Remember those creepy crawlies on your front porch that you just couldn’t get rid of? Or that strange weasel like creature digging up your backyard even though you could’ve sworn there were no weasels in the area? Now, instead of (or before) automatically reaching for the longest, heaviest stick you can find, grab your smartphone.
New online tool Project Noah, launched out of NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, encourages amateur naturalists to post images of wildlife they find in their own backyard and see what others are discovering in their neighborhoods and across the globe. The tool, available for both iPhone and Android, is a hybrid web and mobile-based platform that can be used by citizen scientists to document a wide variety of wildlife. It has racked up over 13,000 downloads of the app within the first few months of its launch in 2011.
The apps interface is cleverly designed to resemble an authentic field guide with taped-in photographs. By sharing their discoveries, users can earn authentic scout-style badges, complete with miniature stitches. It’s remarkably easy to get started: The app allows users to log in with existing Google, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, Yahoo!, or Windows Live accounts, importing their names and avatars automatically, so there’s one less password to keep track of.
The Missions option lets users discover missions, as well as pre-existing organized groups focused on specific types of wildlife, such as Birds of the World, ensuring that there’s a community for every user, no matter what his or her interest. Users can scroll those the long list of missions, free to join any or all, and can even find missions that are close to them.
The Field Guide is one of the more interesting sections. It’s a compilation of all the wildlife that has been spotted near the user. It allows each user to add or edit information about plants or animals that they recognize - or even see if any neighbor’s have been wondering what on earth to do about that same weasel. A search box is conveniently placed at the top of all the screens, enabling users to find specific entries within their locations.
To share their discoveries, users are provided with a main My Noah page, where they can either add their own photographs or select one that’s already been taken. For animal shots, it’s often easier to add one that’s already been taken to make sure the subject in question doesn’t get away before you can open the app and take a shot. Either way, users can then scale and crop the image to size, then select the category of wildlife they’re adding. Categories include plants, mammals, birds, invertebrates, fungi, and reptiles.
The Field Guide section, while perhaps the most interesting for all the nature fiends out there, is also reportedly the most buggy. Users say that the app often selects a different picture from the one they intended to select, while photographs taken by the users themselves, frequently fail to upload at all. Also, while the app should automatically detect the user’s location via GPS when recording a new discovery, sometimes the location detected is incorrect and needs to be re-entered manually.
Developers acknowledge that the app seems to have an annoying habit of crashing when users try to upload a new discovery, but say that restarting the app will solve the problem. Among the other criticisms of the app is one centering on its name; many, although enthusiastic about what the app is trying to achieve, mourn the Biblical tale they think the name seems to support. It cannot be denied, however, that mythology makes for excellent metaphor.
There’s a ton of information users can add to their post, including the common and scientific name, description, habitat, and notes about each individual picture. Shots can also be tagged, either commonly used ones, or new ones specifically relating to the post, to make the entry easier to find.
Users can follow other users to keep up with the animals they’ve spotted, and can also earn patches for their achievements and discoveries. Project Noah appears to target the most appealing aspects of social networks like Foursquare and hobby-sharing websites like Flickr - using modern technology to help get people, literally, back to their roots.