Nieuws - 23 februari 2012

Scientific apps - Researchers interact with the public via their iPhones

Joris Tielens

Apps can be an interesting way for scientists too to share their knowledge with others. Armed with the right app, amateurs can be roped in as observers and researchers. 'Initially, it was the fun factor which mattered; now, it's the added value.'

Apps are a new digital revolution. They can turn your iPhone or Android into a mobile and interactive oracle which tells you exactly what you want to know when you want to know it. There are now more than a million different apps available. And are we hungry for them! In the last week of 2011, 15 million apps were downloaded in the Netherlands alone. Examples are apps to tell you what that house costs (Funda), apps to turn on the heater at home while you're still standing at the bus-stop (Nuon), apps to find out how much development aid goes to which country (OneWorld), or how to choose the best route in the supermarket to get your groceries done as fast as possible (the 'Appie' from Albert Heijn). The possibilities are many and still growing fast. In the meantime, almost everyone has a smartphone, and these gadgets are getting faster and better all the time.
Fresh fish
Scientists, too, have discovered the power of apps. To researchers, apps are an ingenious way of making large databases accessible to the public. And Wageningen UR is by no means lagging behind, a little asking around makes clear. Many researchers rave about the possibilities and a surprisingly large number of them are already experimenting with apps. For example, the updated app 'How fresh is your fish?' from Imares was presented last week at a trade fair in Germany. This app enables you to determine on the spot if the fish you want to buy is fresh enough. 'A nice way to put your research into practice,' says Prof. Joop Luten, the brain behind the app.
Most of the apps from Wageningen UR have emerged from the labs of Alterra, where a team of twenty programmers work on applications which link databases to geographical data. 'Apps are certainly worth the effort for us,' says programmer Jappe Franke. 'Now that smartphones are equipped with apps, camera, microphone and gyroscope, we can offer a lot more. After all, a lot of our data ­have a geographical component.' Meanwhile, Franke and his colleagues have won a VPRO (Dutch broadcasting station) competition to make an app in one day. The winning app Waar kan het? makes use of GIS data and a self-created 'Citizen Acceptance Factor' to find the best places in the Netherlands to set up a factory farm.  
That was just playing, though; the app was not published. But it is a good example of an app which is not only suitable for disseminating information, but also for getting information from the user.
People taking leisurely walks - ordinary citizens - can be roped in to be observers, for example, to count birds. Another app with this dual function is the one on the website Daar moet ik, made by Franke and Martin Goossen. This app helps users find a landscape of their liking. In return, the users supply a wealth of information about the landscape preferences of the Dutch. Goossen: 'That research enables similar conclusions to be drawn as in a traditional research. The difference is that many more people took part in the research and data poured in free of charge every day.'
Communication scientist Reint Jan Renes is a researcher at Wageningen University and also lectures at the Utrecht University of Applied Sciences. He hails the smartphone as a new communication tool between scientists and the public. 'Apps make it possible to quickly obtain core data from big databases, at specific locations, and right when it's needed', he sums it up. 'It can also be used as a research tool to find out what is happening in the community.' The major difference with other media, says Renes, is that people almost always carry their cell phones along with them. There is no need to wait for people to open their newspapers or turn on the television; you can get your message across any time. 'So that makes it really persuasive,' says Renes. In other words, people allow more decisions to be made for them. Such as letting the Albert Heijn app guide them through the supermarket instead of having to plan a route themselves. An app can also be used to let people have their say in building plans or interactive policy-making. Alterra made a Natura 2000 app for the Ministry of EL&I for this purpose. Visitors of Natura 2000 areas are given information about the areas via the app. And they can speak their mind about those areas. That makes interactive policy-making sexy at the same time. Citizens no longer have to struggle through stacks of paperwork to register their opinions in triplicate. They can respond instantly to 3D plans they can see on their cell phones on the spot. However, researcher Anne Schmidt does see a looming risk in these applications. 'It's nice that this is technically possible, but you have to do something with the information received from the people. If you don't or can't, then you shouldn't be doing this.'
Fun factor
There are other reasons to act with care too. Apps have taken the world by storm in no time, but experts say that a distinct change has come over consumers' preferences. Many apps are popular initially because they are amusing, says Maarten Brouwer, head of IT Facilities & Services at Wageningen UR. 'For a new technology like this, there is an initial phase of proliferation, in which fun is the major factor at play. Now comes a phase in which it becomes clear which aspects of a handheld have added value.' This is not bad at all, and is in fact good news for science apps. Brouwer sees a rosy future for apps within Wageningen UR and wants to stimulate their development. 'We are even looking at the possibility of setting up an app store just for Wageningen UR.'

Pig Chase
Playing with a real pig is made possible with the 'Pig Chase' app. Pigs in the barn have a touch screen which uses light signals to connect them to human players via an iPad. The player has to try to get a pig to follow a light signal. Philosopher Clemens Driessen developed this app together with animal welfare expert Marc Bracke and the Utrecht School of the Arts. The app gives the pig a toy and is a fun game for human players at the same time. Driessen is interested to find out how the app can affect the relationship between man and animal. Does the gamer see the pig as a piece of walking pork, a pet or as a fellow gamer? The app is not yet online, but you can watch a film about it at
How fresh is your fish?
With this iPhone app (coming soon for the Android), you can assess in a few steps the freshness of thirteen types of fish most commonly sold in Europe. It is available in eleven languages and is being downloaded in 50 countries. With the help of photographs, you can evaluate the eyes, skin and gills of the fish. The result shows how many days fish stored on ice can stay fresh. Although the app is meant for traders, it is also nice for the layman. The app was developed by Prof. Joop Luten who uses a standard method of determining the freshness of fish set up by him and other fish institutes.

Many apps made by Alterra work with Layar, the browser for augmented reality, which adds a virtual image or information to the reality seen through the lens of a telephone camera. To view these apps, you first have to download Layar into your telephone. One of Alterra´s apps provides someone ­walking across the Wageningen campus with information about its buildings and art works. Soon, an app will be available which gives information on the nature walks described in Alterra employee Frank Berendse's book.
Make your own app in five steps
1 What do you want to achieve with the app?
Do you want to dissemin­ate information, create ­publicity and make your research known, or do you want to use the app to ­gather data for your research?
2 What can you offer?
Do you have a freely accessible database with a lot of information, for example, the flora of the Netherlands? Or about healthy eating? A success­ful app offers something which is not available on paper or from a website. So make use of the specific characteristics of a cell phone: fast processing of data, a small screen, a camera, gps, microphone and access to social networks.
3 Who needs your app?
Don't make an app just because you want to get something out of your system, but because you think that people will jump at the chance to use it. Who are these people? Get into their shoes and work as much as possible together with them to make the app. Think carefully who is interested in your information and for what situations.
4 Create your app.
Try to make your app as simple as possible, with no fuss and no frills attached. The majority of downloaded apps are used only once. An app should be appealing and work well straightaway.
5 Let someone make the app.
In future, everyone will be able make an app, but for the time being, if you do not have your own programmers, you will need to get someone else to do the work. Find a company with designers, communication and IT specialists such as Tremani ( or the Mobile Company (www.themobilecompany). Be sure to publicize your app, by placing a film on YouTube for example.