Mobile and Place Based Computing

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Mobile Historians: The Environmental History App Project

Last December, NiCHE announced the results of its fourth annual call for projects and we were awarded funding to develop an environmental history mobile application for iOS devices (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad). The EH App Project will develop a mobile application to help connect the environmental history research community to the growing body of online content, including news, calls-for-papers, blogs, and podcasts.

Since 2004, the Network in Canadian History & Environment has led the historical research community in Canada in the use of online digital technologies. The proposed project will continue that tradition by broadening the reach of the network into the mobile internet through the development of an environmental history mobile application.

Today very few academic historical organizations, other than NiCHE, have successfully established a network of scholars connected by online digital technologies. Beginning with the use of Groove and later the Drupal-based NiCHE website, the network has been able to foster a growing environmental history research community across a vast geography. NiCHE stands out as the only environmental history organization to offer its members Web 2.0 services on its website, including user-generated content and rich audio and video media. In addition to its web services, NiCHE has also innovated in the areas of virtual conferencing, podcasting, blogging, and much more.

One of the fastest areas of online growth is in the development of the mobile internet and mobile applications. Wireless home internet use in Canada rose from 13% in 2007 to 23% in 2010 (Statistics Canada, May 2010). With the growth in the popularity of smartphones, including Blackberry, iPhone, and Android devices, NiCHE has the opportunity to reach new audiences and connect members in new ways by taking advantage of mobile connectivity.

Over the next year, we will be working on this application development project and we hope to get help and feedback from the community along the way. What kind of features would you use in a mobile application for environmental historians? Are there important blogs, podcasts, and news sources that we should include in this app? What should we call this app? Please post your comments and suggestions to Sean’s blog or contact us directly through Twitter at and

For ongoing updates about this project, please follow the project page on Sean’s blog to this page or follow Sean and Jim on Twitter where we will post announcements and calls for feedback.

Setting up an Android Device for Citizen / Amateur Science

If you are drawn to amateur science or citizen science, chances are at some point you’ve also fantasized about having a Star Trek-style tricorder, an all-in-one scientific instrument that you could use to scan the world around you. With a good collection of apps, a Google Android smart phone is definitely a step in the right direction.

Collecting data. Most smart phones allow you to take photos or video with the built-in camera. If you want to archive these from the field (and your data plan isn’t prohibitively expensive) you can use a service like Pixelpipe in conjunction with a sharing site like Flickr or Picasa. You can also use an app like Mamoru Tokashiki’s Voice Recorder to collect audio and e-mail it to another computer. If you don’t mind working with command line tools, you can process files and move them around the network with apps like Terminal EmulatorAndFTP and ConnectBot (ssh).

Navigating. Android devices really shine when working with Google’s web services. The built-inMaps application allows you to see satellite imagery of your current location, which can be very useful for fieldwork. You will also want to install Google’s My Tracks to collect GPS tracklogs that you can see on your device and later plot in applications like Google Earth. You can also leave waypoints to mark natural phenomena. The Google Sky Map application uses your location and the built-in compass and accelerometer to show you the stars, constellations, etc. in any direction that you point. The Compass app gives you access to the device’s internal compass, and GPS Status 2 to GPS and magnetic field data. For current weather, including radar and satellite imagery, you can install consumer-oriented apps like the Weather Channel one and professional apps like Aviation Weather from NOAA/NWS.

Sensing. A typical Android device such as the HTC Dream has camera, microphone, 3-axis accelerometer, GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth, multiple-band phone, USB and other sensors and ports. Although each of these can be accessed by programs running on the phone, there are relatively few applications that really open them up as sources of raw data (more on this in a moment). Some of the best-developed are those intended for locating cell towers, such as CellFinder or forwardriving, such as G-MoN. My favorite app in this category, however, is the delightfulSpectralView, which shows a scrolling colored spectrogram of audio input.

Computing. You’ll want to supplement the built-in calculator with a basic scientific calculator like Kreactive Technologies’ Calculator. If you know how to program in a scripting language likePython and you have a phone with a QWERTY keyboard, you can actually write programs on the phone with the Android Scripting Environment. Just the thing for whipping up some quick-and-dirty data analysis or sampling phone sensors to a log.

Reference and communication. Was that a cedar waxwing? Look it up with Google or using the Wapedia app, which gives you fast access to about 3 million Wikipedia articles. If you prefer to leverage the power of your social networks, you can use phone, SMS, Twitter, chat, IRC, etc.

The future. Technologies like Android are still very much in their infancy, and every few months new phones are released with features that would have been almost unimaginable a decade earlier. We’re not using the devices that we have to their full potential, however. For example, imagine monitoring the accelerometer data from tens of thousands of phones and using it to provide an early-warning system for earthquakes or tsunamis. Google already uses anonymous data like this to estimate road congestion. Just think of the possibilities if future phones included ways to sense temperature, air pressure, UV light, water quality, or other environmental variables. In the meantime, here’s my plea to Android developers: write programs that allow users to collect raw data from sensors, log it, process it and share it with one another or export it to services like Pachube. Robert Chou’s Pachube Viewer is a start… let’s see a lot more.

Python Scripts for Google Android

The Android platform allows smart phones to be scripted using Python and the Android Scripting Environment (ASE). We can use this as a way of delivering mobile tools to NiCHE members who are equipped with Android devices. (These are currently available through Rogers.)

As a schematic example, suppose we have a traditional “Hello, world” program:

print "hello niche"

Screen Shot 2013-10-01 at 11.01.59 AM

To download and run the script, the user

  1. Starts ASE on the Android device
  2. Chooses Menu -> Add Script -> Scan Barcode
  3. Photographs the screen
  4. Runs the script on the Android device by clicking on it in the list of scripts

Note that this work is currently under development.

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