Tag Archives: app

UK university creates app to slow spread of coronavirus

With over 6.600 confirmed cases and 300 deaths, the coronavirus outbreak is moving fast in the UK, now under lockdown for three weeks by government orders. This means people will be only allowed to exit their homes to buy groceries to avoid the spread of the virus.

Kings College University in London launched a new app that tracks symptoms related to novel coronavirus, allowing anyone to self-report daily. The app will help researchers identify how fast is the virus spreading in different areas, know which areas are the riskiest, and detect who is most at risk from the diseases.

The university selected 5,000 twins and their families across the UK to first try the app, which will record daily information such as their temperature, tiredness, and symptoms that could indicate the disease. Those who show signs of COVID-19 will receive a home testing kit to check if they have become infected with the coronavirus.

By comparing genetically identical twins with non-identical twins, researchers hope to separate the effects of genes from environmental factors such as diet, lifestyle, previous illnesses and infections, and the microbes within the gut. Samples from the twin group will also be used to create a biobank for future projects.

The data obtained from the trial, researchers argue, will help to obtain relevant information regarding the symptoms and progression of coronavirus in different people, also helping understand why some go on to develop more severe or fatal cases while others have only mild symptoms.

The trial and the app will be useful to distinguish mild coronavirus symptoms from seasonal coughs and colds, which may be leading people to unnecessarily self-isolate when they aren’t infected or inadvertently go out and spread the disease when they are.

Professor Tim Spector said: “These are worrying times for everyone. Our twins are fantastically committed, enthusiastic health research participants who have already been studied in unprecedented detail, putting us in a unique position to provide vital answers to support the global fight against COVID-19.”

The monitoring app, free of charge, was developed in partnership between King’s College and health data science company ZOE. It will be available to the health staff and the general public who wish to contribute to the research. At the same time, it will also be used by other large population studies in the UK and the US.

Similar apps are being used in many countries as a way to spread the coronavirus outbreak. For example, South Korea developed an app that allows those who have been ordered not to leave home to stay in contact with caseworkers and report on their progress.

Simple meditation app can make people more attentive in less than two months, new study finds

The app, which was not released to the public, improved the attention span of young adults in only 6 weeks.

Modern life has changed in a number of ways. It’s less physically intensive but more mentally tiring. We’re often forced to multitask, to jump from one thing to another in a brief period of time, and shift environments with unprecedented speed. It’s not surprising that in this modern world, meditation has been making a slow resurgence.

Research on meditation is often contradictory — although hundreds of studies on meditation have been carried out since the 1950s, most of them were flawed or offer limited information. More recently, studies using modern instruments such as fMRI and EEG have shown that meditation induces some changes in the brain, although the effects of those changes are still a matter of debate. According to these, there is moderate evidence that meditation reduces anxiety, depression, and pain.

Researchers led by David Ziegler and Adam Gazzaley wanted to see if a meditation app can have a positive impact on concentration and attention. They developed a meditation training app and offered it to 22 users, aged 18-35. The participants used the app for a few minutes a day over a 6-week period, while at the same time, a control group used unrelated meditation apps for the same amount of time.

For the app, they used ‘East meets West’ approach, integrating “key aspects of traditional focused-attention meditation with a neuroplasticity-based, closed-loop approach to cognitive enhancement”. When they tested the participants, they observed an improved ability to focus on their breathing, as well as improved sustained attention and working memory in specialized tests carried after the 6-week period.

Attention is a fundamental cognitive process, higher for all real-world activities. Improving the attention in young adults would have obvious benefits, but this has proven to be notoriously difficult. The users’ self-reported mind-wandering also went down significantly. These improvements were also reflected in brain activity as measured by an EEG. The control group, which used other meditation apps, did not exhibit such improvement.

The team acknowledges that further research is necessary to confirm the findings in a larger group and to assess whether the results stand over a longer period of time.

The authors found that participants using their app showed improved ability to focus on their breathing—from an initial average of 20 seconds per day to 6 minutes by day 30. They also showed transfer benefits in separate tests of sustained attention and working memory conducted 1–2 weeks following the 6-week trial. These improvements were also reflected in brain activity measured by electroencephalogram (EEG). Comparatively, the control group did not demonstrate such improvements.

The authors acknowledge that further research is needed in a larger study to determine whether the positive findings reported in this paper are applicable to the broader population and whether they last longer than 1-2 weeks after training.

