Introduction: Using a Smartphone for Low Level Science Field Work

This is my first instructable writing about something that's not a hobby. How exciting! But also a bit scary...I don't have much experience in doing environmental field work besides some 'mock' field work assignments I've had to do for some classes, so feel free to leave comments and suggestions - I might use your ideas when I'm doing actual research this year ~

If you're a parent and want your kids to go explore the great outdoors, but can't get them off their phone, you can adapt some of these ideas to incorporate their love for their smartphone with feeding a curiosity about nature! I hope that this helps combine two things that are normally pitted against each other.

This is also my entry for the #rethinkphone contest, so please vote for this instructable if you like it!

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The Inspirations

When Team Brain Scoop took a trip to the Amazon and documented their field research on camera, it really caught my attention when they were talking about how limited camera equipment they were allowed to bring...

I was taking an Environmental Justice course after running a college mentorship program at a continuation school. We learned about the low tech methods marginalized communities (like the one I had been running my program in) used for environmental monitoring - they are affected disproportionately by diseases triggered by environmental factors, such as asthma, so we read case studies on things like bucketbrigades. Now that there's so much commercial monitoring technology (especially for health and fitness...fitness watches, digital cutting boards, etc....), we had discussed how these devices - designed to be sold more as luxuries - might be used to help those marginalized communities. I had noticed while working in classrooms that the technology most students had (and the only technology most of the students had ever been exposed to) were smartphones....

Step 1: Let's Go on an Adventure - Part 1: My Phone

This is the phone I'll be using for this instructable. It's a cheap phone (I got it for free, but even at regular price it only costs $50, which to me is pretty low compared to my old Samsung phone) - I think this is an important factor for thinking about environmental monitoring since accessibility to technology is important for communities that are affected most by environmental issues.

I keep my phone in a wallet case, so there's space to put a small pad of paper and maybe even a mini pen. Since I'm actually visiting places to find a research topic and going to talk to scientists and park rangers, it's more of a nice gesture to take notes on paper (to show that you're paying attention and not just texting on your phone). I also remember things better when I'm writing a hard copy of notes, and it's good to have it in case something goes wrong with note taking on a phone!

Step 2: Let's Go on an Adventure - Part 2: Simple (and Obvious) Uses

Photos!

Taking lots of photos while you're visiting your study site helps with remembering details to your observations. When hiking along a lake for a case study project, I found that taking lots of pictures as we were walking along our hiking trail made details easier to remember. Here are some ideas of things to take notice of:

  • Are there any animals? Are there signs of animals, like tracks, sounds, or scat?
  • How is the landscape? Is it well kept, or is it more neglected? Is there litter?
  • If you're in a place with water, are there any broken pipelines?
  • Where do people normally stay in this area? Is there a reason why people don't go to other areas open to them?
  • Is there anything that seems off in the area? Oil, trash, strange smells, etc?
  • Is there anything interesting in terms of urban planning (for example, some areas with roads and parking lots leading down to water will have a bioswale, to keep some pollution out of the water)

Note taking

Although taking pictures is helpful for remembering what things looked like, keeping notes is important to record things you've learned! Especially if you learn something from the things you've observed from an expert (such as a park ranger, or perhaps a teacher or scientist), it's important to have notes down to remember those details not seen in pictures later. It's also helpful with keeping track of the locations of your observations (for example, you can note how things are different on the right side of a path compared to the left side, or street names). Again, I prefer to do this in a separate notebook, but it's definitely possible to keep these notes on your phone (one way can be using Snapchat and downloading your pictures with captions, or any other picture app that lets you add captions).

Step 3: Other Possibilities

Mapping

If you want to do something more advanced, you can utilize the GPS on your phone to do some mapping of your observations. There are some apps available for citizen science (such as those mentioned here and here, which range from things like mapping plants and animals).

If you have access to Google Earth Engine and have experience with geographic information systems, you can also create your own maps, including notes and pictures for each mapped point. You can also create your own surveys to help organize the types of information you collect (such as, rating scales, multiple choice, latitude and longitude, sound, photos, etc.). I don't have too much experience with this (yet...maybe), but there are plenty of helpful tutorials from Google here, under Open Data Kit.

Step 4: More Ideas?

In this step, I'll be writing about ideas on things that don't exist yet, are maybe just now being developed, or might currently be really new so I haven't heard of it yet ~

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So, I have a tenancy to carry charms on my phone. Since making phone charms from polymer clay is one of my hobbies, I have an abundance of them.

So, what if instead of just being tiny pieces of molded plastic, those phone charms included sensors that can take measurements from the surrounding environment (perhaps similar to something like Clarity). You can track things (like air pollution, or maybe eventually even clean, potable water) for different locations, and even help contribute to crowd sourcing data!

Are there any other ideas for ways you can use a smartphone for exploring and recording data from the great outdoors? Leave a comment below, and don't forget to vote for this instructable in the #rethinkphone contest! :D

Comments

author
tdoggkillz (author)2015-08-26

I am a consulting biologist and use much of what you have suggested every day. I cannot stress the importance of taking photos, photos and more photos! You can never have enough for a client or field study.

A couple of suggestions:

1) Always keep the subject material focused and keep the orientation the same (usually this is dictated by the study material, vertical for trees, horizontal for landscapes, you get the idea).

2) Many phones come with automatic geolocation metadata that can be added to any photo in post-production. It's an excellent idea to make sure it's on.

3) I have learned the hard way not to keep your notes and photos in the same place. "Putting all your eggs in one basket" is not a great idea when water and cliffs are often involved. It really sucks to re-do data because it has become lost. REALLY sucks >_<.

Anyway, hope I helped your cause. Good luck in the environmental world!

author
Ammelanoleuca (author)tdoggkillz2015-08-26

Thank you, and thank you for the suggestions! (I hope you don't mind that I featured it because I think your suggestions are great)

I've only done field work for classes were in urban areas (around a lake in a public park area, and another time looking for trees in a residential neighborhood) and keeping notes with a phone seemed alright in both situations (although I was using a separate notebook both times), so your expertise is very helpful ^_^

author
xanxer82 (author)2015-08-28

Great ideas! Some of which have come in handy while doing research. I've also discovered that a Rite in the Rain notebook with a couple of pencils is a great thing to record some notes in.

Additionally, many organizations have apps that make use of your phone's camera and GPSr unit to create occurrence data for flora and fauna observed. Part of my research is a citizen science project that tracks invasive plants via an app. Our team developed the app and we train people how to use it.

author
candicreator (author)2015-08-26

I love this idea thanks sooo much

author

Thank you!

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Bio: Environmental Sciences student and polymer clay artist. I like making things that are tiny, nerdy, and cute!
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