“The rise of nature conservation as a cultural, scientific, and policy imperative was one of the defining features of the twentieth century. If humanity is embarking on an ‘information revolution,’ then it is vital for nature conservation to engage with new technologies in progressive and experimental ways. Failure to do so could compromise the future of conservation as a cultural force.”
The above is an excerpt from Nature apps: Waiting for the revolution, a research paper that investigates ‘nature apps’, and how they could potentially transform the way we interact with nature.
The researchers (Paul Jepson and Richard J. Ladle) argue that our smartphones offer an unprecedented opportunity to profoundly change the way humans interact with each other and the natural world, specifically how “we appreciate, use, and conserve wild places, animals and plants.”
But they were frustrated by the number of apps that fail to make the most of the computing power offered by the smartphones. They studied 6301 nature-related apps in the Google App Store, and found most fail to fully exploit the full range of capabilities inherent in smartphone technology or to capture the public imagination.
Examples of innovation
Most did not fully exploit the transformative power of modern smartphone technology. But they did find some promising examples of innovation and creativity:
- Tree Planet is a conservation game app that challenges players to plant, nurture, and protect a tree. Once players reach level 7 they can apply for a real tree to be planted in a real reforestation site.
- LeafSnap uses image recognition software to automatically identify tree species from the leaves.
- Coral RKV and Zoo-AR use augmented reality to animate 2D posters and overlay or link to info resources. When developed with wearable AR (think Google Glass), apps like these could transform educational and curiosity driven engagements with nature.
- ActlnNature Hunting is a hunting app that uses the smartphone’s GPS and compass to give the user a real-time 3D map of their position relative to other hunters using the app.
- iBat links the smartphone to an ultrasonic bat detector (added on), enabling users to record bat calls and upload the data to an online database, which can then classify the calls from 34 European bat species. Recordings not suited for the database are added to a separate online project for crowd-sourced identification and discussion.
- New Forest Cicada Hunt uses machine learning and smartphone functionalities to help users detect and identify endangered cicada species. They simply switch on the app when in the countryside and are alerted if a sound matching the profile of these species is detected. The user is then asked to make a recording, which they upload onto the project database. (This app is considered to be particularly innovative as it a) exploits the fact that smartphone mics can easily detect frequencies beyond human hearing, b) is leading the way for real-time automated acoustic species detection and identification via smartphone, and c) provides an exciting way for everyday people to help with species rediscovery.)
Unprecedented and exciting
The authors were certainly impressed by the wide range of nature apps.
“the proliferation of apps and their potential uses is both unprecedented and exciting”
However, “it is clearly premature to claim that we are in the midst of an app-based revolution that is transforming how we relate to and interact with the natural world.”
Despite this, they remain inspired of the transformative potential seen in the small number of apps that make use of the advanced functionality of our smartphones.
A ‘human-machine hybrid’
The researchers believe that the next generation of nature apps could turn the smartphone into “a sort of human appendage… a kind of ‘human-machine hybrid’”. For this potential to be reached, apps must innovate in several key areas: cloud computing, ‘big data’ analytics, the sensor and computing capacities of smartphones (using hardware add-ons) and human capability.
These boundaries are being pushing in three very interesting spaces:
- species identification apps that use real-time ‘machine learning supported’ audio recording
- visitor attraction apps that use integrated augmented reality
- ecological research apps that use add-on sensors
Unfortunately, the amount of apps like this are few and far between. It’s likely because it’s hard to put together app development teams that have a) the right level of technical knowledge and b) the practical ability to create innovative apps with high degrees of functionality.
What needs to happen next
If we are going to see a new generation of innovative and boundary-pushing nature apps, a few things need to happen first:
- Nature-related businesses need to significantly engage with the potential of the technologies.
- Investments in the development of high-spec open-source algorithms and applications.
- More money for creative teams to produce prototype apps that extend ways of engaging with nature and landscapes.
- Public investment in big demonstration projects that develop the potential of smartphones in the study, enjoyment, and monitoring of nature
- Universities and advanced research institutions must be at the centre of nature app development. They have computer scientists, information engineers, and ecologists who are used to working with complexity. They also have the computing power and the independence and societal standing to address the ethical and governance issues that will arise.
So, what are we waiting for? Let’s get cracking. 💪