Plants & People

Is that an invasive alien species? Time to reach for the phone.

Smartphone apps are a tool that could help monitor, predict, and ideally prevent the spread of invasive species. But are they living up to their full potential?
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Tracking invasive species needs people with the ability to recognise and report sightings. These days many people have access to expertise and the ability to report findings, thanks to smartphone apps. But are these apps helping as much as they could? Leif Howard and colleagues have examined the utility of apps for tracking invasive species in North America in an article published in NeoBiota.

A man explains to a woman how to use a phone to take photographs. She smiles while gripping her far more powerful DSLR camera.
Image: Canva.

Howard and colleagues examined nearly 500 peer-reviewed articles to identify the key features of the perfect app to report invasive species. Then they rated all known English-language invasive species reporting apps available to North American users against this ideal. They found that even the best apps used around 70% of the useful features and functionalities they were searching for. But this shortfall does not mean that no app is suitable for recording alien species.

In their article, Howard and colleagues write: “[A]lthough our rubric summarises current suggested features and best practices for [invasive alien species] mobile reporting apps, an app need not receive a perfect score to be functional and effective. A hypothetical app achieving a perfect score in our rubric would be easy to use, include value-added and gaming functionalities to encourage user uptake and sustained participation, enlist multiple onboard smartphone sensors to collect ancillary information, use machine-learning functionalities for automated taxonomic identification, provide visualisations of past reports and sightings for target taxa, facilitate researcher-user interaction to reduce data collection bias and would collect data in standard formats that enabled data sharing and interoperability with other monitoring systems. This is no doubt much to ask of any developer or project, but patterns and trends in our study nonetheless point in the direction of helpful innovations for invasive species apps going forward.”

The authors also have ideas for future innovations to make invasive species reporting apps even more effective. Their biggest suggestion is coordination. 

“Currently, most invasive species apps are developed by many separate organisations, leading to duplicated effort and inconsistent implementation”, they say in a press release. “The valuable data collected by these apps is also sent to different databases, making it harder for scientists to combine them for useful research.”

A more efficient way to implement these technologies might be to provide open-source code and app templates. Local organisations can then make regional apps that contribute data to centralised databases. 

They conclude their article by emphasising how promising smartphone apps are for monitoring invasive species. Getting better apps out could help people connect to nature and help save billions of dollars in preventing ecological damage.

ORIGINAL ARTICLE

Howard, L., van Rees, C.B., Dahlquist, Z., Luikart, G. and Hand, B.K. (2022) “A review of invasive species reporting apps for citizen science and opportunities for innovation,” NeoBiota, https://doi.org/10.3897/neobiota.71.79597

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