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10 Ways You Can Use Your Smartphone to Advance Science

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Your iPhone is not living up to its full potential. Sure, everyone loves posting pictures of their cats to Instagram, and the new RadioLab app is awesome. But we're living in the future! Why not use those tiny computers we're all carrying around for something bigger, like helping advance knowledge in a way that would have been impossible just a few years ago?

Scientists have started to use the abilities and prevalence of smartphones to their advantage, creating apps specifically for their studies and crowdsourcing observation and data collection. When almost everyone has an Internet connection, a camera, and a GPS unit right in their phone, almost anyone can gather, organize, and submit data to help move a study along. Here are 10 projects and apps that will turn you into a citizen scientist.

1. Track Bird Populations

EBird, started by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, is the world’s largest (97,987,797 observations as of the morning of July 10, 2012) online database of bird observations. Data gathered by smartphone-toting bird watchers around the world and shared via the BirdLog app is used by biologists, ornithologists, educators, land managers, conservationists and policy makers to track avian distribution, richness and biodiversity trends. They hope that “in time these data will become the foundation for a better understanding of bird distribution across the western hemisphere and beyond.” BirdLog is available for $9.99 iOS and Android devices

2. Map Meteoroids

NASA’s Meteor Counter app lets iOS users gather and share data about cosmic debris they spot in the sky. Using the app’s “piano key” interface, citizen scientists can quickly record the time, magnitude, latitude and longitude, and estimated brightness of shooting stars, and also annotate their observations with voice notes. When they’re done, they can upload everything to NASA so researchers can analyze the data. Don’t know where to look for meteors? The app also has a news feed and event calendar updated by professional astronomers to help you find upcoming meteor showers. Meteor Counter is available for free for iOS devices.

3. Listen in on Bats

The Indicator Bats Program (iBats), a joint project of the Zoological Society of London’s Institute of Zoology and The Bat Conservation Trust, got its start with a couple of researchers working in Transylvania (of course) in 2006. The idea of the project is to identify and monitor bat populations around the world by the ultrasonic echo-location calls they use to navigate and find prey. No easy task for the naked ear, but the iBats app can automatically extract key information from the calls, and identify the species from them. From there, the data gets sent to iBats so researchers can track any changes in abundance or distribution of different species. The app itself is free, but users also need an ultrasonic microphone to plug into their phone so the app can “hear” the call. These microphones can cost hundreds of dollars, and the folks behind the project encourage bat lovers to get together and chip in for one to share. iBats is available for free for iOS and Android devices

4. Count Roadkill

The Mammals on Roads project, run by the Peoples Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), uses surveys of dead mammal sightings along the UK’s roads to get an idea of population and distribution trends. Their Mammals on Roads app logs the travel routes of citizen scientists and lets them easily record which animals they’ve seen and where. Users can see the collected data themselves in the form of maps of their own trips and distribution maps from reports sent in from all over the country. The survey, taken annually since 2001, helped spot a major drop in hedgehog numbers over the course of a few years and led to the PTES launching “Hogwatch” and other hedgehog-focused tracking and conservation projects. Mammals on Roads is available for free for iOS devices, and an Android version will be available soon.

5. Inventory your Local Wildlife

The goal of Project NOAH (Networked Organisms and Habitats) is pretty ambitious: “build the go-to platform for documenting all the world's organisms.” Their app has two modes. “Spottings” lets you take photos of plants and animals you see, categorize and describe them and then submit the data for viewing on NOAH’s website and use by researchers for population and distribution studies.

Don’t know what you’re looking at? Check a box when you submit your photo and other users and scientists can help you identify the species. You can also use the location-based field guides to see other users’ Spottings near your location and learn more about your local wildlife. “Field Missions” let you help out with crowdsourced data collection for specific studies that labs have submitted to NOAH. You might be asked to photograph invasive beetles near your home, or log GPS coordinates when migrating flocks of birds pass over you, and if discovering wildlife and helping scientists isn’t enough motivation, completing missions also earns you cool badges in the app. Project NOAH is available for free for  iOS and Android devices

6. Identify and Track Trees

Leafsnap, developed as a joint project by Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institution, is an electronic field guide for trees that uses visual recognition software to identify tree species from photographs of their leaves. User-generated images, species identifications, and geo-tagged stamps of species' locations are automatically shared with the partner institutions and other scientists who can use the data to map and monitor changes in floral density and diversity. Currently, only tree species found in New York City and Washington, D.C., are supported by the recognition software, but the team is “teaching” it other species and the list will continue to grow. Leafsnap is available for free for iOS devices and an Android version will be available soon.

7. Keep Tabs on Temperatures

Communicating Climate Change (C3) is a program run by 12 science centers around the country that introduces citizen scientists to the methods used to study climate change. The Maryland Science Center’s C3 project invites people to help study Baltimore’s Urban Heat Island (a UHI is the phenomenon of a metropolitan area being significantly warmer than its surrounding rural areas). Citizen scientists in Baltimore use the Temperature Blast app to collect live and archival Weatherbug data from select points around the city and log it for scientists at the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, who will then use it to create models of temperature patterns so they can mitigate the heat island effect in future urban planning. Temperature Blast is available for free for iOS and Android devices. If you’re not in the Baltimore area, there are other app-based C3 projects going on in other cities.

8. Monitor your local water

Citizen scientists using the Creek Watch app, developed by IBM’s Smarter Planet Project, collect four pieces of data - estimated amount of water, rate of flow, amount of trash and a picture - about waterways they pass and send it to IBM. The technology giant’s researchers aggregate the data and share it with water control boards across the U.S. to help them track pollution and better manage their water resources. Creek Watch is available for free for iOS devices (no word from IBM on an Android version yet).

9. Find Good Homes for Redwoods

Redwood Watch, a partnership between the Save the Redwoods League,, Google Earth Outreach, and the California Academy of Sciences, is recruiting citizen scientists to track the location of redwood trees and help find a home for them in the future. Just take a picture of a redwood wherever you see one - in a national park, a botanical garden or even your own yard - with the Redwood Watch app. The app sends the photo and your location to researchers who can use the data to assess which environments are healthiest for the trees, helping them understand where redwoods thrive in a changing climate so they can better focus their conservation efforts. Redwood watch is available for free for iOS devices.

10. Report Invaders

Invasive plants and animals can crowd out natives, compete with them for food sources and alter the fire ecology of an ecosystem, disrupting its natural balance. Researchers and programmers from UCLA, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and the University of Georgia have teamed up to create the What’s Invasive citizen science program and smartphone app. Volunteers can use the app to look up lists of the top invasive species in their area, created by National Park Service rangers and biologists. If they spot a plant or animal from the list, they submit a geo-tagged observation, with optional picture and text notes, so that scientists can locate, identify, study try to remove the species. The What’s Invasive app is available for free for iOS and Android devices.
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This is just a drop in the bucket of cool projects that let the average Joe take part in important science. For more projects you can help out with, some app-based, some not, check out the resources at Cornell’s Citizen Science Central, SciStarter and Scientific American. Are you involved in a citizen science project? Tell us all about it.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]