The study was published in Nature Human Behaviour. DOI:10.1038/s41562-019-0611-9


New app can hear if your child has an infected ear

A new smartphone app can detect ear infections in young children.

App paper funnel.

Image credits Dennis Wise / University of Washington.

Ear infections can be pretty hard to spot with children, especially very young ones. It has vague symptoms, from tug of the ears to fever, or there could be no observable symptoms at all. However, it can be painful and make it hard for children to hear, potentially even posing long-term threats. A new app developed by researchers at the University of Washington (UW) can determine the likelihood of such an infection with an accuracy of 85%

“Designing an accurate screening tool on something as ubiquitous as a smartphone can be game changing for parents as well as health care providers in resource limited regions,” said co-author Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

“A key advantage of our technology is that it does not require any additional hardware other than a piece of paper and a software app running on the smartphone.”

According to the National Institute of Health, “three of every four children have at least one episode by their third birthday,” and “almost half of those who get them will have three or more ear infections during their first three years.” It’s also one of the most common reason why parents visit a pediatrician. Luckily, they’re pretty easy to treat with antibiotics once discovered. A doctor can monitor and drain an infection if needed, which will relieve pain or hearing loss.

The team wanted to give parents a quick and reliable way of screening for the condition at home, to help them decide whether or not to take their child to the doctor. Their app generates a series of soft, audible sounds that are focused into the ear — through a small paper funnel you’ll craft — making the eardrum vibrate. By analyzing the sounds beaming back from the eardrum, the app can determine the likelihood that there is fluid behind it. It’s kind of like  “tapping a wine glass,” the team explains.


Image credits: University of Washington. All you need is a piece of paper to cut and fold into a funnel. This funnel is rested on the outer ear, and will serve to focus the sound into the ear canal. Each sound is 150 milliseconds long, and sounds similarly to a bird chirping. The team tested their app on 53 children between the ages of 18 months and 17 years at Seattle Children’s Hospital. About half of the children were scheduled to undergo surgery for ear tube placement, a common surgery for patients with chronic or recurrent incidents of ear fluid. The other half were scheduled to undergo surgery unrelated to the ears. They tested each child with the app immediately before surgery, giving them the perfect opportunity to see the app’s accuracy.

“What is really unique about this study is that we used the gold standard for diagnosing ear infections,” said co-first author Dr. Sharat Raju, a surgical resident in otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the UW School of Medicine.

“When we put in ear tubes, we make an incision into the eardrum and drain any fluid present. That’s the best way to tell if there is fluid behind the eardrum. So these surgeries created the ideal setting for this study.”

Authors note that many of the children responded to the chirps by smiling or laughing. The algorithm itself was correct in 85% of the patients, which the team says is comparable to current methods that specialized doctors use. On tests involving younger children (15 children between nine and 18 months of age) it correctly classified all five ears that were positive for fluid and nine out of the 10 ears that were not.

The paper “Detecting middle ear fluid using smartphones” has been published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Young kids are exposed to many app advertisements, new study reports

While young kids are more and more exposed to technology like smartphones and tablets, they are also more exposed to advertising — something which their parents may not realize.

Most apps, be they educational, games, or something else, contain some form of advertising — and that doesn’t change for apps aimed at young kids. A new study analyzed 135 of the most popular apps marketed to or commonly used by children under the age of 5. They found that 95% of them used some form of advertising. Ads ranged from pop-ups which interrupted the play to distracting banner ads. Researchers also found that often times, commercial characters would appear trying to convince the player to make in-app purchases to enhance the game experience. They also write that sometimes, banners were misleading and not age-appropriate.

“With young children now using mobile devices on an average of one hour a day, it’s important to understand how this type of commercial exposure may impact children’s health and well-being,” says senior author Jenny Radesky, M.D., a developmental-behavioral expert and pediatrician at Mott.

When it came to free apps, all of them contained some form of advertising — which is generally understandable, as the app makers want to monetize their work. But the vast majority of paid apps also contained apps (88%), and the ads occurred at similar rates in both types of apps categorized as educational.

There was, however, an important difference between free and paid apps. Ad videos often popped up interrupting play, especially in free apps. In-app purchases were also present in a third of all apps, and in 41 percent of all free apps. This discrepancy worries Radesky:

“I’m concerned about digital disparities, as children from lower-income families are more likely to play free apps, which are packed with more distracting and persuasive ads.”

