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The University of Southampton
Biological Sciences

Developing an app to identify species

Published: 22 March 2013

Undergraduates in biological and ocean and earth science have got together with electronics and computer science students to design phone apps for fieldwork. The one day ‘hackathon’ challenged six multidisciplinary teams to come up with ideas and develop them into prototypes that could be worked up into practical apps.

Raw data, including material from the 2012 Biological Sciences annual field trip to Spain for first years, was coded by the computer science students, after a discussion about how the apps should work and what they should do.

"We looked at how to identify plant species by asking questions," explains second year biologist Nathalie Swain-Diaz. "For example, if you find a flower with four petals, you can eliminate all those with three or five and get closer to finding the answer. It was interesting to work with students from different disciplines on the same project." Some of the apps incorporated GPS systems so researchers could record where they saw certain specimens; others allowed findings to be shared among groups.

Field buddy
Prizes – Best useable app

PhD student Oli Parson from Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) enjoyed the experience. "I code mobile apps in my spare time but it was fun to work with completely new data," he says. "Using smartphones in this way can be incredibly helpful. This was a great start but much more work is needed to make the app work properly."

Dr Judith Lock in Biological Sciences organised the day with Dr Alex Rogers and Davide Zilli from ECS and Moira Maclean and Chris Sturdy from Ocean and Earth Science. "We wanted to introduce more technology into fieldwork and felt a hackathon would encourage students from different disciplines to work together on a common aim. We are now looking at ways of developing the ideas further to produce at least one useable app to aid researchers."

The event was funded by the University of Southampton's Centre for Innovation in Technologies and Education (CITE). Free lunchtime pizza and post-hack curry helped to fuel the hard work.

Twitter account: @Specieshack

Find out more about Oli's team's app here:

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