Archive for the ‘Apps’ Category

Track Lilacs and Loons with Nature’s Notebook

By May 19th, 2014 at 10:59 am | Comment

Observe and collect data to learn how climate and habitat affect plants and animals with Nature’s Notebook.

Track the phenology of plants and animals with these citizen science projects.

Observing a tree in Tucson, Arizona.  Photo credit: Brian Powell

Observing a tree in Tucson, Arizona. Photo credit: Brian Powell

Most North Americans are relieved that spring has finally arrived, especially after a winter when ice storms, snowstorms, frigid temperatures or droughts were regular occurrences. For many, winter was not only harsh, but it was also longer than expected. How could a plant grow and survive with cold temperatures or dry conditions? How would the animals that depend on these plants be affected by these changes? These are a few of the numerous questions the USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN) investigates. The organization studies phenology, the study of the seasonal plant and animal life cycle events. Consisting of staff members, an advisory committee, and partner organizations (such as the U.S. Geological Survey), the USA-NPN collects and analyzes phenology data in order to address scientific and environmental questions.

Recording observations in Tucson, Arizona.  Photo credit: Sara N. Schaffer

Recording observations in Tucson, Arizona. Photo credit: Sara N. Schaffer

Unfortunately, the USA-NPN has a small staff that cannot observe the wildlife of the entire country by themselves. They decided to enlist the help of citizen scientists so they could gather as many pieces of data as possible. In 2009, the USA-NPN established an online monitoring program for over 200 plant species. The following year, they recognized the need to include animals in the monitoring process; as a result, they added animals to the observation program and formally named it Nature’s Notebook (official site).

This year, the USA-NPN hopes to collect 1 million observations through Nature’s Notebook, and invites anyone who wants to participate. To become an observer, set up an online account; then, you can learn how to observe with aid of a detailed handbook or instructional videos. Nature’s Notebook has also created a mobile app (for iOS and Android systems), where observers can enter observations into the database while they are outdoors. The data is readily available through the Phenology Visualization Tool, where you can look at the data of a particular region or species.

Flowers at the Santa Rita Experimental Range, Arizona. Photo credit: Lorianne Barnett

Flowers at the Santa Rita Experimental Range, Arizona. Photo credit: Lorianne Barnett

The observation process might be overwhelming for someone who is new to it. With over 900 plant and animal species in the database, what should you observe? Theresa Crimmins, the Partnerships & Outreach Coordinator for USA-NPN, recommends that you “start small; pick 1 or 2 plants that are familiar to you. Make it low-effort and fun! Observe plants you know and are familiar with.” You can also join a regional campaign, and focus your observations on a particular species, such as the campaign to track cloned lilacs. For educators who want to incorporate Nature’s Notebook into their curriculum, the USA-NPN has educational material available. Crimmins recommends that instructors incorporate the program around the same time each year, in order to contribute to the long-term record of particular species. While there is a time commitment involved for this citizen science project, repeated observations are necessary to notice the long-term changes of a particular species.

USA-NPN and Nature’s Notebook have definitely made an impact on phenology in the United States. It has partnered with almost 200 organizations, contributed to many peer-reviewed publications, and is collaborating with government agencies such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service to see how the data can be used to inform decisions about wildlife refuges.  This year, Nature’s Notebook is excited to offer an opportunity to learn and interact through their webinar series. Their next webinar, on June 10th at 11am (PST), will be “A Summary of Spring”; a fitting way to celebrate the season and everything that happens within it.

References: USA-NPN 2013 Annual Report: Taking the Pulse of Our Planet

Images: USA-NPN

Rae Moore has a BS in Chemistry from McMaster University and studied Bioinorganic Chemistry as a PhD student at McGill University. She has also been a cheerleading coach, yoga teacher, and preschool science educator. Now she focuses on science education and advocacy, and blogs about scientific job searching on her blog,

Verify the Sky with the SatCam App and Citizen Science

By April 30th, 2014 at 10:00 am | Comment


A composite image of the USA, captured by Terra’s MODIS. Photo provided courtesy of UW-Madison SSEC.

Help researchers determine accuracy of satellite data by capturing and uploading ground observations from your phone.

Want more citizen science? There’s an app for that.

We may not realize it, but artificial satellites are responsible for so many aspects of our daily lives.  They dictate our ability to communicate with one another, assist in the navigation of aircraft and ships, monitor and deliver top-secret military information for our security and protection, and track atmospheric and weather changes.