Overall, scientists found great variation, not much regulation, and an overall emphasis placed on advertising itself, rather than the user’s experience. There’s very little scrutiny to these apps, scientists conclude.

“Our findings show that the early childhood app market is a wild west, with a lot of apps appearing more focused on making money than the child’s play experience,” she says. “This has important implications for advertising regulation, the ethics of child app design, as well as how parents discern which children’s apps are worth downloading.”

Lastly, if other types of ads such as TV ads are a good parallel, then the parents are probably unaware of just how many ads their children are seeing. Researchers call for heightened scrutiny of apps, particularly those in the educational category.

“We know that time on mobile devices is displacing time children used to spend watching TV,” says Meyer, research assistant at the U-M Medical School. “Parents may view apps that are marketed as educational as harmless and even beneficial to their child’s learning and development.”

The study has been published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics.

Apps aimed at kids are a sponge of personal data, in direct violation of federal law, study reports

Thousands of apps targeted at children are silently and unlawfully gathering their data, study finds.

Kids apps.

Peekaboo, they see you. Image credits: Thomas Quinn.

In the wake of the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica meltdown, people are understandably quite concerned about the heap of data apps have gathered on them, and what happens to this wealth of information. Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, but according to a study published on April 16th, you should be even more concerned.

Hide your kids

Researchers from the International Computer Science Institute say that the majority of free Android apps intended for children are tracking their data — in direct violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, a federal law that regulates data collection from users under 13 years of age.

The study analyzed 5,855 apps targeted at children, each gathering an average of 750,000 downloads between November 2016 through to March 2018, according to the paper. These apps, which had over 172 million downloads combined, were games like Fun Kid Racing and Motocross Kids — Winter Storm. Using a Nexus 5X as a platform, the team downloaded and ran each app for about 10 minutes, to simulate a usual session. The results were quite worrying.

Thousands of the apps the team looked at collected data from the device in some way or another, some including location (GPS) data or personal information. Up to 235 of these apps accessed the phone’s GPS data, 184 of which later transmitted this data to advertisers, according to the study. According to Serge Egelman, the paper’s co-author, the findings are bound to worry parents, particularly since they would need an ‘expert’ level of technical knowledge to be able to figure out which apps did this for themselves.

“They’re not expected to reverse-engineer applications in order to make a decision whether or not it’s safe for their kids to use,” he said.

People often give permission for apps to gather ad-tracking data in exchange for free service — we’re all guilty of doing this at one point or another. It isn’t only Android apps that do it, either. For better or for worse, there is a myriad of apps — and most likely a Facebook tracker — peeking at your data all the time.

However, we’re adults, and the right to make our own choices comes with its own risks, including giving away permissions for apps. Children, who aren’t discerning enough to know what consequences their buttoning might have, are given protected legal status through COPPA. Children’s apps are thus not allowed to track data without first gaining explicit parental consent. The study, however, found that many of the apps they analyzed didn’t conform to the law.

Egelman says that even if companies try to ensure they conform to COPPA, the results are still worrying. The simulated interactions were handled by a machine randomly pressing buttons, and most apps still tracked data in one form or another. COPPA requires producers to get “verifiable consent,” meaning that they have to take steps to ensure that people know what information they were releasing to the app.

“If a robot is able to click through their consent screen which resulted in carrying data, obviously a small child that doesn’t know what they’re reading is likely to do the same,” Egelman said.

Back in 2014, Google allowed users to reset their Android Advertising ID to give them better control over how online apps track their data. Developers are required to only use that ID when tracking user data, but the team says two-thirds of the apps they looked at didn’t allow users to reset their ID. Even more glaringly, over 1,000 of the apps also collected personal information in direct violation of Google’s terms of service, which prohibits such tracking in apps targeted towards children.

To add insult to injury, over 40% of the apps further failed to transfer the data in a secure way. Some 2,344 children’s apps transferring collected data did not use TLS encryption, a security standard that makes sure the data and its recipient are authentic. The security measure is the “standard method for securely transmitting information,” the researchers said.

The paper ” “Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?” Examining COPPA Compliance at Scale,” has been published in the journal Proceedings on Privacy Enhancing Technologies.

Scientists invent phone app that accurately monitors blood pressure

Researchers developed new hardware and a smartphone app that can measure blood pressure (BP) as accurately as existing cuff devices.

