Sending science down the phone: new technology will map research across the world

Scientists from the University of Bath have helped to develop new mobile phone software that will help epidemiologists and ecologists working in the field to analyse their data remotely and map findings across the world without having to return to the lab.

Dr Ed Feil and PhD student Fadaa al Own from the Department of Biology & Biochemistry, working with academics from Imperial College, say the software will also enable members of the public to act as 'citizen scientists' and help collect data for community projects.

The researchers have developed an application for 'smartphones' that allows a scientist or member of the public to collect and record data, photos and videos - for example to document the presence of an animal or plant species - and then send this information to a central web-based database. The website records the user's location, using the phone's GPS system, and it can then display all of the data collected on this topic across the world, using Google Maps. 

Users can also use their smartphones to request and view all the maps and analyses available. The new technology, which is funded by the Wellcome Trust, means that groups of researchers should be able to quickly and easily build up and share maps of, for example, the distribution of an endangered species or cases of a disease, and analyse patterns that emerge. The Imperial team is currently using the software, known as EpiCollect, as a tool in their studies of the epidemiology of bacterial and fungal infectious diseases.

Dr Ed Feil said: "This is a very exciting project and opens up all sorts of possibilities for amateurs, research scientists, and teachers alike, by exploiting the sophisticated features of mobile phone technology."

The technology has already been used by Dr Nick Waterfield, also from the University's Department of Biology & Biochemistry to study nematode worms, which are pathogenic to insects, from various sites throughout Thailand.

The researchers suggest that members of the public could also get involved in scientific research using the tool and that schools could also use the software, for example on biology field courses. 

Suitable smartphones for EpiCollect use the Android open-source operating system, developed by Google and the Open Handset Alliance. It means that software developers can produce their own applications to run on the phones and anybody can download the software for free. There are currently several different handsets available in the UK and the new software will be available to anybody with one of these phones.  The researchers have also produced a beta version for the iPhone, so the software will soon be available to even more people.

In order to use the new system, a researcher sets up a web database for their particular study and a specific version of EpiCollect is produced that can be loaded on multiple phones, allowing users to start collecting and submitting data.

Dr Ed Feil and Fadaa al Own are two of five authors of the study that was published in PLoS One.

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