Temperature Blast: a new mobile app for climate studies

iPhones, Androids phones, and other mobile devices are making it incredibly easy for citizen scientists to make observations and share their findings with researchers. Mobile apps are already aiding the study of wildlife, invasive plant species, and even acoustics, just to name a few. You could say that apps are the hottest thing in citizen science!

In spring 2011, the Maryland Science Center is set to release the hottest mobile phone app of them all — one that will allow the public to submit temperature measurements and contribute to climate change research.

I recently had a chance to chat with Felicia Savage, an informal educator with the Maryland Science Center and institutional lead for the Communicating Climate Change (C3) citizen science project. Felicia gave me a primer on C3 and an exclusive look at Temperature Blast, the soon-to-be-released citizen science app. Enjoy!

What the C3: Communicating Climate Change project all about?

Felicia: C3 a project undertaken by twelve Science Centers nationally with the shared objective of involving the public in climate change research.

Our C3 project, while not directly researching anthropogenic global warming, invites users to participate in a study of Baltimore’s Urban Heat Island. The hope here is to informally educate them on the difference between climate and weather and the real need for long-term observations to accurately model climate.

What’s the difference between an Urban Heat Island and climate change?

Felicia: An Urban Heat Island is a phenomenon classified by temperature differences between a metropolitan area and more rural landscape nearby. An Urban Heat Island is not an effect of climate change, but rather of human activity shaping the environment around us.

Part of this connection is that steps taken to reduce the Urban Heat Island also have a negative effect on the use of fossil fuels. For instance, a home with a green roof will be cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter due to the evapotranspiration and insulating properties of its vegetation. This cooling effect will lower the temperature of the surrounding air in the summer and also reduce the use of energy in cooling or heating a home.

How do you decide where to make temperature measurements?

Felicia: We worked with urban climatologists at the Baltimore Ecosystem Study to decide where to make measurements by first narrowing down sites from the region’s collection of WeatherBug stations. To be considered as a possible site, stations were evaluated for tree cover, development, and location within or outside of Baltimore.

So what do citizen scientists actually DO in C3?

Felicia: Citizen scientists participating in C3 collect data for use in climate studies. With the Maryland Science Center’s project, this data will be submitted to urban climatologists at the Baltimore Ecosystem Study for use in modeling the region’s temperature patterns. Previously, this data was collected by local resident volunteers who stepped outside theirs doors once a month after sundown to measure air temperatures at their location. The development of an application was actually inspired by an experience as a citizen scientist in this former iteration. I was outside slinging a psychrometer when it came to mind to simultaneously check the air temperature reported at the nearest WeatherBug station through my new Motorola Droid. The whole idea grew from there.

Sounds awesome! Who can participate in the project?

Felicia: Anyone with access to the iPhone or Android markets or the Internet may participate in the project regardless of their geographic location.

I understand you’re developing a mobile app for the project. What will the app do?

Felicia: The app uses a WeatherBug API to load weather data from six predetermined stations. This data will represent live conditions and those present at 9 PM the previous night. The Urban Heat Island effect is most measurable one to three hours after sundown. Data will be submitted as users answer questions and move through the app.

At the Maryland Science Center, we value the importance of active learning; the corresponding website will include experiments to try at home should citizen scientists wish to learn more about the concepts presented in the project at home or in their classroom through hands on observation.

When will your mobile phone app be released?

Felicia: We’re anticipating a launch in early Spring, 2011.

Woohoo! Ok, what do people need to do to get involved?

Felicia: A smartphone or a computer with Internet access and 4 minutes of free time is all that’s needed to get involved. Interested participants can contact C3@marylandsciencecenter.org to be notified when the application is released to the public.

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