Via Pixabay/rawpixel

The team of scientists from Michigan State University (MSU) also found a new, more convenient, measurement point. Stanard measurement devices use the brachial artery as the conventional measurement point, but the team discovered that measuring BP on fingertip arteries was very easy and exact.

“We targeted a different artery, the transverse palmer arch artery at the fingertip, to give us better control of the measurement,” said Anand Chandrasekhar, PhD student at MSU. “We were excited when we validated this location. Being able to use your fingertip makes our approach much easier and more accessible,” said Chandrasekhar, lead author of the study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

How does the app work?

The app uses two sensors: one is optical, and one is force. The optical sensor lies on top of the force sensor in a compact unit housed in a one centimeter-thick case attached to the back of the phone. Users turn on the app and press their fingertip against the sensor unit. With their finger on the unit, they keep the phone at heart level and watch the screen to ensure they are applying the correct amount of finger pressure.

“A key point was to see if users could properly apply the finger pressure over time, which lasts as long as an arm-cuff measurement,” said Ramakrishna Mukkamala, professor at MSU. “We were pleased to see that 90% of the people trying it were able to do it easily after just one or two practice tries.”

According to the WHO, raised blood pressure is estimated to cause 7.5 million deaths per year worldwide, about 12.8% of the total of all deaths. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease and strokes. In addition, complications of raised blood pressure include heart failure, peripheral vascular disease, renal impairment, retinal hemorrhage and visual impairment. Treating systolic blood pressure and diastolic blood pressure until they are less than 140/90 mmHg is associated with a reduction in cardiovascular complications.

The treatment usually requires both lifestyle changes and medication, and only 20 percent of people with hypertension have their condition under control. This new phone app gives patients an advantageous alternative — keeping a log of day by day estimations would deliver an exact BP average, with periodical estimation becoming obsolete, believes Mukkamala. In this way, medication dosage will be better adjusted to each individual.

I think this is great news for all of us. I remember thinking that the incorporated sensor that measures pulse and oxygen saturation found on the back of some smartphones might need new medical updates, including blood pressure measurement. Luckily, this day has come, and the future just became brighter.

That new contraceptive app might not work as well as expected

Remember the birth control app developed by Elina Berglund, a former Large Hadron Collider physicist? Well, a Swedish hospital has lodged a complaint against her startup company, after the app reportedly caused 37 unwanted pregnancies.

Image credits: Natural Cycles.

The idea behind Natural Cycles was pretty straightforward, and it seemed effective. Woman fertility is driven by the menstrual cycle. When women ovulate, this brings forth a series of physiological changes, including a temperature change. The user would take measurements with a highly accurate thermometer and monitor bodily temperature. Then, using statistical methods, the app would estimate a woman’s fertility based on variations in her daily temperature. It would turn green when it’s OK to have sex, and red when sex was a no-no (when the woman is fertile).

It seemed to work good enough. In a clinical study which included 4,000 women, Natural Cycles scored an accuracy of 93 percent — not perfect, but comparable, to the condom and oral contraceptives. The birth control app received EU approval and right now, about 500,000 women are using it. But not everything went according to plan.

In a study carried out by the Södersjukhuset hospital in Sweden, out of 600 women who sought abortions in late 2017, 37 of them were using the Natural Cycles app. In other words, the app caused at least 37 unwanted pregnancies.

“We have a duty to report all side effects, such as pregnancies, to the Medical Products Agency,” midwife Carina Montin told Siren news agency.

The company went on the defensive, saying that this is only natural. No birth control method is perfect, they rightly argued, and as more and more women rely on Natural Cycles, more “accidents” are set to happen.

“An unwanted pregnancy is, of course, very unfortunate and we deeply care every time one of our users becomes pregnant unplanned,” the company said. “As our user base increases, so will the number of unplanned pregnancies coming from Natural Cycles users. This is an arithmetic truth applicable to all contraceptive methods.”

“To have 37 unwanted pregnancies out of the 668 mentioned in this study at Södersjukhuset means that 5,5 per cent of women who stated they used Natural Cycles also had an unwanted pregnancy. This is in line with what we communicate as the risk of unwanted pregnancy with typical use, and which is comparable to other types of contraception.”

But this is certainly a significant setback. At this point, it’s unclear if the 37 unwanted pregnancies fit with the 93% accuracy, but Natural Cycles will probably want to sort this out as soon as possible. The company is currently seeking approval from the FDA, and this might drastically jeopardize their chances.

