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Want a 'Star Trek' tricorder? Your smart phone could be getting close.

With a growing army of citizen scientists, the mobile technologies in a smart phone could help researchers improve weather forecasts or track the impact of a changing climate on vegetation. 

By Staff writer / August 14, 2013



The "Star Trek" tricorder, that invaluable tool for figuring out if Capt. James T. Kirk's next breath on a new planet would be his last, may not be that far from its debut.

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Researchers are taking advantage of the hidden and not-so-hidden features of off-the-shelf smart phones and tablets to improve weather forecasts and keep tabs on the amount of particulates in the air – as well as perform more-routine tasks such as tracking changes in vegetation with the seasons or monitoring the water level in streams.

The goal is to develop apps and inexpensive add-ons that allow a growing army of citizen scientists to gather the data that researchers are seeking but don't have the time or graduate students to gather.

The term crowdsourcing may be relatively new, but in the world of science, enlisting the help of people outside academia to help with research isn't. Still, it is changing character.

Amateur astronomers have long helped their professional colleagues with observations that the professionals didn't have time to gather themselves. With the advent of personal computing, people could turn their PCs into number crunchers for climate modelers, cellular biologists, and researchers sifting through signals from radio telescopes in hopes of finding E.T.

The widespread popularity of smart phones and tablets, which host powerful processors and lots of memory to accommodate still and video cameras (in addition to making phone calls), means that researchers have a potentially huge army of data hounds. If willing to add an app, or in some cases a small clip-on device to their phone, these people can provide important environmental data at a more fine-grained level, over a wider geographic reach, and potentially over longer periods of time than any one researcher or team of researchers might gather, notes Sandra Henderson, director of citizen science for the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) and cofounder of Project BudBurst.

Tapping the mobile technologies in people's purses and pockets to support basic or applied research has been gaining momentum over the past couple of years, Dr. Henderson says. Project BudBurst enlists anyone interested to use their smart phones to track the life cycle of key plant species throughout the year to help researchers monitor the impact of a changing climate on vegetation.

Given the advances in phone capacity and capabilities, she also says she foresees apps that can share information between different observations, so that a photo of a bursting bud tagged with location information from the phone's GPS receiver also carries information gleaned from an app that uses sensors on the phone to record weather conditions at the time the bud opens – or perhaps for a week or more prior to the bud's opening.

"We're on the cusp of that," she says.

Some features, such as built-in cameras and GPS receivers, have obvious applications for recording when a tree first opens its leaves or what the height of water is as it passes along a stream gauge.

Other potential tools are less obvious and require a eureka moment or two.

For instance, OpenSignal, a company in Britain that has developed an app for finding the best Wi-Fi or cell signal given your location, was reviewing its data about a year ago to see what impact the use of 3G or 4G networks had on drawing down a phone's battery.

One clue came from readings taken by a phone's temperature sensors, which phones carry to sense whether a battery is being overcharged.

"We found a really strong correlation between battery temperature and historic daily temperatures," says James Robinson, the company's cofounder and chief technology officer.

In addition, smart phones can measure light intensity and the intensity of magnetic fields. And with the newest offerings from Samsung, phones have included dedicated air-temperature and humidity sensors.

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