Mobile apps open up brave new world

For AusPlots Rangelands, having a mobile app has entailed scientists developing a new way of thinking about their data, and therefore the way they do science. Associate Professor Nikki Thurgate, the Director of the Multi-Scale Plot Network, which includes AusPlots Rangelands, said developing the app was much more complicated than just designing an electronic tool that would work well in the field, difficult though that was in its own right.

‘Data is something that researchers traditionally hold very close. They’ve worked hard for it, and they have a strong sense of ownership,’ Nikki says. ‘We’re trying to manage a fundamental shift in the way ecology is done, to have researchers share their data in central repositories so others can use it too. So when we came to develop the app we needed to make it really easy for them to do that. The app helps ecologists because it automates data entry in the field, saves time, increases accuracy, and because there is no data entry required back in the office.’

This frees the researcher to spend more time collecting other data or analysing and synthesising it, which in turn benefits science generally.

‘As scientists, that puts us in a much more powerful place: because the data collected is stored centrally, we can start to talk about scaling up biodiversity outcomes over the continent, rather than just where individual researchers are working,’ Nikki says.

‘During development, we had to understand what needed to be collected and how, in ways that take the burden off the researchers so they can concentrate on the research. We hope it makes data easier to integrate and makes their data more available and visible.

‘To do this, we needed a seamless connection to the technology side: how the data is stored, how easy it is to store, and how easy it is to access it again. We worked hand in hand with the Eco-informatics facility to solve the technological issues raised together. ÆKOS, the Eco-informatics data portal, is powerful in terms of flexibility and searchability, which assists ecologists synthesise data. That helps coordinate the science among the researchers as it provides a place where the full depth of their work can reside. Their work will also be of great value to many researchers, such as the modelling community, because data is locatable, citable and retrievable, and persists beyond the career of an individual.’

The leader of science and technology for the MSPN, Mr Ben Sparrow, said the development team invested a huge amount of time and thought in the design of the app.

‘We needed something that was particularly intuitive so people would use it, and we spent a lot of time designing how data is captured in a way that makes sense in the field,’ Ben says.

The app is a modular design, so scientists engaged in data collection can consider collecting one or more facets of the data, even if they don’t require the whole suite that’s available. Researchers can take a number of plant, soil and general site measurements in line with the methods described in the AusPlots Rangelands Survey Protocols Manual, which anyone can download from the TERN website.

Published in the TERN e-Newsletter October 2012

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