An App for Nature

Curtis Franklin Jr., Executive Editor | 1/18/2013 | 38 comments

Curtis Franklin Jr.
Quick, tell me what the US Fish and Wildlife Service does. Keep going. I'll bet the list gets pretty long before you include "publishes apps."

Publishing apps for smartphones and tablets is just what the service has begun doing, though, and the latest brings together the interests of an archeologist dismayed at under-used resources and the skills of a development company with experience in building map-based apps. The result is a guide to finding locations with lots of recreation possibility and very little public awareness.

Eugene Marino is a service archeologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). When I spoke with him before the holidays, he explained how he came to be interested in the idea of building an app:

I had recently gotten an iPad and was checking the App store for apps on museums, archaeology and recreation. I found the original app designed by the developer we ended up working with and it had a bunch of public lands, but it lacked wildlife refuges. I thought that, if we could add refuges, it would be a great way to highlight historical resources.

It struck Marino that the wildlife refuges were significantly under-appreciated -- something that became clear to him when he was looking for something to do with his family one weekend and realized that he had no convenient way to learn about the location and features of refuges that he knew were in his area. He decided that the service could use a "virtual visitor's guide" for potential visitors who could see that there are actually interesting things to do at refuges -- and that refuges are more common than most people think. The result was MyRefuge, the latest smartphone app from the FWS.

When I asked Marino about his role in developing the app, he said that his position was carefully defined. "I was on the conceptual level. The coding and technical stuff was already in place and we were able to take the existing structure and make it work specifically for the refuge system," he said. Marino said that the developer, Zaia Design, had existing map and point of interest applications so the main task was helping them use publicly-available information to build an application that was targeted toward the refuge system. Helping the developer understand the attractions within the refuge system was the heart of Marino's role.

Listening to Marino describe the process for building the app, I expressed amazement that this service, one that I associate with, well, fish and furry animals, was involved in high-tech smartphone apps. He said that mine was a common perception, but one that is sadly out of date. "I think we are a high tech service," he said. "MyRefuge was the first thing I saw out there from a national perspective, but we have other apps -- we have an app for Ding Darling that was developed by the Friends [of Ding Darling] group, and other apps that are in the works now."

Marino pointed out that developing apps is new for the FWS, but that it's also new for everyone. In the entire Department of Interior apps have only been developed for the public in the last year. He said that the nature of the app development community means that developers are looking at publicly available information regarding public lands and that, "...now the agency is looking at getting involved with steering what an app from the agency would look like."

I asked Marino why FWS had decided to partner with an app developer rather than build the app internally, and he said that it boiled down to making the best use of available resources. "I think that it's probably much more efficient to have one or two apps that the FWS calls its own but to connect with developers and let developers use the public information we have and get that message out to the public for most apps," he said.

Marino explained, "There are things we could do ourselves, but it might not be the most efficient use of time and funding. Partnerships and connections between the tech community and the messaging that FWS does already get information out quickly and at the lowest cost to taxpayers."

I've downloaded MyRefuge and I'm looking forward to using it to plan future trips. What do you think: Is a partnership the most efficient way to go for developing apps? What should the developers bring to the partnership? And what apps would you like to see come out of the Federal Government? I've already started my list...

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
Page 1 / 4   >   >>
The_Phil   An App for Nature   1/26/2013 11:26:59 AM
Re: Very good apps
I guess you'll actually have the opportunity to see where you want to go before you actually go.
vnewman   An App for Nature   1/26/2013 12:04:16 AM
Re: how many is too many
@Broadway - I'm not sure but I'm guessing most of those emails went right to "recyclebin@microsoft.com"  :)
Broadway   An App for Nature   1/25/2013 9:49:33 PM
Re: how many is too many
@vnewman, has there ever been a study done of how many things sent to wishlist have then been subsequently added to said Microsoft product?
kstaron   An App for Nature   1/25/2013 8:23:33 AM
This and ibird
Looks like this is a great use for an app. taking the knowledge base of the people in the FWS and putting into an app that everyone can enjoy is a fabulous idea. My father in law will be all over it. He's a birder and with ibird on his phone to quickly id birds, I bet he'd love an app to make sure he found good places to look for them.
vnewman   An App for Nature   1/25/2013 2:08:43 AM
Re: how many is too many
@Curtis - you are sooo right!  hahaha!  Maybe it can be a setting that you actually have to turn on before your phone tries to think for you ala MSFT products.  I often wish Apple had something similar to wishlist@microsoft.com where you could tell MSFT all the things you wish their products would do but don't! 
CurtisFranklin   An App for Nature   1/24/2013 11:53:50 PM
Re: Very good apps
@Broadway, I'm not sure you're wrong -- I still have a good relationship with the people at my local bank branch -- but I think the point on the "trouble" spectrum where people demand to see another human being is going to keep going up until we only need "face time" with an employee when things have well and truly gone wrong.
CurtisFranklin   An App for Nature   1/24/2013 11:52:13 PM
Re: how many is too many
@vnewman, that's a great idea, but I can just imagine all the support calls from consumers who can no longer find their "favorite" apps!
Broadway   An App for Nature   1/23/2013 3:18:40 PM
Re: Very good apps
@Curtis, I agree with you that eventually mobile phones and apps will be the prime tool of communication, but I don't agree on that adverb "rapidly." I think the average US consumer at least will be comfortable making small purchases and decisions via an app, but if they have a real problem or a big purchase, they will still want to see and/or hear another person.
Broadway   An App for Nature   1/23/2013 3:16:13 PM
Re: how many is too many
@vnewman, as someone who recently just figured out how to delete apps off my iPhone4, I agree that that would be a nice feature for Apple to develop. Then again, supposedly Apple has bigger fish to fry, like the disappointing sales of its iPhone5 and the need to trim its supply chain costs to better compete in the developing markets.
vnewman   An App for Nature   1/23/2013 1:26:31 AM
Re: how many is too many
@Broadway - I always thought it would be nice if Apple made it that your least frequently used apps would move themselves to the back screens of your iPhone...
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