An app for 'Encounters' with local wildlife
By Lou Fancher Correspondent
The debut of a new app developed by students at Saint Mary's College and the folks at the Lindsay Wildlife Museum proves there's nothing more "real world" than the real world.
Known as "LMW Encounters" and available as a free download on iTunes, the mobile app unlocks the wonders of Bay Area wildlife. With a field guide, sharp photos underscored with facts and a "My First Note" function for documenting and sharing wildlife encounters on Facebook, the students' yearlong project also links users to ongoing educational opportunities offered by the museum.
But even without taking advantage of the Lindsay's exhibits and programs, app users can identify and learn about animals in their own backyards and on area trails, discover the best way to have safe interactions with wildlife or take a picture of an animal encounter and share the location and date with the Lindsay while telling their stories to one and all.
Initial momentum for the app project was supplied by the college's push for civic engagement and a grant from the Science Education for New Civic Engagement and Responsibilities and its Informal Science Education initiative.
But five minutes with mathematics and computer science Professor Weiwei Pan, who served as project manager, and two members of the development team,
Marco Avalos of Boonville and Elliott Battle of Antioch reveal it's "appmania," not dreams of glory, fueling the endeavor.
"It's for the School of Education," says Pan, animating every sentence with an exuberant attack on a nearby laptop and "Let me show you!" The team is tackling a common problem -- single-subject studies with complicated data sets demanding intensive time to create accompanying graphics.
"We're coming up with software specifically designed to generate journal-ready graphs with just a few clicks," Pan explained.
Said Avalos, "I'd like to try graphics and games next."
"An Android app, I'd definitely want experience with that," said Battle, who is headed to Washington University in St. Louis for a three-year computer science graduate program. Battle says Saint Mary's gave him more opportunities than would have been possible at a larger college.
Other members of the team are fighting car trouble or summer job schedules, and Pan dives at her laptop, hoping Anthony Braddick of Quincy, Katy Duran of Martinez and John Spalluzzi of Elk Grove will appear via an online chat room. Pan said the team was collaborative from the start and never struggled with disagreements. Battle says they were friends at the beginning, middle and end. "We modularized everything, so there were no dust-ups," he says.
Because classroom projects have parameters based on what is doable, Avalos and Battle said having a client like the Lindsay museum forced them to be more creative. Battle says, "A client may or may not know what's feasible. They want three things done, however you can manage it. I found myself thinking about programming and what is painful or possible."
Avalos says keeping up with no-nonsense deadlines, finding a balance between making the app professional enough for the client while pleasing the user's desire for style was good practice. And insuring the coding was clear so the Lindsay staff could modify the app in the future without the team's help, was a good lesson for the team.
They also had to watch the budget, which didn't allow for dedicated server storage. "We had to tweak data storage," Battle recalls, "and we wanted to do personal field notes, but we didn't have time. That'll be in the 2.0 version."
Michele Setter, Lindsay's director of animal encounters, calls the experience a win-win.
"Without the students, we wouldn't have the app. They had the desire and expertise to pull it off and did it brilliantly. I coached them in how to deliver the message and they had this experience as if they were in a job. They also learned how important the museum is in the community the importance of our relationship with wildlife."
During testing, Avalos says feedback from users on Google Form identified glitches (a picture taken in "portrait" would mysteriously rotate to "landscape," for instance) and users' preference for alphabetical listings.
"They wanted it formatted that way, but we had to accommodate the Lindsay, who wanted the animals in scientific, taxonomical order," Avalos says. Eventually, the team came up with general headings to guide users through categories arranged as the client requested.
After working through Facebook's approval process, Apple put their engineering "eyes" on the iOS-compatible app and approval was relatively rapid.
The team says Saint Mary's and Lindsay's marketing efforts will increase awareness, but the best advertising will be word-of-mouth, by digital delivery, in the content-sharing channels of the app's Facebook presence, Alexander Lindsay.