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How Smartphones Will Replace Bird Surveys

Once again, science has figured out how to tap all our constant tapping.
via Mike Baird/Flickr

The longest running “citizen scientist program” in the world started Saturday as the National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count began sending out groups of bird-watching enthusiasts to count all the birds in a specified 15-mile radius over 24 hours. Depending on the weather, it sounds like a charming excuse for walkin’ in a winter wonderland, but it also sounds like science fraught with the possibility of human error: writing down the wrong birds, being in the wrong place, redundant counting of birds in one area one day that migrate to another the next.

That’s why the future of amateurs chipping in on research looks less like listening for birds in the woods and a lot more like sending a tweet. The smartphone, built to swiftly collect location data, circumvents one source of errors when science crowdsources.


Throwback or not, the National Audubon Society still gets a lot of use out of the Christmas Bird Count. The data set reaches back 114 years, and has been used to track the rise, spread, and fall of bird populations. After starting as a counter-tradition to the annual tradition of shooting as many birds as you could on Christmas, the bird count alerted conservationists to declining numbers of the American black duck in the 1980s, and the 2007 data was used to track the spread of the West Nile virus through the Northeast.

But the Christmas Bird Count works by relying on two things that other citizen scientists programs can’t really count on, especially not while they’re starting out: longevity and volume. The count has a central authority that ensures the same areas are monitored, often by the same people, using the same methods each year. Pooling all of the geographic data collected disparately makes up for variations or shortcomings of individual bird-circles.

Researchers who want to employ a science-thirsty public—not just to raise enthusiasm and attract the next generation of scientists, but also to collect data farther and wider than is possible with just the research team—have found a way to bring in a big body of data without needing to collect data for a century or longer. Instead of starting by establishing a network of conservation groups across the continent, crowdsourcing begins by building an app and getting into one or two app stores.


While crowdsourcing from people at home has been used to find distant galaxies as well as count the plankton in the ocean, smartphones open field work to the citizen scientist. A good app can utilize the phone’s geo-location data to pinpoint where other information is being collected right away, and also give feedback—even if it’s just making the data you’ve uploaded show up on a map—which turns data collection into something more fun and rewarding.

Take, for example, the Poo Power app. Starting in Australia, as a project to collect dog poop and turn it into electricity, Poo Power’s global app employs iPhones—and people who aren’t ashamed to take pictures of piles of dog shit that they find—to create a “Global Poo map” that the app creators hope will facilitate a “discussion of the scientific, social and environmental issues of dog waste.”

Or if you’d prefer your pollution studies to not carry a heavy smell, consider downloading Noisetube, which turns smartphones into mobile noise meters. People with the app on their phones can measure how loud their city is, tag the measurements based off of source and how obnoxious the sound was, and upload the data to a Google map.

There are apps for reporting everything from snowfall to light pollution, but even without downloading an app, smartphone data can form the basis for whole data sets. Motherboard’s Meghan Neal reported on how public information from Twitter was being used to track instances of food poisoning.

True, collecting all of this data makes you more interesting to advertisers and creates a big data set for governments to tap, but given that people always have their phones with them and almost always have them out, they may as well donate some of their clicks and swipes. Our attachment to our phones makes them useful for pestering us to take medicine on time, or even to donate blood when there’s a shortage. The way they’ve conditioned us to constantly be sharing has an upside too.