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Archive for the ‘BirdsEye’ Category

Real-time on the Social-web for the World Series of Birding

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Suppose, just for fun, that there was a 24 hour event happening, covering the whole state of New Jersey from end to end, and you, single-handedly, wanted to document it in real time, using the social web…twitter, blogs, and associated tools…so that anyone who wanted could experience it from, shall we say, ground level? Suppose. What tools would you use?

In my work life, I am the Observation Product Specialist for Carl Zeiss Sports Optics, makers of binoculars and spotting scopes used in birding, and all types of wildlife observation. For 27 years we have sponsored a team, Team Zeiss, in the yearly World Series of Birding competition, and for 6 years we have been the sponsor of the Carl Zeiss Youth Birding Challenge. The WSB raises funds for conservation through per-species pledges to your favorite team of birders, who then go out for 24 hours, midnight to midnight, in the state of New Jersey (or some designated sub-section there-of) to count as many different species of birds as they can identify by sight or sound. It draws well over 200 of the best birders in the US, in over 50 teams, to Cape May, NJ each May. Most teams come in a few days (or weeks) early to scout the area where they intend to count…then there is the day itself…24 hours of driving crazy distances to hit the hot-spots and staked out birds…the Finish Line were, just before midnight, the teams bring in their totals for verification…and then, the next morning at 9AM sharp, the Awards Brunch where, after a lavish breakfast, the highest totals are recognized with various awards, and each team gets to briefly tell its best story of the day. It is marginally insane, considerably inspiring (if you are into birds…they have raised over $9 million for conservation in the 27 years of the event), and a whole lot of fun!

This year, I decided to try to document the whole thing in something approaching real time. I planned to be in a chase car, and follow Team Zeiss through some of the scouting and preparations, then through the 24 hours of the event to the Finish Line, and to the Awards Brunch the next morning. I planned to twitter and FaceBook the whole thing, with sound-clips, pics, and maybe some video…perhaps to do some live blogging on our WordPress blog…and, of course, to bring back enough photos and video for follow-up blog posts and web pages. It was only slightly more insane than the event itself.

You can see the results, all of the posts from the field, considerably expanded with images, video, and bit of commentary added after the event, at Team Zeiss: A Complete World Series of Birding Saga.

If you want to know how I did it, read on.

I have an iPhone 3G (not, unfortunately for these purposes, the 3GS with video), a Canon SX20IS which shoots excellent stills and HD video, an very portable Aspire Timeline 1810TZ CULV netbook/laptop, a Verizon USB mobile broadband doggle, a cigarette lighter power supply that puts out both 110 volt AC for the computer and USB power for the iPhone, and, obviously more enthusiasm than sense.

Experimenting before-hand I settled on the new Hootsuite app for iPhone for my twitter and facebook posts. I knew I would be twittering on 2 accounts: my own @singraham and the Zeiss account @zeissbirding_us. The facebook posts were going to my own profile. I needed an app that would post to all three simultaneously. Hootsuite looked like it would do the job. Since you can open it in menu mode, without downloading any streams, it is quick to post from. When I got to Cape May, I found that the Hootsuite app, on AT&T’s 3G network, was failing about half the time when I attempted to post a pic with the tweet/facebook update. Trying again sometimes worked, but I needed something more reliable.

I already have a Posterous blog set up, and have used it to post instant galleries of images via email when I have more than one image to post at the same time. You can set up Posterous to auto post to any number of twitter and facebook accounts, and if you make the title complete, it can act as a tweet or post in itself. You can even include hastags for twitter in the title. Posting from the iPhone is as simple as taking the pics with the camera app, opening Photos, selecting the ones you want to send and choosing email. You enter your Posterous address, and it is away, and posted to your twitter and facebook accounts soon after. The advantage is that Posterous automatically formats multiple images into a galley with an index and viewer.

Posterous will also take video, directly or as a link from YouTube…which is good, since I encountered the dread “caught in the processing loop” YouTube bug when attempting to upload video from Cape May. Not via 3G either…this was from my hotel room over a wifi network. I tired many times. Nothing worked. While Posterous video is not has high quality as HD on YouTube, it is certainly serviceable for my purposes with the WSB.

