A bird app that adapts on the fly

BirdsEye shows what's possible when a reference app embraces mobile.

A screen from the BirdsEye iPhone appThe best apps tap into sensors and Internet connections to calibrate information based on location and need. But reference apps, for the most part, focus on porting information rather than integrating it.

That’s not a huge deal at the moment because many users are enamored with the novelty of mobile. Simply having access to all that information is enough. But that’s temporary. As users see what their devices are really capable of, expectations will shift.

BirdsEye is already reshaping those expectations. This iPhone-only birding application — a co-creation of Pete Myers and Todd Koym — blends crowdsourcing, database access, and location awareness. Unlike that book in your pocket or that static app on your phone, BirdsEye adapts on the fly.

In the following interview, Myers and Koym discuss BirdsEye’s functionality and they explain how customization and software can turn a passive hobby into an active experience.

How is BirdsEye different from traditional bird guides?

Todd Koym: When I first got into birding, I was frustrated because I had really nice guides and I had some knowledge of the local birds, but it wasn’t great. What I wanted was something that could tell me which birds are around me. The field guide couldn’t magically show me the birds near my location. And I shouldn’t have to search through the book to find a local bird if that bird is never here.

What the app does is answer some very simple questions and do some very simple tasks, like remove the birds that aren’t around a user’s location. I don’t want people to waste time on birds they couldn’t possibly see.

Pete Myers: The app also changes. It shows you where you can go to find birds that have been seen recently in the area where you are. No field guide has ever been able to do that.

It sounds like the app turns bird watching into an active experience. Is that right?

Koym: It’s a lot like the act of birding and then becoming a birder. When many people become interested in birds, they’re just looking at birds at their feeder. At some point, when you put binoculars in your suitcase because you’re going somewhere for vacation or business, you turn a corner and become an active birder. The application encourages that.

We want to give people more good birding experiences. The more they get out, the more birding they do. If they go to the right places, they’re going to have more success. It’s going to create a positive feedback loop.

BirdsEye is run in partnership with Cornell University’s eBird database. If eBird didn’t exist, could you have built the same app?

Koym: No. The technology component is one thing. That’s nuts and bolts and ones and zeroes, and it requires some work to do right. But the people running eBird are ornithologists. They’ve got 500 human reviewers. These are local, regional experts that validate the observations that have been submitted. There are somewhere between one and two million observations submitted each month. The data flow BirdsEye depends upon is quite extensive.

Do you have other projects in development?

Koym: We’ll continue development of BirdsEye. We’re working on new ways of digitizing the data and making it even easier to know where the birds are, especially the birds that you’re most interested in. We also want to close the loop and help the crowdsourcing effort by allowing eBird submissions through the app.

Myers: Both of us agree that there are two types of functionality that are absolutely essential that aren’t in BirdsEye yet. One of those, as Todd said, is we want you to be able to submit observations to eBird using the app. The second involves building in social networking tools so that people can share with their friends information about what they’re seeing and where they’re seeing it. Information like that creates a community of users.

Would you consider turning the app into a traditional reference guide?

Koym: It doesn’t really interest me. If we wound up with a resource that it made sense to spin off, maybe. But we’ve still got work to do to make the app do what it’s supposed to do and to take it to other platforms.

Will you port BirdsEye to Android or the iPad?

Koym: Android is more interesting than the iPad, to be honest. I want people to be able to pull something out of their pocket and hit a button. Phones are more mobile than the iPad.

It’s funny. A lot of people like the birding apps because it means they don’t have to bring their field guides with them. They’re anchors. Yet, people are excited about the birding apps on the iPad. I guess it’s a sexier anchor.

This interview was condensed and edited.



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