Written by Soumya K.V.
Have you ever wondered what your smartphone can do besides making calls, waking you up, reminding you of things to do, navigating your way, accessing your emails, communicating with your friends, accessing social media, taking pictures, playing music and videos, and so on? We all have smartphones but do we use them smartly?
Nothing fascinates the ecologist and gadget freak in me more than a new smartphone app that can potentially be used in my research. There are 2.8 and 2.2 million apps available on Google Play Store and iOS App Store respectively for free or for an affordable price. Whenever I find time, I plunge into the Google Play Store on my smartphone looking for new apps and I think of how I can use these apps in my research.
If you are a tech-friendly person and ready to use technology in your research, there are many smartphone apps that can be very useful in ecological research. For a field researcher, apps on field safety, data entry, recording observations, field guides, mapping GIS and GPS, unit converters, random number generators, citizen science, analytical and communication tools can be very useful (and can also save a lot of paper). I have used most of these apps in my field research and they have helped me become faster, more efficient, and eco-friendly.
Many researchers, however, tend to think that apps are useless, a waste of time, and often unreliable. They question the apps’ ability to work in field conditions without internet access or electricity to charge one’s phone. Perhaps their lack of interest or skepticism in becoming dependent on technology also holds them back from widely exploring these technologies.
I wish I could share lots of examples of app-based ecological research, but there are relatively few success stories so far. But in this article, I will list various apps and their uses, and hopefully convince you to try out some of them in your research.
For instance, one app that I highly recommend for field data collection is Open Data Kit (ODK) Collect. I was introduced to this app in a workshop at ATREE. This app is freely available and is a good replacement for paper forms. ODK supports documenting geo-locations, images, audio-clips, video-clips, barcodes, numerical and textual answers. The app allows you to customize your form and collect data in multiple languages. And its best feature is that it is designed to work even without cellular network or Wi-Fi. Once the researcher is back within network coverage, the completed forms can be copied out of the device or safely exported for analysis to an independent and controlled server maintained by ATREE.
Here are some other apps that could be of immense help to you in the field.
Apps for data entry and recording observations
||Conduct surveys, inspections, walk-throughs, work-orders, audits, tasks, research studies and trials easily and cost effectively on your mobile device.||32.68 MB|
||Offline data collection, including videos and photos and helps you quickly complete surveys from your smartphone in any location, with or without an Internet connection.||8.94 MB|
||Log animal behaviour during field work.||76.67 KB|
|Canopy Cover Free
||Measures percentage of canopy cover non-destructively using your android device’s camera. Canopy cover is calculated automatically from green canopy area.||253 KB|
|Timestamped Field Notes
||Take behavioural observations and/or field notes, time-stamping each entry as you make it.||Not sure
||Helps you capture notes supplemented by audio, video and still photos.||6.19 MB|
||Designed to make scanning and storing barcodes easy! Just connect an external barcode scanner to your Android device and start scanning or use your device’s inbuilt camera.||1.75 MB|
||Quantifies the percent canopy cover of live green vegetation for any agricultural crop, turf, or grassland based on downward-facing photos taken with your mobile device.||5.74 MB
|Easy Leaf Area Free
||Measures leaf area non-destructively in seconds.||69.96 KB|
|Gap Light Analysis Mobile Application
||Tool for analysis of hemispherical photographs taken in forests. Supports calculation of Canopy Cover Index = simply the canopy cover estimated in phytosociology by visual observation.||874 KB|
||Lets organizations collect data on a real-time basis using Android phones instead of time consuming paper-based surveys.||7.45 MB|
|WildlifeTrails India- Wildlife
||Directory of Wildlife Sanctuaries, Tiger Reserves, Elephant Reserves and National Parks across India.The app also suggests the best time to visit any wildlife sanctuary, dos and don’ts, past trip experiences.||9.71 MB|
||Highly acclaimed animal tracks app and most comprehensive digital field guide to animal tracks ever made.||Not sure
||Gives you a list of snakes around you and also any interesting facts/myths about snakes, displayed as notifications.||6.55MB|
|Map of Life
||Discover and identify species around you and worldwide. Record your sightings and engage with species and their ranges.||10.69 MB|
Mapping GIS and GPS
||Helps you keep track of your route while you are in field, insert marker and collect data on map.||4.71 MB|
|Wolf GIS Apex
