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Smartphone app targets invasive species

With the tap of a touchscreen, smartphone users can help environmentalists combat invasive species.

The Department of Conservation and Recreation of Massachusetts, in collaboration with University of Massachusetts Associate Professor Charles Schweik, is working to involve the public in the fight against invasive species.

Once the app is downloaded to a smartphone, “citizen scientists” can take pictures of invasive species they may see in everyday life, tag them with GPS coordinates and send them in to a centralized database, where they will be reviewed by UMass researchers for veracity and severity. Once processed, this data will be sent to professionals responsible for combating said plants.

Schweik, who teaches both for the Center for Public Policy and Administration at UMass and for the environmental conservation department, and Jennifer Fish, director of the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Service Forestry program in Amherst, received a grant from the U.S. Forest Service to fund the project.

Schweik says the time is crucial for fighting invasive species. Invasive species, which are defined by the US Department of Agriculture as species nonnative to the ecosystem under consideration and whose introduction causes economic or environmental harm or harm to human health, have been a large problem in Western Massachusetts recently, according to Schweik.

In 2008, an outbreak of the Asian Longhorned Beetle led to the destruction of nearly 30,000 trees in Worcester County. Although that outbreak was brought under control, there are a number of emergent threats which could cause even more severe harm to the ecosystem, according to Schweik.

“The hope is if we can keep vigilant, and look with lots of eyes, if there is a sighting, officials can get to them quickly and take care of them before they spread,” said Schweik.

The Outsmart Invasive Species Project is part of a larger movement called “crowdsourcing,” in which companies or organizations task the general public with completing a job, rather than an in-house team or an outside contractor. Schweik said “we are moving into the era of ‘ubiquitous computing,’ where computing is everywhere and both decentralized and also moving back to centralized (e.g., ‘the cloud’).”

He added that “the idea of the Web, coupled with mobile computing, and the large numbers of people on the Internet, has led to the idea of ‘crowdsourcing,’ where large numbers of people contribute to work.”

“I’ve gotten very interested in the idea of how we can deploy and utilize larger numbers of people to help solve environmental problems,” he explained.

By asking the general public for help, projects such as Schweik’s can get far more work done than they ever would by attempting to do it themselves. Locating invasive species is a task aptly suited for crowdsourcing, explained Schweik, as a large mass of people casually keeping an eye out for invasive species is far more effective overall than a small team of paid professionals searching full-time.

Participants in this program need not have expert knowledge of local flora and fauna – the app provides them with images and descriptions of all the species on their target lists. If one does not have a smartphone capable of running the app, one can still participate using a digital camera and uploading the pictures to the project’s website.

In 2010, Schweik developed a similar program to help rescue workers in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP-owned Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded off Louisiana that April.

Four months prior to the spill, Schweik and other researchers began to work on the smartphone app for invasive species, and adapted it to suit the need in the Gulf.

Schweik said the technology is also inspiring other environmental groups to craft new ways to help wildlife and animals.

“We’ve been contacted by a biologist from the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network to adapt the program to help allow iPhone users to locate animals in need,” said Griffin. “They’re going to use a similar program to locate sea otters and other animals stranded on the shore.”

Through “citizen scientists,” the researchers hope to enhance the efficiency of response efforts from Alaska to the trees of the Commonwealth.

Steven McCarthy can be reached at smmccart@student.umass.edu. Michelle Williams also contributed to this report.

 

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