Still, the problem of contraceptives remains pressing. Reliable contraceptive methods are few and far between, often coming with severe side effects. They also focus almost exclusively on women (except for the condom, of course). That might change next year, when a male contraceptive rub-on gel starts clinical trials.

UPDATE: A representative from Natural News has informed us that the Medical Products Agency (MPA) has closed all individual reports related to unplanned pregnancies concluding that there are no implications on behalf of Natural Cycles. In the meantime, Natural Cycles continues its own investigation.

“The Medical Products Agency has decided that all reports concerning Natural Cycles will be transitioned to trend reporting, in order to continuously monitor and report any unintentional pregnancies given the spread of the popular contraception app. Natural Cycles welcomes further data from the public to strengthen our clinical studies and aftermarket follow-up, why our open case at the Medical Products Agency is important to us. 

Natural Cycles has continuous follow-up of its users and has performed clinical studies of the app. We continuously evaluate these data and communicate an efficiency of 93% in typical use. No reports from the public have so far provided any indication of being higher than our own data.

Moving forward, the MPA continues its investigation by transitioning to trend reporting, where Natural Cycles will share data with the MPA in order to ensure that the number of unintended pregnancies remain within expectations given the popularity and effectiveness of the app.”

Social media is making mass surveillance easier than ever — and we’re just embracing it

A new study raises significant concerns about Snapchat’s Snap Map app, finding that the company’s reassurances ring hollow.

Such apps offer attractive features, but underneath the cute design, there’s also a lot of surveillance going on.

Social mass surveillance

In a world where countless social media services fight for our attention, Snapchat managed to firmly establish itself as one of the big boys. Translated into 20 languages, Snapchat boasts over 160 million users who on average, open the app almost 20 times a day. It’s already grown into a huge project. But like other big social media, Snapchat also raises privacy concerns — especially regarding its new Snap Map feature.

In June 2017, a new Snapchat feature was revealed, allowing users to share their real-time location with their friends. You can also view snaps from people close to you or see heat maps of users, it’s quite an interesting app. But not everyone loved it. Many users considered it to be a stalker heaven and child protection groups have vocally protested against it. Snapchat tried to assure its users that they “routinely work with law enforcement” but, as a new study has shown, this just opens the doors for mass surveillance. Dr. Neil Thurman of City, University of London and LMU Munich, says that Snapchat routinely gives user data away to advertisers and other third parties, which, among others, has allowed law enforcement agencies to spy on innocent citizens, such as legitimate protesters and trade union members.

But as bad as Snap Map is, it’s just one of a range of apps that do more or less the same thing.

“Snap Map is just one of a range of apps that allows social network users to be monitored without their knowledge and with pin-point accuracy,” says Thurman . “Indeed some of these apps far exceed Snap Map in their surveillance capabilities, and are able to track individuals over time and across multiple social networks.”

‘Stalker-esque’ apps

In his latest study, Thurman looked at a range of these apps, including Echosec, Dataminr, Picodash, and SAM. While Snapchat’s Snap Map is aimed at a general audience (and has the broadest user base), other apps are more niched, tailored for professionals such as journalists or security forces. Since many times, the ones picking up on the data from these apps are other apps, your data can propagate insanely fast, which adds even more concern. Truth be told, some of them can use the data to provide a useful service. For instance, Dataminr, claims to have delivered alerts on shootings and explosions “ahead of major news reports”, allowing “emergency responders to act quickly to protect the public.” More often, apps would use the data for customer engaging and reporting (ie telling a restaurant owner when his business is locally mentioned).

“Social media networks’ reassurances over surveillance ring hollow because, as my study shows, they are selling our data in the knowledge that it is being used by third parties for a wide range of other purposes, including location monitoring.”

However, public backlash is starting to become a factor. An app called Geofeedia was called out for its practices, and due to the negative publicity, social networks refused to provide the information pipeline and this ultimately led to its demise. So public awareness and reaction are very important. People should be aware of how their data is being used.

“One of the apps my report describes, Geofeedia, was used by hundreds of law enforcement agencies, promoted as giving the police the power to ‘monitor’ – via social media – trade union members, protesters, and activist groups, who the company described as being an ‘overt threat’”, said Dr Thurman.

