A modern-day, interactive field guide for smartphones

What if Charles Darwin and Edward O. Wilson had created FourSquare? That question is the impetus behind Project Noah, a website and smart phone app that serves as a modern-day electronic field guide with about 8,000 organism listings from more than 150 countries.

What if Charles Darwin and Edward O. Wilson had created Foursquare?

That question is the impetus behind Project Noah, a website and smartphone app that serves as a modern-day electronic field guide with about 8,000 organism listings from more than 150 countries.

I spoke recently with Yasser Ansari, Project Noah co-founder and a 2010 PopTech fellow, about the app.

How did Project Noah come about?

We started Project Noah out of grad school at New York University. It was in the Interactive Telecommunications Program, a two-year grad program touching on technology, art, design. It's a collaborative think tank.

We took a class with Nathan Freitas, who does work using technology for social activism. In that class, we got to explore how we could use technology to support a social cause. I'd always been interested in seeing how we could apply mobile technology to nature and wildlife. I had this concept about using mobile devices to document and explore nature, kind of like a modern-day field guide. That class gave us the opportunity to explore that idea.

I got together with a couple of classmates and we decided to give this idea a shot. We built a prototype of a website and an iPhone application and put it out there. We had no real plans to go much beyond that, but we got some great feedback. We kept pushing it and that's how we got to where we are.

What's really interesting to me is this idea of citizen science. It is opportunities for people who aren't professionals to get involved. I noticed in this citizen science concept focused on nature that there was a lot of fragmentation. There was one group called Project Squirrel trying to enlist people to help them find squirrel sightings. There are other ones focused on ladybugs and invasive species and mushrooms. All these cool projects had their own website interface.

With Project Noah, we wanted to create a centralized mobile platform where people could plug in those project initiatives and create other initiatives for fun and exploration. It's one collective group of people to keep an eye out for interesting organisms and share them on mobile devices.

How does Project Noah work?

Our application and website have three simple modes:

  1. The first mode is the spotting mode -- your way of sharing your encounters with nature. You grab a photo, categorize it, confirm your location, add some descriptive text, like what it looks like, then you submit it. Whether you found a beautiful bird or there's an invasive species you're tracking, it's based on sharing your encounters with nature.
  2. The next mode is the location-based field guide. Based on your current location, we'll show you all the wildlife that's been spotted around you. It changes based on your location. When people submit sightings, we have the opportunity for the community to help identify them and then you're linked to Wikipedia or the Encyclopedia of Life. It's a very location-aware field guide.
  3. Field missions is the third mode. A lot of them are ongoing citizen science projects that I came across or people have approached us on. They're quests or adventures that you can participate in that have a particular focus.

Some consider technology the reason why people don't spend as much time in nature. Why did you decide to bring technology and nature together?

Technology takes our attention. We thought we could use that. We're immersed in these devices, so what if you use that tendency to create a portal back into nature? It's somewhat ironic that we're trying to use technology that was traditionally considered a distraction to reconnect with the planet. If you look at the younger generation especially, technology is almost an intuitive extension of their lives. If you don't build the tools on the platforms they're comfortable with, you're missing [the chance to make] them nature enthusiasts.

Are young people your primary users?

There is definitely a draw to a younger audience. A lot of teachers are using it in the classroom. It resonates in the educational space. The way I describe it is a place-based educational platform. It's about bringing knowledge to the users through documentation and sharing. We have a wide variety of users. Our top five to six users globally are probably all over 40 and live internationally and are female.

We do try to give it a fun, educational focus. But we want people to have a comfortable place that's not judgmental. If you don't know the genus and species and Latin name or exactly what you're looking at, you're not going to be ostracized. We appeal to this casual, younger, not super-experienced group of users, but we rely on experts and people with deep knowledge of a specific field to help identify species and help us learn more about them.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com