The ability to track weather patterns is an important tool in our daily lives—on one hand, we can figure out whether to bring an umbrella, or wear an extra layer of clothing.  On the other hand, the government, organizations and individuals can plan (and if necessary, evacuate) for extreme weather conditions, such as storms and tornadoes.  Tracking these changes over the long term is also necessary to determine the impact of climate change.  For these reasons, data that is used to track weather patterns needs to be accurate.


iPhone screenshot of the SatCam app after an observation has been made.

However, even technologically advanced satellite monitoring systems have issues with resolution.  For example, sometimes the satellite cannot discern between cloud covering and snow.  To resolve this issue, a team led by Liam Gumley at the Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC), in the University of Wisconsin-Madison, developed SatCam (official site), a free iOS app designed to verify images taken by three Earth-observing satellites:

Terra – a NASA satellite that collects data about earth’s changing climate;

Aqua  – a NASA satellite that collects data about the earth’s water cycle;

Suomi-NPP  – a NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Defense (DoD) satellite that collects long term climate change and short-term weather data.

With SatCam, anyone with an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch can become a citizen scientist and verify satellite images.  The app alerts the user when a satellite is approaching.  Once the user is outdoors and once the satellite is in range, point the device at the sky and the app will automatically take a picture.  SatCam will prompt the user to take a picture of corresponding horizon, classify the cloud conditions (cloudy, overcast or clear) and classify the ground conditions (urban or vegetation).  Once the data is submitted and processed, the app’s “history tab” displays the user’s data and the satellite’s image of the same location on one screen.  If you have ever wondered what your neighborhood looks like from over 700km (435 miles) away, you can find out with SatCam.

The first SatCam images were recorded in May 2012.  Within two years, over 10,000 images have been recorded from locations all over the world. Margaret Mooney, the Education and Public Outreach Director of the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Studies (part of the SSEC), said that the app “has taken a life of its own” due to promotion at conferences and Facebook, and it “raises awareness of satellites and of the local environment, and provides ground-truth” to the data obtained by satellites.  Educators can employ SatCam as an educational tool, in conjunction with other science educational programs such as GLOBE.

SatCam’s team hopes to expand the app’s capabilities in the near future.  According to Mooney, SSEC has submitted a proposal for NASA’s Air Quality group, which would incorporate the ability to record air quality data within the app.

More information:

iOS app

SatCam records

SSEC’s Facebook page

Images: SSEC

Rae Moore has a BS in Chemistry from McMaster University and studied Bioinorganic Chemistry as a PhD student at McGill University. She has also been a cheerleading coach, yoga teacher, and preschool science educator. Now she focuses on science education and advocacy, and blogs about scientific job searching on her blog,

WildObs: Instagram for Nature Lovers

By April 10th, 2014 at 3:36 pm | Comment

Collect and share pictures of memorable encounters with nature using the WildObs app.

Want more citizen science? Don’t worry. There’s an app for that.

Gopher Snake

There are nature lovers, wildlife photographers, hikers, kayakers and birdwatchers who pursue their passion every day, and most of them do so in the hope of spotting an osprey, or catching a glimpse of a mountain lion or bear. As rewarding as these sightings are, there is an equally fulfilling joy to be found in identifying a clump of apple snail eggs, butterfly or a nighthawk chick. This is what WildObs (official site), a crowdsourced program that partners with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) does—it serves as a portal geared for enthusiasts rather than naturalists or scientists—users who want to gather, share and comment on their day to day sightings.

Adam Jack the creator of the program launched it in 2008. “As a nature lover with a glorious number of encounters, and a reasonably technical iPhone user, I wanted to be able to remember wildlife I saw; what, where and when I saw the wildlife, and ideally try to build a community database to identify good places to find critters,” he said. The idea to build WildObs came in part from Goodreads; the system for books you’ve read, books you’d like to read, and book discovery. “Why not be able to record what wildlife you’ve seen, mark species as favorites, and so on. Given that knowledge the system could inform you about what has been seen recently around you, educate you with the wildlife you might not know existed, and bring you local news from other wildlife lovers.” The idea was to connect people, places and wildlife.

You can record your encounters for your own studies, or enjoyment, use the records you produce to develop a personal wildlife calendar for the year, or maintain a life list as you learn about new species. The NWF uses the program as part of their Wildlife Watch initiative, to track the occurrences of natural phenomena. In addition you can share wildlife Stories online and join the NWF Flickr group. All of this is available to both first timers and professionals.