Journal Reference: Neil Thurman — Social Media, Surveillance, and News Work. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21670811.2017.1345318

heart rate app

Be careful when using heart rate apps — most aren’t accurate at all

Swiss researchers assessed the accuracy of various heart rate apps and found their accuracy varied hugely with respect to medically rated measuring devices like the electrocardiogram (ECG). Although one of the apps was almost as good as the ECG, the rest were quite terrible, so consumers should be very careful when they choose to monitor their heart health with such apps.

heart rate app

Credit: Top Apps.

Although heart rate apps are ubiquitous with many carriers pre-installing them on newly purchased devices, there is no legislation requiring developers to adhere to some strict medical performance guidelines. Consumers, on the other hand, might trust the results just as well.

To verify how accurate some of these heart rate apps are, a team led by Dr Christophe Wyss, a cardiologist at Heart Clinic Zurich, Switzerland, recruited 108 patients who had their heart rate measured. Four commercially available heart rate apps were chosen at random for the study and the results were then compared to the clinical gold standard measurements like the electrocardiogram (ECG) and fingertip pulse oximetry.

The apps were tested on the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 5. Some of these app work using photoplethysmography, essentially measuring the heart beat by placing the finger on the phone’s fingertip sensor. Other apps  use non-contact photoplethysmography and measure the heart heart just by taking a picture.

In one in five of the assessed measurements, the apps were as much as 20 beats per minute off compared to ECG. It’s not surprising to hear that the apps that use optical analysis to determine the hear rate performed the worst, particularly at higher heart rates and lower body temperatures, as reported in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. 

“While it’s easy to use the non-contact apps – you just look at your smartphone camera and it gives your heart rate – the number it gives is not as accurate as when you have contact with your smartphone by putting your fingertip on the camera,” Dr Wyss said.

One app measured heart rate with comparable accuracy to pulse oximetry, though. When the researchers tried to understand why this app was performing so well compared to others, the researchers found the variation could not be explained by camera technology (iPhone 4 versus iPhone 5), age, body temperature, or heart rate itself. The only thing that could explain this app’s performance was the algorithm used to establish the heart rate — but given it’s a commercial app, the researchers didn’t have access to the code.

The takeaway is that most heart rate apps are very poor. You might find a very good app, but you shouldn’t trust it unless you compare results with a medical-graded device. Previously, blood pressure apps were also found to be inaccurate.

“It means that just because the underlying technology works in one app doesn’t mean it works in another one and we can’t assume that all contact heart rate apps are accurate,” Wyss said.

Since last year, Apple has been a lot stricter with what apps it allows developers to publish in the fitness or health section of the AppStore. Consumers, however, should still be very careful when using health apps. At most, use the monitored results as a rule of thumb or performance indicator. You should never take medical advice from a health app unless it’s been recommended by your doctor.

“Consumers and interpreting physicians need to be aware that the differences between apps are huge and there are no criteria to assess them. We also don’t know what happens to the heart rate data and whether it is stored somewhere, which could be an issue for data protection,” Wyss concluded.


Free phone app identifies plants from just a picture

It’s like Shazam for plants – PlantNet is a free app that can help you identify plants based on just taking a picture.

Photo: YouTube/InriaChannel

Most people think that science is something abstract, disconnected from the day to day reality of life, but I really don’t think that’s the case. If you want to encourage the scientist inside, observing and understanding the nature around you is a great way of doing so. No matter where you live, you’re bound to have some plants around you… but how many can you identify and understand them? To be honest, I can only work out the common ones from my area, and this type of app seems like it could be very useful.

The app collects data from a large social network that uploads pictures and information about plants. It’s also useful to learn more about plant morphology and biology. It also does another thing, though more subtle: it makes you interact more with nature. Let’s face it, we all pass by trees and plants every day, but we pay little attention to them; most of the time, we don’t even notice them. With a bit of practice, you could identify plants as you’re walking past them and not only keep your brain entertained, but also appreciate your surroundings more.

From what I tested it, it seems to work quite fine, but the data base is still a work in progress (especially from North America). Many plants are common between the temperate areas of Europe and North America however, and you can make deductions based on that, so you should be able to manage.

This also works really well in tandem with another app, Leafsnap, that identifies trees based on leaf shape. It’s also not the only app of its kind – I was surprised to see there’s quite a number of apps that helps you identify flowers and trees. So, now you can go out and identify that rosebush… or is it a dahlia?

