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Hacking for Nature

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Walking home, the sting of cold dark November air lingers in my lungs. Looking around everything is engulfed by darkness, only being broken by the fine mist of rain illuminated by the tired bulbs of the streetlights. These sombre surroundings inspire sombre thoughts and it is hard not to think of the problems facing society today: Why are parents allowing their children to be infected with diseases easily preventable by vaccination? Why are we not doing more to end man-made climate change? How can we stop the ongoing biodiversity crisis? All these issues are, to varying extents, created or exacerbated by a misunderstanding or distrust of science. 


As someone training to be a scientist I find this distressing. How can the process which has facilitated the marvels of modern life be under so much disrepute? Misguided celebrity campaigns and lobbying by special interests groups spring to mind. I, personally, also feel that more could be done to inspire children to be interested in science who will, in time, form a scientifically literate society.  However, as much as it pains me to admit this, scientists, and the academic institutions they inhabit, are partially to blame. Most scientists publish their research in academic journals. This is a good way of disseminating research to other scientists, but the public is left out in the dark. Only the biggest breakthroughs get reported in the media. A member of the public will only see the tip of the scientific iceberg - with no appreciation how the research took place, or the human endeavour that went in to create it. Perhaps it is not surprising that science is treated with skepticism if it appears to be silent, before spitting out a new ‘fact’ that should be excepted. Our discipline at times may appear devoid of wonder, full of dry personalities in ageing institutions. We, as scientists, clearly need to address this.


Fortunately we are living through an information revolution, comparable in size and scale of the agricultural and industrial revolutions of old. The mass access to electronics, and the internet has changed the way we live and communicate. Today, almost everyone carries a computer in their pocket of a level of power Charles Babbage could only dream of. As such, this disconnect between science and the public can now, very easily, be bridged. 


A two way conversation is finally beginning to take place: scientists can directly communicate with the public *en masse*, and the public are able to talk back to the scientific community. Although this might sound a little mundane, this represents a step change. No longer will the public just see tiny snapshots of the scientific world, but the whole process from start to finish. The vibrant, constantly evolving, scientific landscape should start to shine from the murk of it’s traditional image. Gone are the days of white coats and test tubes, the public can see the groundbreaking innovation that is being applied to modern scientific field and laboratory methods. More exciting still is the ability of the public to use consumer electronics to directly feed data into scientific projects - with the concept of citizen science, everyone can now be a scientist. Although these are early days, it is foreseeable that these emerging technologies will facilitate new avenues of research and start to bridge the gap between scientific communities and the general public. 


Recently the
E3i Club, a student run club at the University of East Anglia, University of Kent, and University of Essex has been running a seminar series on harnessing these new technologies. Speakers so far have included Dr. Tom August who gave a fascinating insight into emerging technologies for conducting research and using the consumer electronic modification to create new scientific instrumentation; and Dr. Paul Jepson who introduced us to the world of mobile apps for conservation and research, and his intriguing vision for the future of the field. 

Dr. Jepson in particular, had the effect of causing the audience to think outside the box into venturing towards novel methods for scientific data collection. You may be familiar with the current app Shazam, which will tell you the name of a song and the artist just by holding you phone to a speaker. Well, imagine this in a forest, you hear a bird call and would like to know the species producing it. Hold out your smartphone, and it will give you percentage probabilities of which bird it thinks is singing. Shazam for nature, if you will. You can view Dr. Jepson's enthralling talk in the video below:



We are also excited to be hosting
Dr. Dan MacLean for our next seminar - who will be giving insight into how he used an online video game to allow the public to facilitate the genomic analysis of ash trees afflicted with ‘ash dieback’. 

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We are capping the whole event with an app development workshop to allow our members the training required to start directly participating in this revolution. We will now have an ability to design bespoke tools for both communication with non-scientists, and take our research in exciting new directions.

Although this is only a small first step, I believe this could start a journey culminating in something much bigger: a more scientifically engaged, aware society - an important first step in grappling with some of the largest problems facing society today.



Phil Author

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