices. As an application, iBird Explorer makes each range maps simple–each species has a Range tab. Similarly, the trade-off between illustrations and photos is settled handily. (Most birders favor illustrations, but the debate becomes moot with iBird Explorer.)
Much as I love my Sibley’s guide–which became my manual of choice while out birding–no printed field guide allows you to play a bird’s call. Not only does iBird Explorer play calls, it does so loudly enough that Heidi and I have been able to use it to draw in Ravens and Pinyon Jays in from a good distance. (Now I want a selection of calls, since the Common Raven’s vocalization, for example, varies considerably from region to region.)
My one critique is that I would like a sightings and life-list feature, similar to Audubon Mammals.
- Audubon Mammals* is a splendid reference for identifying the mammals that you see–and those that you don’t. Beside providing photos, you also get range maps, track and scat illustrations (sometimes with comparisons), and a thorough description. Designed to help you quickly identify a creature, the app flows in ways that you always wished your field guide would. The app also allows you to record sightings, as well as a life list, which get GPS-tagged and allow you to add your own notes and observations.
General Field Tools
- Camera* taking a picture or video not only documents what you saw, but where you saw it. Each photo has latitude and longitude coordinates applied by the GPS. That means that you can document exactly where you saw a specimen. However, rather than use the on-board camera application, you might consider using it through a notetaking application, such as…
- Evernote* is an application whose importance I can’t emphasize enough. What a great tool Evernote is!
Geo-tagged photos are a great start, but there are other ways you may want to document your experiences.
Whether recording simply for your personal memories or for detailed field notes, Evernote geo-tags your notes. Notes can be text–of course–but you can also record your voice as a note. And that means that you can even record a location’s ambient soundscape. Evernote also allows you to take geo-tagged pictures, and if a picture contains text, Evernote will even process the text so it becomes searchable.
One of the most important features of Evernote is that it’s not just an iPhone app. All of your notes get uploaded to your account on Evernote’s servers. That means that your notes are effectively backed up each time the Evernote app synchronizes. And…you can access and update your notes through any browser. And…you can also access your data from an Evernote on your computer. In fact, Evernote will sync between applications on Windows, Mac, Android, Blackberry, and PalmOS. Simply put, Evernote is a life tool.
Even if the iPhone represents the upper echelon of expensive mobile phone gadgetry, the various applications available on it for working in the field allow you to replace numerous books, maps, and other reference materials. In short, the iPhone has opened access to scientific participation by laypeople–amateurs and enthusiasts–as well as professionals. However, the applications I list here are mostly popular applications–primarily made for laypeople, but able to provide substantial support for actual field biologists, botanists, archeologists, paleontologists, and so on. I expect that there is a huge raft of more applications ready to be made…applications that are custom-tuned to the specialized technical details of various types of field research and data recording.
My interest in sharing this is not simply to bring about more awareness so that more specialized science applications get created. With many, many science-friendly tech geeks like me starting to make field observations through iPhone and Android devices, science may now face a huge opportunity in crowd-sourcing. In the 90’s, SETI@home demonstrated how willingly geeks will apply effort to help science. In the past decade, Wikipedia used volunteerism to produce one of the foremost social-informational triumphs of the web. Now with an army of geeks readily equipped with powerful mobiles, and with strongly overlapping areas of interest between tech-geeks and science nerds, perhaps a new era of scientific data gathering is waiting to be unlocked by innovative, creative minds.
(last updated 28DEC09)
Here are some additional apps relevant to the list subject:
- Field Assets is “a field data collection application for the iPhone and iTouch.” Some further web research uncovered this app. It appears that this could easily be purposed for science work. At $12.99, I have not tried it yet.
Also check out these links…
- Could an iPhone be a useful field tool?
- Is the iPhone 3G Good for Geologizing?
- The iPhone: A Field Tool for Geologists?
- The top 10 science applications for the iPhone
- Top 10 life science related apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch
- 22 iPhone Apps for Science Geeks
- 50 Useful iPhone Apps for Science Students & Teachers
- 10 Best iPhone Apps for Science Majors