Citizens wielding mobile devices are changing politics, consumption patterns and social life. Now, thanks to Project NOAH, or Networked Organisms and Habitats--a free mobile application for iPhone and Android, born as a 2009 ITP class project--amateur nature-lovers worldwide can scout and record their observations and help advance science.
Project NOAH’s online hub is a digital community. The site organizes users’ findings--flora and fauna sightings, species’ habitat, images, location, notes--and hosts large, collaborative missions. Out in the world, researchers and ‘citizen scientists’ explore and upload their discoveries. After less than a year, the data is already helping the study of, for example, distressed pollinators and invasive beetles. The platform takes powerful advantage of smartphones’ built-in GPS and computational capabilities. When users capture, notate and upload photo submissions, the documentation automatically includes geographic coordinates and date and time stamps. The data is a boon to educators and one day could benefit government biologists, conservation advocates and museum curators, among others.
Project NOAH quickly attracted name-brand partners and sponsors, including the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and National Geographic, which was so excited about the venture, it invested. The founders came up with the idea while taking a class on combining technology with social activism. They were still graduate students when, in early 2010, the project won a $50,000 prize for being a “Breakthrough in Mobile Learning” from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center (Cooney co-founded the Children’s Television Workshop). The founders want to “help people get reconnected with nature,” says Yasser Ansari, 30, who has always had a passion for living things.
Project NOAH’s “Field Mission” mode holds the most promise. A Field Mission lets researchers crowd-source images and data, to achieve specific goals. Currently underway: documenting the impact of the Gulf Coast oil spill and which vegetable varieties are best for home gardens. Contributors range from school children doing science-fair projects to a teacher in Spain with more than 1000 entries. One day soon, Ansari says, Field Missions could draw sponsorship from museums, municipal governments and corporations. So while amateurs have fun and learn, and a rich scientific database is built, revenue can also be generated.