DORIS-a research tool

DORIS, a research tool designed for sampling and mapping European lobsters.

Smart phone technology is revolutionising ecological and evolutionary research say scientists from the University of Exeter


Smart phones and their apps (application software) are now used by millions of people worldwide. These new technologies are changing lives, styles of communication, and how businesses and researchers interact through an impressive package of sensors, information transfer, and computing power.

The combination of an internet enabled smart phone and apps can enable users around the world to collect valuable research data in the field, or simplify the process of mass participation in citizen science projects.

The varied and valuable uses of smart phones and their apps deserve much wider scientific recognition and exploitation by environmental researchers say the team which has this week published a review of the options for research app development.

Led by Dr Amber Teacher from the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute (ESI), the group considered the potential for using smart phones to collect varied data in ways which are simpler, quicker, and more effective than traditional approaches.

In illustrating their research, the team drew upon case studies including: the ESI’s popular Magpie Mapper app, which in just over a year has generated over 30,000 data points; and DORIS, a research tool designed for sampling and mapping European lobsters.

“Research in the field has traditionally been performed by a small number of people using a lot of equipment ranging from handheld sensors and calculators to data storage devices” said Dr Teacher commenting on the benefits to be derived from using a single device. “Now new technologies exist which we can exploit not only to make research more efficient but also to allow anyone around the world to contribute to scientific discovery. Smart phone apps designed for data gathering are a great way to do this.”

The pace of change of technology means that new apps are being developed all the time. “In times when public understanding of scientific culture is more critical than ever before, open source technology provides one important method for engaging with new sections of the public” said freelance software artist David Griffiths (FoAM Kernow) who was part of the team which developed the DORIS app. “Projects like this represent important ways for universities to reach out to practitioners working in different disciplines to collaborate in emerging technologies."

Looking to the near future, and the significant changes anticipated in the research application of smart phone technologies, Alex Huke Research role, a co-author on the paper and creator of Magpie Mapper said:  “Specific smart phones targeted at emerging economies will soon broaden the range of participants in citizen science, and new wearable computing technology has the potential to dramatically change the way that we can collect scientific data.”

The Environment and Sustainability Institute is working with businesses and enterprises across all sectors of the economy in Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly and beyond to translate research and expertise into innovative business practices, products and services. It has been funded by the European Regional Development Fund Convergence Programme (£22.9M) and the South West Regional Development Agency (£6.6M), with significant support from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

This review of smart phone technology was funded through a Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship, and grants to Dr Teacher by the Academy of Finland and the University of Helsinki. DORIS was funded in part by The Fishmongers' Company, and via a European Social Fund PhD student position.

Smart phones in Ecology and Evolution: A Guide for the App-rehensive has been published this week in the open access journal Ecology and Evolution.

Date: 3 December 2013

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