July 30, 2009—New smart-phone applications may enable the public to help scientists monitor invasive species and collect data in a fraction of the time it normally takes.
© 2009 National Geographic (AP)
In the Santa Monica Mountains just north of Los Angeles, National Park Service workers have begun to use cell phones for data collection. With more people using smart phones, equipped with cameras and GPS, the Center for Embedded and Networked Sensing, or CENS, has developed a way for anyone with a phone to input data into a project. The Park Service had the perfect problem to solve: they needed to track the ranges of invasive plants that have come to California from other parts of the world. These plants lack natural competitors and often crowd out native species. SOUNDBITE (English) Phil Rundell, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA: "There are a variety of groups around the world really concerned about invasive species. It perhaps is one of the major environmental issues of the twenty-first century. And I think a unique feature of what our group is doing, is we're trying to get this as a citizen science or, we call it participatory sensing, that's using sensors in the form of a cell phone, to get an educated general public out there to help with these kinds of jobs. One of the kinds of things we're very interested in doing is mapping these distributions and looking at how dynamic they are. We know some of these species are dramatically expanding their ranges." In the past, the Park Service tracked the growth of the ranges of invasive plants like this yellow flowered Spanish Broom, with hand-written forms and GPS coordinates. According to the AP, The system was inefficient and time consuming for employees who needed to be constantly on the move. With smart phones from CENS, the Park Service collected in just weeks an amount of data that would have previously taken years to gather. SOUNDBITE (English) Charlie Hone, Botanist and Plant Ecologist, National Park Service, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area: "Well we were given phones that we were able to take with us into the field when we were doing our normal jobs. And since I am a botanist I'm often surveying vegetation up in the mountains anyway, and so every time I came across a weed like Spanish Broom, especially a new occurrence we didn't know about, all I would have to do is take a photograph of it and it would automatically be linked to a GPS point and we wouldn't have to do any data entry, it doesn't even really slow us down. So we're able to document the occurrence and spread of these plants while we're doing our normal jobs." Invasive species like Spanish Broom and Harding Grass are often more resilient than local plants and have few if any evolved competitors or animals to check their growth.
SOUNDBITE (English) Sasank Reddy, graduate student researcher at CENS and a PhD candidate in the Department of Electrical Engineering: "On campus we wanted to do something where we can explore the flora that exist around our university. So we had students go out into UCLA and take pictures of things that are blooming at the time. So we had an application that students around campus could use and you can capture the actual photo, capture a photo of these flowers around campus." According to the AP, Students submitted about 4,000 photos in only two weeks. This campaign served as a way to test the group's technology before deploying it with the Park Service. After working with ecologists, environmental engineers, seismologists and marine biologists to improve their data collection, the CENS group developed the idea of participatory sensing with cell phones to replace expensive embedded sensors. This project shows the potential for everyday people to get involved in science and other data gathering projects that can be helpful both to science and society.