Posterous does have its own app for the iPhone, which allows you take pics directly and upload them into galleries on your blog, but I find that it is actually much easier to do it from the Photos App via email.

As it happens, Hootsuite updated their iPhone app while I was in New Jersey, and the new version seemed to work much better with pic uploads, even when I lost 3G and had to work on EDGE in the far reaches of the state.

I ended up using both Hootsuite, and Posterous via email, as the situation demanded and as the spirit moved me. 🙂

When I picked up my rental car, the first thing I checked was the number of cigarette lighter sockets, as I anticipated having to use my iPhone part of the time as a GPS. The Jeep Compass they gave me has only one cigarette lighter socket…but low and behold, it has an actual 110v, two prong socket, just like your wall sockets at home. I could plug the Acer in directly, and, since i use a Kensington Ultra Compact Power Supply while traveling, which has its own USB power port, and was packing a Griffen PowerJolt Dual with two more USB power ports for the cigarette socket, I was all set for power. I did not even have to set up the excellent Radio Shack compact power inverter I always have in my laptop bag.

As it turned out, I never even plugged the Acer in. It was just too close quarters with 3 of us and all our stuff in car, I was driving at least a third of the time, and we made stops too frequently to consider the laptop useful. That meant that I did not upload any video until the event was over.

Most of the pics were uploaded direct from the iPhone’s camera. I am impatiently waiting the arrival of the 4G iPhone with what one hopes will be a decent camera (rumors say maybe even HD video), but you make do with what you have. Since I was shooting most of the time with the SX20IS as well, the pics from the field were more or less placeholders anyway…I replaced most of them with SX20IS shots when I built the blog post…though I hope the iPhone shots added at least a little to the experience for those following my tweets and posts in real time.

I did process a few of the more marginal shots using the Adobe PhotoShop app for the iPhone before I posted them. I used, until this most recent version of the Adobe app, PhotoGene, which I really like. PhotoShop is just a bit faster on most operations, at least on my 3G phone, and, in the field, where you are posting mostly while hurrying back to the car or between stops, even that little speed difference can be critical.

While I had not planned to do it, since I was using Posterous, it occurred to me on a hill far into the outback of Sussex County, New Jersey, moments after mid-night when the team was listening for high flying migrants in the dark, that I could post audio. I made a few recordings during the night at various stops, while it was still too dark for photography, using the built in Voice Memo app on the iPhone, and uploading them to Posterous via email. Of course, since the Team was using their ears, I could not play them back to see what I got. They went out over twitter and facebook just as they came from the iPhone.

It was not long into the dark night when Hootsuite and Facebook stopped cooperating. I never did figure out what was happening. The app gave me a “failed to post on Facebook” message about 2 out of 3 tries. This was from the hinterlands and I suspected the EDGE connection, but when I got back to civilization and 3G it was no more reliable. It could have been an issue with Hootsuite at that particular time, or with Facebook, or with the iPhone. All of which make me rely more on the Posterous connection than I might otherwise have.

I am hoping, of course, that the folks who followed the tweet stream in real-time got a sense of how the event unfolded that is never available in hind-sight. (Though, honestly, I am pretty sure no one caught my tweets posted from midnight until 4 am. 🙂 )

Tuesday, safe at home with the Acer firmly anchored to a desk, and my wifi connection humming, I processed all the images (Lightroom) and some of the video (NeroVision) I shot with the Canon SX20IS. I also used Tweetake to capture all my @zeissbirding_us tweets into a spreadsheet, where I could sort and edit them into something like a coherent narrative. Using the tweets as the skeleton, I added images and video from the Canon, and a bit of commentary, to fill out the story. I used a few of the original iPhone shots where I did not have something from the Canon, but when I did, I grabbed them from Posterous or Ow.ly into Picnic for a bit of improvement before posting them back to the blog.

