Thursday, December 3, 2009

iPhone Users: The App Is Out There

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn Writes: It’s finally out. We had a last-minute conference call yesterday afternoon -- involving Ithaca, Charlottesville, Philadelphia, Monterey, Singapore, and me in Oak Harbor -- making sure everything was set up, and then Todd told Apple to release it to the App Store. Within a couple of hours the app was available online, and reviews of it were appearing here and there on the internet.

If you’re just joining us -- if you have been out paying attention to birds, for example, rather than the latest in tech toys -- "app" is short for "application," but the millions of people downloading these applications for use on their iPhones just call them "apps." An iPhone -- well, that’s like a supercharged combination of a cell phone and an iPod, and it can do everything from place calls to navigate cross-country, to check the stock market, to send e-mail, to store photos, to play games, to play music (of course, just like an iPod). And an iPod is -- well, it’s a good demonstration of how fast the world has been changing recently.

But anyway, with the new app for iPhone, you can instantly find out what birds are being seen in your area, how recently, and exactly where, and you can go straight to the spot and see them for yourself.

The new app is called "BirdsEye," and it was developed by three certifiable geniuses named Todd Koym, Pete Myers, and Carl Coryell-Martin. Pete happens to be an old friend of mine (and a top-notch bird expert), which is why I got invited to take part in the project. Todd and Carl are relatively new to birding. But Todd had gotten the bug for birding in a big way, and he wanted to find new birds for his life list. He knew that he could report bird sightings to the big Project eBird, an online database (run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society) that collects millions of sightings monthly. But Todd wondered: could he turn that around, extract recent sightings from eBird in a well-organized way, so that the information could become a powerful tool for bird-finding?

As it turned out, the people at eBird were all in favor of the idea, and they worked with us to develop the necessary software to pull reports out of eBird in real time and straight into the BirdsEye app. My role in the project was to write short species accounts for 847 species of birds -- not how to identify them, but tips on how to find them, in terms of their behavior and where they would be in the habitat. I also had some input on the overall design, with the occasional conference call involving Todd in Charlotteville, Virginia, Carl in Singapore, and Pete bouncing all over the map. It was a great privilege to be in on these discussions, to hear how these brilliant tech-savvy guys discussed what was possible in programming the application. I think it turned out great, and while I can’t take any credit for that, I’m happy to tell my friends all about it.

It’s not a field guide -- that is, not a guide to identifying birds, it’s a guide to finding them, and it runs on an iPhone or on an iPod Touch. I’ve got it on an iPod Touch in front of me right now as I type this. When I turn it on and open up BirdsEye, the opening screen gives me a number of options. Say I go into "Find Nearby Birds" -- it calculates my location (built-in GPS, you know) and takes me to a list of birds found near Port Clinton, Ohio -- I can look either at the 308 species reported to eBird from this immediate area so far, or just the 80 species reported recently. (Remember, this is winter; it would be a lot more species in late spring.) Say I go to the recent birds, and note that one of them is Lesser Black-backed Gull, and let’s say I want to go look at that species. I tap on the species name, and it takes me to a map, with pointers that indicate that the Lesser Black-back has been found recently at Huron Harbor, Findlay Reservoir, New London Reservoir, and several points farther east. Say I don’t know anything about the birding at New London Reservoir, so I tap on the name of that site, and it takes me to a list of birds seen there recently, including Northern Harrier. Let’s just say I don’t know anything about Northern Harrier -- I can follow the link from that and see a number of sites where harriers have been found recently, or I can go to three photos of the species (beautiful photographs from VIREO, the scientific collection of bird images at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia) and a recording of its voice (from the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology). There's also a concise paragraph on the behavior of the harrier so I’ll know where to look for it once I get to the right spot.

Oh, yeah: that concise paragraph, I wrote that. I wrote such accounts for 847 species of birds, a total of more than 60,000 words, and I hope they’ll make the app more useful and more enjoyable for anyone who uses BirdsEye to find more birds.


For a link to the official BirdsEye web page, which has links to the App Store where you can get the app if you want it, click here.

For a press release about the app, which went out to thousands of media outlets and other contacts earlier today, and is also reproduced on the eBird website, click here.

Matt Mendenhall from Birder's World magazine interviewed me about the app; Matt is pretty tech-savvy himself and he was one of the beta testers for BirdsEye. You can read the full text of the interview here.
And if any of our readers try out BirdsEye, or have any questions about it, I hope that we'll hear from you!

5 comments:

  1. I was wondering if there was a chance that this could be a program or membership site that will be on the internet. I do not have an iPhone yet and will not be getting one until my contract is out with Verizon, but would have liked access today.

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  2. Hi Dave,
    Thanks for the comment. What I would suggest is that, if you're not doing this already, you go to the eBird site and explore it. It's at http://ebird.org/ - eBird won't have the photographs, sounds, or my text comments, but it does have the full database of all the birds that have been reported; with enough digging around on eBird you can find a lot of the information about hotspots and about the birds that have been reported there recently. The thing about the BirdsEye app is that it streamlines the process, so that in a few seconds you can get the information that might take a couple of hours to ferret out on eBird. But eBird is a very worthwhile project, and we would encourage all serious birders to report their sightings to it, as well as exploring the site for information.

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  3. Kenn, I grabbed the APP as soon as it was released. I enjoy it quite a bit with only a day or two of use.

    One quick comment / question: will there be more than just 'hotspots' shown on the App? Obviously, great birds appear, well, wherever they'd like to appear, regardless of the classification of the birding site. Is it a privacy issue?

    Perhaps in the "Locate A Bird" portion, the bird's whereabouts could be generalized to a geographic dot on a map? That could get dicey I suppose... just a thought.

    Lastly, for those eBird users... will there be a way to download to my phone my life, county and state lists from the data already entered into eBird?

    Great work!

    -Dan Haas

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  4. Dan, Thanks for the good questions. For the time being, the idea is just to show birds reported at hotspots. There are some people who report birds from private property, and the thought is that they would be apprehensive about reporting rarities if they knew that the location might be given out to the world. By sticking to areas that have been established as hotspots, we can avoid having issues like that. One partial solution is to have more birding sites that are open to the public designated as hotspots within eBird.

    As for downloading lists from eBird into the app, that's a good question. It might well be possible to work that into an update. I'll raise the question with the guys who know how to do the programming. Thanks for the suggestion.

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  5. Hot off the press! The iPhone app BirdsEye that Kenn has helped create is a New York Times selection for "App of the Week." Here's the link: http://gadgetwise.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/23/app-of-the-week-spot-spring-on-the-wing/

    And even hotter, Apple just released BirdsEye version 1.2. This has 2 great improvements.

    First, it lets you keep track of rare birds and notable observations (seeing a common bird at a time or place it shouldn't be).

    Second, it now contains all of the content (Kenn's great text, VIREO photos, Cornell sound) for all species. You don't have to buy more content from the app store.

    BirdsEye helps birders have fun by guiding them to more birds!

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