CHARLOTTE, N.C. – This week, I went on a mission. A mission to find geese.
Osa Omokaro came with me. She's a doctorate student from Nigeria who’s in her fourth year at UNC Charlotte. We drove around campus in the rain, trying to find the geese that are usually hard to miss. She saw something behind Memorial Hall.
“Oh there they are,” she said.
We got within 20 yards, and Osa took out her smartphone. She opened the app she created, zoomed in and took a picture of two geese walking up a hillside above a pond. Then she added a location, typed in a caption (“rainy goose day”) and pushed submit.
The UNCC GooseSpotter app then takes the picture, location and time of day and sends it to a server. It plots goose sightings on a map, and attaches the pictures and captions. Every goose sighting is worth ten points to the person who submits it. The app has a leaderboard.
What do the points get you? Nothing. Nothing at all.
So, what’s the point of the app? It’s not really to learn about geese. It’s to learn about us.
“We can leverage the mobile phones of people to collect data for a scientific or a civic purpose,” said Dr. Jamie Payton, a professor of computer science at UNC Charlotte who’s also Osa’s doctoral adviser. “One thing we're interested in is: what motivates people to contribute data in these volunteer scenarios?”
Here’s an example: The City of Charlotte already has apps where you can report graffiti, potholes and burned out street lights. More than 10,000 people have downloaded those apps, but only about 47 reports come in per month*. One possible reason? Getting people to report things is hard.
“We need incentives to get them to give us this data that is very important,” said Payton.
Remember those points that don’t matter? Actually, they do matter to people who want to show off.
“Something like a leaderboard is great,” Osa said. “You get to play with your friends, you get to see your friends name, you get to see yourself go up.”
The GooseSpotter app has only been online for about a week. It's downloaded about a dozen times so far, and it's only available for Android (iPhone and Blackberry versions are coming later). Osa's been putting up fliers around campus. She's also been spreading the word on the UNCC Geese Facebook page. There's also a UNCC Geese Twitter account. The geese are that popular. "They're like the unofficial mascots," Osa said.
The more Osa learns from apps like GooseSpotter, the more she can figure out how to use them to bring in data that can help scientists out. Because, really, why drive around looking for geese when it’s so much easier to let everyone else find them?
*- The folks in charge of the city's apps say there's more to those numbers, since reporting something to the city requires, well, something to report (You can't report a pothole if you don't see a pothole). They also point out there are multiple ways to report problems, including 311. Hence, just because you have 10,000 app downloads doesn't mean you'll have, say, 10,000 reports of problems.