I intend to do a more reflective and thoughtful piece on the whole experience, the WSB experience that is, not the technical experience, when my mind fully recovers from sleep deprivation. (If my mind ever recovers…) But for now, the post referenced above stands as one man’s view of the World Series of Birding as done by Team Zeiss in May of 2010.

Next year I hope to have an iPhone 4G and even better apps. (I also hope, of course, that AT&T will have improved service throughout New Jersey, though I have to say, there were very very few places where I could not tweet!) In hindsight, and maybe foresight if the technology does not change much before then, I would set up a unique Posterous blog for the event, and post everything there, with auto post to twitter and facebook. Of course with the 4G iPhone posting live to WordPress may be practical by then. Who knows.

Much may change by next year’s running of the World Series of Birding. Team Zeiss is already committed to doing it again…for conservation…and for the fun of it…and I plan to be there, making the best use of Social Media I can, to give those who can not be there a ground level view of the World Series of Birding. As it happens. In real time.

Which is one thing, certainly, the Social Web can do better than any other tool we have ever had to work with. It can only get better.

Maybe I can take pledges: So much per tweet for conservation. That will make the birds happy. 🙂

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Written by singraham

May 20, 2010 at 2:17 pm

BirdsEye: something different in an iPhone birding app

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The iPhone is hot, hot, hot. Taking over the smartphone portion of inernet traffic, and providing such an explosion of apps as never seen before on any platform.

Birding is hot (notice the difference). Fastest growing outdoor recreational activity by some counts, and certainly an activity that attracts many millions of us, and puts us out in all weathers to enjoy nature. Some reckon it is closer to a religion than it is to a hobby. It has its own born-again-experience, and often produces changes in life-style similar to classical conversion. It has its revival meetings (you can be at a birding festival just about any weekend of the year, and have your pick of several most weekends during peak migration seasons). It has its evangelists, and it has it Bibles: Field Guides, beginning with Peterson’s epic work. In the past few years it seems that anyone who is anyone in birding is publishing his or her own field guide. Count the current guides in print. Amazing.

And, of course, the internet is hot, hot, hot, hot. Who can live without it? Nuff said.

Birding and the internet have been married for a long time and are now having smartphone children. (Okay, cut me some slack here.) You have, as the best example, iBird Explorer, arguably the most extensive birding reference ever published in any format, spawned by the WhatBird.com site, and fostered by the iPhone.

And now we have BirdsEye, the legitmate offspring of Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird site, also appearing in the iPhone household…er…App Store.

(And that is not to mention the iPhone birding apps with print parents: Nat Geo, Peterson’s, and Audubon all have iPhone versions of their guides…however, the print folks have yet to demonstrate a real understanding of the potential of the new platform. In each case the app looks a lot like someone tried to jam a book inside the machine…closer to a Kindle experience than a real iPhone adventure.)

I can see the thought process behind BirdsEye now.

“Like wow. We have all this data on bird locations in eBird. Whouldn’t it be really neat if there were an iPhone app that could call up that data instantly by location and tell you what birds are being see, or have been seen, right where you are, or near where you are…or anywhere you might be going? Wouldn’t it be good to include some basic id materials for folks who might be seeing the bird for the first time, or who might need a reminder…like we have all the Vireo photos, and we have this huge Macaulay Library of Sound collection of bird song recordings…what if we linked those in? And, what if we got someone really famous and cool (like you know, a birding rock star) to write brief descriptive text about each bird species? (Like maybe Kenn Kaufman?) What if?”

“And what if we found a clever iPhone developer to put it all together?”

Hay presto. BirdsEye!

[See Kenn Kaufman’s response below…he rightly points out that the intent of the text is not id…but rather further info to help you locate the bird: habitat and habits, etc. Very smart! For Kenn’s announcement/review of the app, which includes a more accurate rendering of the development history, see his own blog entry.]

And the amazing thing is: they pulled it off. BirdsEye does all that, and does it with a certain classy nonchalance that is at least iPhone-like enough satisfy most technophiles, and easy enough to use to satisfy most iPhoning birders.

