Whale mAPP brings power of mobile technology to marine biology

Southeast Alaska is a summer haven for whale researchers. However, limited resources means they can only study a handful of whales at a time.

Scientists are now calling on citizens with Android smartphones to aid their cause.

The Whale mApp is a new technology to aid citizen scientists in reporting sightings of marine mammals. Screenshot from whalemapp.org.
The Whale mApp is a new technology to aid citizen scientists in reporting sightings of marine mammals. Screenshot from whalemapp.org.

Brenna Campbell has been sailing up and down the Inside Passage every summer for the past 25 years. Campbell is a retired geologist and a small 2 berth sailing boat in Petersburg’s North Harbor is her home.

She’s at the center of an experiment that a group of scientists in the Pacific Northwest hope will change the future of whale research.

The Whale mAPP app allows users to log sightings of marine mammals. The entries are entered into a database and sent back to Oregon State University where researcher Courtney Hann tries to figure out what the data means.

Hann is the brains behind the project and says in order to understand whales and other marine mammals, we have to use all resources available.

“Instead of looking at the study of one whale in one small area … let’s gather all of our forces together and work together to [see] how these animals move across really vast distances,” she says.

Scientists might not be able to travel across these distances, but the myriad people who boat up and down the Pacific Northwest during the summer months can and often do.

“Last summer I had 1,200 sightings recorded over three months over the entire area of Southeast Alaska, and there was no one else who was able to collect that type of data,” Hann says.

She says collecting all this data helps scientists understand the behavior patterns of marine mammals, but it also aids the development of a new scientific field.

“In which we get back to saying yes every person can be a scientist and every person can learn and study different amazing animals that are around the world,” she says.

Despite her optimism, Hann isn’t blind to the drawbacks of citizen data. She understands civilians’ eyes aren’t as informed as scientists and so the app has built-in a rating system to counter errors in sightings.

Just like you can rate your favorite song on iTunes, Whale mAPP has a starring system for judging how confident you are about what you saw. This allows novices like Brenna Campbell to use the app without worrying about making a mistake.

Currently, the app is only available in limited release on Android but if Courtney Hann has her way, citizen scientists and smartphones will help shape the future of whale research in the Pacific Northwest.