Western Snowy Plover Family

As a wildlife community, WildObs participants help each other find the nature (for a photograph or close encounter) and users learn about the species in their neighborhoods, so the app essentially offers a collaborative wildlife experience—it helps people connect people to wildlife. When asked if the project plans to publish any findings related to the user collection, Jack says, “The database only has tens of thousands of records to date. WildObs has become more a system of ‘interesting encounters’ than every encounter. It doesn’t have bioblitz-type data, but rather more individual sightings—a Moose here, or a Bobcat there.” There are currently a few thousand users.

WildObs Android

There is always at least one exciting thing about a participatory project—something that enthuses users or that sparked the first idea for it. For Adam Jack and WildObs that would be how the app shares encounters amongst the community. “The app send its users custom notifications tailored to their interests, location and species encounter history. The ultimate goal for WildObs is to connect and engage people with the wildlife around them, and to excite them to go explore and enjoy,” says Jack. It actually sounds a bit like Instagram for nature lovers, which seems to be a pretty neat idea. Join the WildObs community via your Android or iPhone and use technology to help you connect with nature.

Images: Ian Vorster

Android App:
iPhone App:
WildObs on Flickr:

Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian’s work at

There’s an App for That! Citizen Science at Your Fingertips

By April 4th, 2014 at 11:18 am | Comment

If you think science is out of reach, think again! Here are some citizen science apps you’ll always have at your fingertips!

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With this App from The Science Channel, you can spy on nature and contribute to science. Share photos and observations, contribute to research initiatives. Get started!


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Capture and share observations of sky and ground conditions near you to help researchers check the quality of satellite data. You’ll receive the satellite image captured at your location! Get started!


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What’s Invasive?

“Invasive” plants crowd out food sources for wild animals and create other headaches in nature. Use this app to help identify and locate them for removal. Get started!


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Capture wildlife encounters and use them to develop your own wildlife calendar. Partner of National Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife Watch working with scientific studies to extract citizen science from your recorded encounters. Get started!



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Want to run your own Citizen Science project? There’s an App for that, too! SENSR can help you create a mobile data collection tool for your project. Get started!

Calling hackers and developers! SciStarter is organizing pop-up hackathons to develop open APIs and other tools to help citizen scientists. Sign up to join us at hack days and science festivals in Boston, Philly, NYC, or Washington, DC in April!

Want to bring citizen science into the classroom? Check out our Educators Page to learn more about how to integrate projects into your curriculum.

SciStarter and Azavea (with support from Sloan Foundation) spent the last year investigating developments in software, hardware, and data processing capability for citizen science. Here’s what we found.

Want your project featured in our newsletter? Contact

Categories: Apps,Newsletter

Citizen Science… After Hours

By February 28th, 2014 at 5:05 pm | Comment

From moon monitoring to stargazing to salamander sleuthing, SciStarter brings you citizen science projects you can do in the dark.

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GLOBE at Night
Within a couple of generations in the U.S., only the national parks will have dark enough skies to see the Milky Way. Light pollution disrupts the habits of animals and wastes energy and money.Join this international star-hunting program to “see the light!” Get started!


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Loss of the Night
How many stars can you see where you live? The Loss of the Night App (available for Android devices) challenges citizen scientists to identify as many stars as they can in order to measure light pollution. Get started!


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Dark Sky Meter
The Dark Sky Meter (available for iPhones) allows citizen scientists to contribute to a global map of nighttime light pollution. The map is also a great help for (amateur) astronomers looking for dark skies. Get started!


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Lunar Impact Monitoring
NASA needs your help to monitor the rates and sizes of large meteoroids striking the moon’s dark side. This data will help engineers design lunar spacecraft, habitats, vehicles, and extra-vehicular activity suits to protect human explorers from the stresses of the lunar environment. Get started!


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Salamander Crossing Brigades
Serve as a Salamander Crossing Guard at amphibian road crossings throughout the Monadnock Region. Volunteers count migrating amphibians and safely usher the animals across roads during one or more “Big Nights.” Get started!


Want to bring citizen science into the classroom? Check out our Educators Page to learn more about how to integrate projects into your curriculum.

SciStarter and Azavea (with support from Sloan Foundation) spent the last year investigating developments in software, hardware, and data processing capability for citizen science. Here’s what we found

If you’d like your project featured in our newsletter, e-mail