Walter Jetz has been working on the Map of Life app for four years. He’s an expert in biodiversity, teaching at both Yale University in the US and Imperial College in the UK.
I caught up with him on a slightly overcast day on a picnic table in the leafy grounds of Silwood Park, Imperial College’s campus about 40km west of London, where he explained how the app works.
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Touching the light blue icon with a three-branched tree opens the Map of Life, clicking on “What’s Around Me”, brings up a list including amphibians, butterflies, bees and 180 birds.
“We can move on to the songbirds, there are all sorts of tits and warblers around me that we can hear and then connect up with the app,” Jetz told Al Jazeera.
More than 20,000 people from Brazil to Indonesia to South Africa have downloaded the app since it launched two months ago. Jetz said five to 10,000 people log on daily.
“The exciting thing about the app is it’s not just a field guide; it’s a flipped field guide. So instead of you having to sift through pages and pages of a field guide to identify that species you’ve just seen,” Jetz said.
“It’s already a tailored list of species where you are right now.”
The app is an international collaboration with scientists and computer programmers funded in part by NASA and the National Science Foundation in the US.
There are 35,000 species on the app across the globe but it’s not just meant to be fun in the park; science and biodiversity are the core.
Users in remote parts of the world, particularly near the Equator, are encouraged to report back their sightings.
Jetz said the citizen scientists are providing valuable information. He said app users in Java had spotted a turtle not seen for many years.
“You’d be surprised for one or two of those (turtle) species we barely have any information at all,” Jetz said. “We have a rough map but no points on the ground that would tell us in detail where the species would be found.”
The sightings are pinpointed by the phone’s built-in GPS and added to the ever growing database.
Jetz said the app comes at a critical time as many species are changing fast – some becoming dominant in a region, others moving to different areas.
“Suddenly, we have information about potential threats, potential risks of extinction….which allows us to paint a detailed picture of where the species is and how its range may fair in the future,” said Jetz, whose enthusiasm for wildlife was sparked by a childhood in Bavaria and is undimmed.
The data can be passed on to policy makers who can then decide if another agriculture project in a region is a good idea or if it will harm nearby species and impact biodiversity.
There are plans to add to the app’s six languages and within a few months there will be sounds the animals make to improve identification.
The pictures and text are easy to understand; I used the app in New York’s Central Park last month when I spotted a bright orangey-red bird with a matching beak, sure enough the Map of Life identified it as a Northern Cardinal.