Michigan Tech Students Develop Phone Apps for Citizen Scientists

By Monica Lester | Published

The world is a vast place with a deep history. Scientists try to capture it all, but they cannot identify all the details. That is where you, the citizen, comes in. A group of students and faculty from Michigan Tech are trying to bridge the gap between citizens and scientists with multiple smartphone applications, especially the EthnoApp.

Cyber Citizens is the name of the project, and it is sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The project’s goal is building smartphone applications and websites to help citizens and scientists acquire environmental information.

Led by Alex Mayer, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and project director, and Robert Pastel, an associate professor of computer science and co-principal investigator, a group of graduate and undergraduate students have been working to develop citizen-science smartphone applications and websites. Undergraduate and graduate computer science students in a Human-Computer Interactions class collaborate with the scientific and technical communication students in their Usability/Instructions Writing class. Psychology students, senior design students and two students in the summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program also help with the project’s development. Working together, the students get real world experience collaborating across different disciplines and working for real clients.

Cyber Citizens has developed at least four different applications in collaboration with scientists from around the United States. They plan to develop more each semester. Their current apps are:  Beach Health Monitor, an application that helps assess whether a beach is safe for swimming by looking at environmental multiple factors; Lichen AQ (Air Quality), an application that looks at lichen to detect air pollution; Mushroom Mapper, an application that helps locate and describe the habitats of different species of mushrooms; and finally, EthnoApp.

The Community Ethnography App (EthnoApp) is used to collect interviews, photos and other information to assist anthropologists and archaeologists in their research. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ethnography as the study of systematic recording of human cultures. The EthnoApp has the potential to be used to interview anyone during an experience to gain information about the history of the landscape and setting. It can attach geographical locations to interviews and photos while research is being conducted.

All the information EthnoApp gathers can be made available to share online. Its first user is hoping to do just that. Anna Lee Presley, a PhD student in the Industrial Heritage and Archaeology program in social sciences at Michigan Tech, is using the EthnoApp to collect interviews from people who live in Paavola, Mich. or like to visit the Paavola Wetlands Preserve.

Presley’s research is in collaboration with the Keweenaw Land Trust. Through these interviews, she hopes to learn how Finnish American agricultural practices influenced the Paavola area’s landscape.

Presley was introduced to the EthnoApp project by one of her advisors who thought that it would help her in her research. By using the smartphone application, she will be able to collect data that traditional methods would limit.  “The EthnoApp will help us to understand the archaeology of the area because it gives us a way to tie the stories of living people and their histories to particular places that can in turn give us some suggestions for further information that we can find out about the landscapes,” she says. “It could direct us towards ideal places to excavate in the future and can help to enhance the story of those places.” She finds the application very easy to use, and she looks for the community involvement with her research. She stresses that the community is important in this documentation and is the key source for information.

(If you are interested in learning more about Presley’s research, email her at annaleepresley@gmail.com)

Creating this kind of collaboration between citizens and scientists has many benefits. First of all, field-based research is typically very expensive. Mayer explains: “With citizen science, you’re essentially turning the citizen into a sensor that can collect the information. So from a practical standpoint, it’s a money saver.”

Pastel says, “By sharing knowledge, maybe it will elicit more from the citizens.” Cyber Citizens sees another benefit to citizens collecting the data, says Pastel. “If the citizens are involved in the science, hopefully they become better informed about the science. They also may be able to contribute information that the scientist never even thought of.”

While the other smartphone applications are still to be finished, the EthnoApp is available in its beta version, meaning that it still needs further development. “We encourage people to use it, and if they do find bugs, let us know, and we will try to fix them,” Pastel says. There is a link to the downloadable version on http://citizenscience.cs.mtu.edu/, where you can also find more information on the Cyber Citizens project.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.