App that could help endangered species is backed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

If you want to help protect endangered species, there’s a new app that might facilitate that. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) said Monday it’s teaming up with Sweden-based FishBrain to develop a social, free-to-use app that might make a difference for local wildlife.

The app can be downloaded for Apple and Android devices.

Anglers are among the most likely people to encounter endangered species, and this app is aimed at them and people who spend a lot of time outdoors. The app already tracks weather, wind direction, water quality and other data points of interest and will now include a feature to identify endangered species.

Users can log up to 50 “at-risk species” and help conservationists and researchers figure out exactly where these creatures live, as well as what sort of habitat they need and perhaps the reasons for their decline. It’s basically a crowdsourcing effort that could take advantage of people’s outdoor time and their interest in helping protect endangered species.

“The first step towards conservation is always education and engagement, and we are excited to work with FishBrain to help us reach a new audience. Anglers are extremely important to protecting and maintaining healthy aquatic habitats. This is a unique opportunity to synthesize recreational anglers’ information and knowledge in local waterways and expand our understanding of various species.” said Gary Frazer, Assistant Director of the Service’s Ecological Services Program.

The FWS provided a list of threatened or endangered species as well as possible candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act. It might seem odd to target anglers as conservationists – but that’s actually normal. Most fishermen today catch and release, and the last thing they want is a shortage of fish. Also, spending so much time in nature, you almost can’t help but developing a sense of admiration and respect for it.

As Gary Frazer added in a statement:

“Anglers are extremely important to protecting and maintaining healthy aquatic habitats. This is a unique opportunity to synthesize recreational anglers’ information and knowledge in local waterways and expand our understanding of various species.”


Laura Major of Draper Laboratory holds an Android device with the airstrike app open. (Draper Laboratory)

Mobile app lets soldiers order an airstrike via their android smartphone

Laura Major of Draper Laboratory holds an Android device with the airstrike app open. (Draper Laboratory)

Laura Major of Draper Laboratory holds an Android device with the airstrike app open. (Draper Laboratory)

Yeah, I know – for heaven’s sake is there an app  for this too now? It seems so. Draper Laboratory, a not-for-profit research and development lab based in Cambridge, Mass, is currently testing a mobile app that may one day actually see the battlefield and help soldiers order airstrikes simply by using their smartphones. The better communication between the various parties involved in an airstrike ( field soldiers and engineers, desktop technicians surveying information and pilots) could help reduce the amount of friendly or civilian casualties during combat operations.

The Android Terminal Assault Kit or ATAK for short is currently developed to work with Android, and besides calling for airstrikes it will help soldiers by offering them navigation, spatial awareness and a means to control drone systems. The system’s high card is that it will relay real-time information about what’s happening in a combat zone during the delicate and crucial moments before and after an airstrike.

A screen shot from the Android Terminal Assault Kit (ATAK). (c) Draper Laboratory

A screen shot from the Android Terminal Assault Kit (ATAK). (c) Draper Laboratory

Typically, troops on ground and in the heat of action use GPS receivers and laptops to organize their airstrike. This still involves taking notes of friendlies, actual targets, civilians and other key points, all while calculating the time it takes for the airstrike to hit. The information is relayed to overhead pilots, but occasionally there are transcription, communication or memory errors.

“It’s one thing for a user behind a desk in a climate-controlled office to toggle back and forth between 10 windows, deal with system crashes, and wait 60 seconds for booting up,” Laura Major, who leads Draper’s human-centered engineering work, said in a statement. “It’s another thing to deal with those issues while someone is shooting at you or if you’re jumping out of a plane. That’s where ATAK comes in.”

As troops designate points on ATAK’s map as enemy targets, friendly forces or civilians, Major said, they can say whether the points are artillery, tanks or a church or school, for example. The program will then automatically generate detailed information, such as grid coordinates and elevation, that are crucial for an airstrike. And to make sure troops aren’t about to call in an airstrike on themselves, or on a hostile force that is dangerously close to their position, ATAK will then display that information with hostile forces in red, and friendly forces in blue, including distance and bearing to the closest friendly force.

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A prototype has already been tested during military exercises. Results so far have been promising, according to the developers who have used this information to test how efficient and reliable their ATAK app is on the field.

“Operators who used the app during the exercises also indicated that by keeping all of the information in a well-organized, easy to access display, the likelihood of friendly fire accidents, civilian casualties and collateral damage would be significantly reduced,” Draper officials said in a statement.