Yup. You can use the auto-location on your phone to specify a location, or manually enter an an address, and then view, with the touch of a control, all the recent and/or historical bird sightings within 50 miles, 100 miles, 200 miles, 500 miles and beyond 500 miles. (Internet connection, either wifi or 3G, required!!) Once you set up a life list, the app will even show you just the birds being seen which are not already on your list. Each species appears in the checklist with a picture, the common name, and a date for the reference. Along the side of the list are a set of icons for the different families. Those with dainty fingers will be able to touch the family icon to jump right to that section of the sightings list. Even normal sized fingers might do the trick with practice.

Touching a species in the sightings checklist list brings up the id pages. You have at least one picture, descriptive text by Kenn Kaufman, and sounds from the Macaulay Library for over 400 of the most commonly sighted species (developer claims it is 95% of the species recorded by the top 500 submitters to eBird, and I have no reason to doubt him). The rest are available by in-app purchase from the App Store, either in one go (another $20), or in family groups (various prices).

Whether or not the app includes id info for the species, you can view a map with pins for each of the sighting locations (Hot Spots)! Way cool. Each pin opens the sightings for that location (not just the bird you are looking at, but all the birds seen there). You can see this same information as a list, which includes the distance from you. Finally, you can get directions to the spot from Google Maps. I kid you not: Directions.

And of course, the final icon on the species view is the sound icon, which calls up a little sound bar at the bottom with the recordings.

That’s one way of doing it. You can also jump right to the Hot Spots view, and explore the locations first, using the map and list tools outlined above, to see if there is anywhere you might like to go.

And, as a third possibility, you can search by a species by name, and the app will tell you all the places it has been or is being seen. Pretty amazing.

A word about the life list feature. This is the easiest life list to set up that I have ever seen. Edit Life List presents you with a master checklist of all species. You just touch the little check box to add one to your list, and you can add as many as you like in one go. You can also add birds to your list from the species view for that bird. Could not be easier really.

All well and good, but does it work?

Simple answer. Yes!

I have not done extensive testing, and I suppose there might still be areas where there is not much eBird data…but they must be few and far between these days. Southern Maine, where I live is not the most heavily birded area in the country, and yet there is plenty of data for my area, and I can not think of a spot where birds are regularly seen that is not already in the Hot Spot data base. A similar check of the Tucson Arizona area yielded predictable and satisfying results. By all indications, yes indeed, the app works as advertised.

And it is a lot of fun! There I said it. It is a lot of fun. Maybe, of course, it is just me, but I found it to be a lot of fun.

And I expect it to be eminently useful as well. I am planning a trip to Phoenix and Tucson this month and I will certainly check out what birds are being seen where using BirdsEye. What could be easier?

If the app has a weak point it is the id section. With all due respect to Kenn Kaufman (birding rock star extraordinary), the folks at Vireo, and the Macaulay Library, there is just not enough meat here to satisfy. I am not certain the id stuff is even needed in this app, and it certainly will not substitute for a real field guide…and certainly not for iBird on the iPhone.

On the other hand, as a companion app to iBird…now that is a combination to reckon with! Even to bird with!

And, of course, BirdsEye simply cries out for a way to record and upload your own sightings to eBird. Now that would be something! That would be so, so, cool. All that BirdsEye already does and the ability to record and submit trip lists…that would make BirdsEye an absolute, positive necessity for any serious iPhoning birder. Nuff said. BirdsEye guys, do it please!

BirdsEye is another wonderful example of what the iPhone is best at…easy, quick, anywhere access to masses of data from the internet… implemented in a way that makes the data useful, and even fun to use. Congratulations to all who were involved in this. Cornell Lab’s eBird team, Vireo, the Macaulay Library, and the developers at BirdsInHand. This is one great iPhone birding app…totally different…serving a totally different purpose…but right up there with iBird Explorer. It earns a permanent place on this birder’s iPhone, I know that!

Written by singraham

December 6, 2009 at 12:30 pm