The ubiquitous mobile phone has opened many possibilities for citizen science. With most citizens equipped with a phone, and many with small supercomputers in the purse or pocket, it is easier than ever to collect data from wherever humans may be.
One key, of course, is the microphones and cameras. Sold to be used for deals and dating, not to mention selfies, these instruments are outstripping what scientists can afford.
The other key is that mobile devices are connected to the Internet, so data uploads are trivial. This technology is sold for commerce and dating and for sharing selfies, but it is perfect for collecting time and location stamped data.
In short, the vanity of youngsters has funded infrastructure that is better than scientists have ever built. Sigh.
This fall the Stanford citizen science folks are talking about yet another crowd sourced data collection: an project that identifies mosquitos by their buzz.
According to the information, Abuzz works on most phones, including older flip phones (AKA, non-smart phones).
It took me a while to figure out that Abuzz isn’t an app at all. It is a manual process. Old style.
You use the digital recording feature on your phone to record a mosquito. Then you upload that file to their web site. This seems to be a manual process, and I guess that we’re supposed to know how to save and upload sound files.
The uploaded files are analyzed to identify the species of mosquito. There are thousands of species, but the training data emphasized the important, disease bearing species we are most interested in knowing about.
A recent paper reports the details of the analysis techniques . First of all, mobile phone microphones pick up mosquito sounds just fine. As we all know, the whiny buzz of those varmints is right their in human hearing, so its logical that telephones tuned ot human speech would hear mosquitos just fine.
The research indicates that the microphone is good in a range of up to 100mm. This is pretty much what you would expect for a hand held phone. So, you are going to have to hold the phone up to the mosquito, just like you would pass it to a friend to say hello.
At the crux of the matter, they were able to distinguish different mosquitos from recordings made by phone. Different species of mosquito have distinct sounds from their wing beats, and the research showed that they can detect the differences from these recordings.
They also use the time and location metadata to help identify the species. For example, the geographic region narrows down the species that are likely to be encountered.
The overall result is that it should be possible to get information about mosquito distributions from cell phone recordings provided by anyone who participates. This may contribute to preventing disease, or at least alerting the public to the current risks.
This project is pretty conservative, which is an advantage and a disadvantage. The low tech data collection is great, especially since the most interesting targets for surveillance are likely to be out in the bush, where the latest iPhones will be thin on the ground.
On the other hand, the lack of an app or a plug in to popular social platforms means that the citizen scientists have to invest more work, and get less instant gratification. This may reduce participation. Obviously, it would be possible to make a simple app, so that those with smart phones have an even simpler way to capture and upload data.
Anyway, it is clear that the researchers understand this issue. The web site is mostly instructions and video tutorials, featuring encouraging invitations from nice scientists. (OK, I thought the comment that “I would love to see is people really thinking hard about the biology of these complex animals” was a bit much.
I haven’t actually tried to submit data yet. (It’s winter here, the skeeters are gone until spring). I’m not really sure what kind of feedback you get. It would be really cool to return email a rapid report (i.e., within 24 hours). It should say the initial identification from your data (or possibly ‘there were problems, we’ll have to look at it), along with overall statistics to put your data in context (e.g., we’re getting a lot of reports of Aegyptus in your part of Africa).
To do this, you’d need to automate the data analysis, which would be a lot of work, but certainly is doable.
I’ll note that this particular data collection is something that cannot be done by UAVs. Drones are, well, too droney. Even if you could chase mosquitos, it would be difficult to record them over the darn propellers. (I won’t say impossible—sound processing can do amazing things).
I’ll also note that this research method wins points for being non-invasive. No mosquitos were harmed in this experiment. (Well, they were probably swatted, but the experiment itself was harmless.) This is actually important, because you don’t want mosquitos to selectively adapt to evade the surveillance.
- Taylor Kubota, Stanford researchers seek citizen scientists to contribute to worldwide mosquito tracking, in Stanford – News. 2017. https://news.stanford.edu/2017/10/31/tracking-mosquitoes-cellphone/
- Haripriya Mukundarajan, Felix Jan Hein Hol, Erica Araceli Castillo, and Cooper Newby Using mobile phones as acoustic sensors for high-throughput mosquito surveillance. eLife. doi: 10.7554/eLife.27854 October 11 2017, https://elifesciences.org/articles/27854#info