||Easy-to-use mobile GIS and mapping tools for the collection, management, and display of your location-based data, providing you with the visual context to make better, more informed decisions.||27.79 MB|
||A map and navigation app with access to the free, worldwide, and high-quality OpenStreetMap (OSM) data. Works offline as well.||44.94 MB|
|MapIt GIS- GPS data collector
||Supports GPS data collection and any kind of GPS / GNSS based surveys. A mobile GIS tool for land and field surveyors and anyone dealing with environmental and GIS data.||5.41 MB|
|GPS Field Area Measure
||Map measurement tool for range finder applications, tour planning, land survey, field pasture area measure, garden and farm work and planning, area records, agricultural and forest fencing and solar panel installation – roof area estimation.||17.48 MB|
||A combination of ODK Collect and OSM Tracker application that has the capability to track and plot object around us and to gather additional information of the object that we collect.||4.31 MB|
||Click on the map to add different points -Maps Measure will then calculate the distance, area or elevation between those points.||640 KB|
||The most complete GPS tool available: Navigate, manage waypoints, tracks, routes, and build your own dashboard from 45 widgets.||12.14 MB|
||Helps record your tracks, estimate travel times, and add place marks offline and photos to share with others. The app also lets you load up to 3 of your own geospatial PDF, GeoPDF®, GeoTIFF and JPG maps at a time.||29.39 MB|
||Offline GPS map app that helps you check maps even in the wilderness without mobile phone signal or internet connection.||14.12 MB|
||CitSci.org project coordinators create projects and devise datasheets that you can then select to enter your observations.||1.32 MB|
|India Biodiversity Portal (IBP)
||Allows you to map the Indian sub-continent’s biodiversity through citizen science.||12.54 MB|
|Marine Debris Tracker
||Records debris location through GPS and you can view the data on your phone and submit to the Marine Debris Tracker Website for viewing and download later.||13.26 MB|
||Record the birds you see in the field, and seamlessly link these observations with eBird- a global online database of bird records used by hundreds of thousands of birders around the world.||7.17 MB|
||Identification of some of the spiders in the field.||21.08 MB|
||Note butterfly sightings and identify the butterflies.||26.93 MB|
||Identify common trees in India and log in tree sightings.||24.88 MB|
||Identify different pollinators and report sightings of several species of bees, butterflies, moths, flies, birds and bats.||20.70 MB|
||Study phytoplankton in the oceans and see how their habitat is altering due to climate change.||4.26 MB|
||Find out what the peer reviewed science has to say about global warming.||0.97 MB|
||Teaches you how to use R, how to make and modify plots and run statistical tests.||Not sure
|Random Number Generator
||Not just a randomizer but also random name picker, decision maker, it can help you to roll dice, pick a random value from your list and shuffle it.||1.74 MB|
|multiConvert- Unit Converter
||Fully featured unit converter and calculator offering various units conversions.||3.23 MB|
|Allows you to send a distress SMS with your location to all emergency contacts added in the app settings. Works without internet or mobile network. Also lets you manually enter the location.||372 KB|
||Lets you use camera and compass together and mark directions.||2.34 MB|
||Lets you load PDFs, photos, audio, video clips, sketches, notes and so on. Also lets you sync all your devices and manage and view everything on a single device.||25.2 MB|
||Helps in writing your dissertation, organising your literature for easy retrieval, or reading journal articles on the go.||17.18 MB|
||Keeps your files and your team in sync. Anything you save in Dropbox can be easily accessed from all your devices.||57.77 MB|
|Polaris Office + PDF Editor
||All-in-one complete office suite compatible with MS Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Adobe PDF||45.69 MB|
||Capture pictures, geo-tag them, and share with the world. Build stories with pictures||22.10 MB|
|Google Photo Scan
||Scan your data sheets in the field, document them, and share your scanned documents on Google Drive, Hangout or even WhatsApp.
Scan old photographs and store them in any device.
Disclaimer: I am not trying to promote any of these apps on behalf of app developers or smartphone companies (as none of them have paid me to do so). I am trying to promote the potential of apps in research. And I hope I have convinced you to want to try some of them.
About the Author:
Soumya K. V. is a Research Associate working under the USAID-funded ‘Forests for Biodiversity and Wellbeing’ project. She is also a PhD Scholar at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa. Her PhD thesis is entitled ‘Contribution of Boswellia serrata Roxb. gum-resin to local livelihoods and implication of use on its ecology in the Western Ghats, Karnataka, India’. Other than her field work, she is fascinated by films, gadgets, mud racing, cycling and travelling.
Group Photograph of ODK Workshop Participants – Ovee Thorat