Turning smart phones into student smart phones

A guest blog from Layik Hama, University of Leeds

‘I would say that what makes smartphones smart, in large measure, is their sense of location’

Michael T Jones – Google Earth/Maps

Smart phones and geoscience fieldwork ought to be a perfect match. Both are about location. Both are becoming increasingly accessible, as smart phones become cheaper and geoscience data more readily available. So why have the two not met yet?

Geology students at UK universities still seem to find themselves with little choice but to use the traditional tools of the field, with research into new digital field techniques still prefaced with the question ‘does this replace the tools we have relied on for centuries?’

But surely quality research relies on adding to, not replacing tools or skills? As things stand, are students currently using smart phones in the field for anything other than listening to music?

I’m researching these issues as part of my PhD at Leeds, hoping to find the techniques that will lead to the development of an app for use in the field. First, I need to identify the specific problems students encounter when using current field tools and techniques, so I’m looking for more first hand accounts, from students and staff.

Thornton Falls, Ingleton

Smart apps in the field

There are those who say the Earth sciences are the most visual science of all. Yet, whilst there are heavyweight visualisation software applications (ESRI’s ArcGIS to name one) to aid professional geologists carry out their office tasks, there is little to aid geology students carrying out their field tasks – despite the fact that the same packages are ‘offered’ to students in their laboratories.

Student tasks in the field can be categorised into: capturing data, viewing data and analysing data. For each of these tasks, there’s an app.

  • Capturing data: As of 6 February 2013, a search in Google Play app store returns 25 results for ‘strike and dip’. The top two apps are Rocklogger and GeoClino.
  • Viewing data: We’ve had applications for this since the age of PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants). Again, if we search Google Play we get over 96 results for the same date when querying ‘geological maps’. The top two are RockLogger and BGS iGeology – ignoring WolphramAlpha, which is not free and not a specialist geology application. It should also be noted that RockLogger’s main purpose is not data viewing.
  • Analysing data: This is where my research is focused, and searching for relevant apps is not a simple task! I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has had experience of using apps for analysing field data.
Left: what students might see in the field. Right: what they may have with them, whether digital or printed. The centre image represents what they are expected to do – visualise the 3D model.

Left: what students might see in the field. Right: what they may have with them, whether digital or printed. The centre image represents what they are expected to do – visualise the 3D model.

To get you involved in my research and share your use of digital field tools and techniques, here are some direct questions:

  • What specific problems are you/your students having in the field? Is it reading geological maps? Spatial problems?
  • What digital tools (apps or otherwise) are you using to address the above issues?
  • Do you have any geological app development projects to share?

layikIn the next part I will be discussing the issues I have identified. I will also give a summary of the results of my initial evaluation of current tablet applications such as Google Earth and BGS iGeology3D.

  • Layik Hama is an EPSRC funded PhD student at the University of Leeds, working with the Visualization and Virtual Reality group at the school of computing.

6 thoughts on “Turning smart phones into student smart phones

  1. One app that I am using more and more is “Geoutilities” for the iphone. It allows you to photograph and title your localities or core on the spot, no more time is wasted tying up photos hours, weeks or months later with your locality notes.

    it also provides georeference information as well.

  2. I use an app called GeoID for taking dip/dip direction readings all the time (engineering geology). It plots data in a stereonet so you can instantly assess the data. Export is also easy.
    I actually prefer using my phone to a Brunton at this point, as I am frequently collecting data on mine walls and road cuts, and the smaller size of the phone makes it easier to place on little planar faces.

  3. The AGI Geologic Glossary is also handy (although it does have some irritating glitches), though the $30 price tag is spendy.

  4. I’ve been looking for something to help me with note taking in the field for a while, growing on from my initial interest in what I now know as “geotagging” my general photography. The “Majorforms” application which I’m trialling at the moment is useful (geotag photos ; GPS tracklog ; record notes at a station including strike and dip, magnetic field strength (but not orientation), but it’s plainly a re-badging of a “collection framework”.
    (Being at work this week, I had to leave my phone at the heliport. So I’m not sure of the application’s exact name. Later, when I get back home I’ll find out.)
    As a geologist, it’s big, terrible, failing is that it only allows a single orientation to be recorded per station. Which is only occasionally sufficient for sedimentary rocks, and in metamorphic regions makes recording multiple cleavages, lineations, and complex structures … a bodge.
    I’d looked at several other applications, including RockLogger, and came to the reluctant conclusion that my choices were limited to using the phone (or easier, tablet) purely as a notebook, and recording things by hand. Or, write my own application. As far as notebooks go – I’ve had enough batteries die on me at inopportune moments, days from a charging station, and had enough equipment die in rain, river crossings and mud, that an ink-on-paper notebook is less unreliable.
    There is interesting potential there – I might have to learn enough of this OO-programming guff to write my own – but what is currently available isn’t really “field-friendly”. The hardware platforms are interesting from a sensors point of view, but have severe problems for weekending trips. Do I carry batteries, food, or an ice axe as well as the tent and samples?
    I still carry my handlens, compass-clino, and relevant maps. Their batteries don’t run out, and they’re part of your essential safety kit anyway.

  5. Pingback: Part two: Problems in the field | Geological Society of London blog

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