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How to Use Your Smartphone to Download Mother Nature

While the devices we use may be made of plastic and metal, ultimately their applications can be mobilized to remind us that, like trees, the…

The Wilderness Gets Wired

While mobile devices have already revolutionized the nature of commerce, socialization, and creativity, to name a few, it was only a matter of time before they would alter the way we interact with nature itself.  Apple recently featured some iPhone Apps for the Great Outdoors to assist consumers with optimizing their environmental excursions. Frank Barry, in a article , explored how the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has been utilizing Foursquare, Google Maps, and even Geocaching to help Generation Y forge a deeper connection with and appreciation of the natural world.

A Walk in the Park Just Got Easier

On their Nature Find website, a Google Maps mashup, visitors are encouraged to search for nearby nature sites and events.  A search for New York, NY yielded 189 sites and 2139 events within 25 miles of New York, NY, including wildlife refuges, conservancies, botanical gardens, and even arboreta.  NatureFind, its namesake iPhone app, allows users to harness this technology remotely. The Central Park Conservancy has also developed a very user-friendly app which features park trivia, a directory of park highlights and points of interest, and a GPS-coordinated map for the spatially challenged.

A Different Way to Hunt

Geocaching, as defined by Groundspeak, is a “a high-tech treasure hunting game played throughout the world by adventure-seekers equipped with GPS devices. The basic idea is to locate hidden containers, called geocaches, outdoors and then share your experiences online.”  Ranger Rick's Geocache Trails on the NWF website targets children and families, urging them to kindle their spirit of adventure.  In order to play, potential participants are instructed to print Ranger Rick’s Geocaching Passport, which features eight anthropomorphic animals--the original purveyors of the geocaches.

Eco-tourism Has a New Guide

Broadcastr, a storytelling app, was surprisingly featured in The Smart Phone as Tour Guide for Central Park.  According to Joshua Brustein, “From the listener’s perspective, the greatest potential for the app comes from the Geoplay mode, in which it automatically plays stories relevant to your location. When I turned this mode on while walking into Central Park, a historian began telling details of the park’s conception and construction. Later, I heard a man discuss the surveying that took part in the park as part of the plan to create the 1811 street grid, and a story from a woman who once saw Yoko Ono in a Bentley outside the Dakota.”

An Introduction to File-Sharing, for Animals

Neukadye has developed a novel app for the iPhone and Android, dubbed WildObs (short for Wildlife Observations), which urges users to capture the plant and animal species that they encounter, and log these images or musings to share with other users.  User pianamon, for example, posted a WildOb of a Hedgerow Hairstreak from Caribou Ranch in Boulder County, Colorado.  He noted, “This Hedgerow Hairstreak (Satyrium saepium) was uncharacteristically sluggish and stayed on this bunch of stonecrop long enough for me to get within inches for a photo. After a wet spring, the stonecrop is blooming brightly all over Caribou Ranch Open Space attracting butterflies.”

Ready for Your Close-Up?

Leafsnap, however, is perhaps the most innovative nature app on the market, integrating leaf identification algorithms with visual recognition software to ascertain tree species native to New York City and Washington, D.C. using photos of their leaves.  Conceived by Peter Belhumeur of Columbia University, David Jacobs of the University of Maryland, and John Kress of the Smithsonian Institution, Leafsnap came to fruition through the efforts of designers, coders and Finding Species, a not-for-profit nature photography group.  Featured on engadget, smartplanet, and lifehacker, Leafsnap is unique in that it is free and intended to be utilized not only for aesthetic appreciation, but also as a research tool to monitor fluctuations in biodiversity.


While the fractal structure of plants has always been awe-inspiring for mathematicians and botanists, now laymen too have the opportunity to delve deeper in their exploration of the mathematical structure of natural world thanks to the power of clever engineering.  Although some critics may be apprehensive that our increasing reliance on technology is dissociating our culture from its natural rhythms, it appears that it may, in fact, be enabling us to connect in a far more detailed, albeit different, way.  While the devices we use may be made of plastic and metal, ultimately their applications can be mobilized to remind us that, like trees, the roots of humanity also consist of carbon.

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