Apps for Ocean Management and Conservation

By Sarah Carr for OpenChannels

The advent of “apps”, loosely defined here as easy-to-use, limited-functionality tools appropriate for mobile devices, has revolutionized our expectations of computing. Rather than relying on complex, multi-functional desktop tools all the time, users want tools that are simpler and can be applied on-the-go in their work.

Coastal and marine conservationists and resource managers with big workloads and shoestring budgets are desperate for tools that can help them do their work better and faster, while still helping them to base decisions on sound science. Can apps be part of the solution for them?

In partnership, OpenChannels and the EBM Tools Network researched apps that have been designed specifically for ocean conservation and resource management, as well as apps developed for other purposes that could be applied to the ocean realm. This research was conducted through a series of queries to the EBM Tools Network listserv — a coalition of more than 3500 coastal and marine practitioners worldwide — and through web searches.

Below is a description of ways that apps can promote ocean health and sound ocean resource management, as well as a list of the most relevant apps that we found. What we discovered is that apps generally do not increase the range of analytical and visualization capabilities available for ocean conservation and management. They do, however, make existing analytical and visualization capabilities more readily available to new users and users in the field.

In addition, the features of mobile devices — including their small size, extreme portability, ability to capture high-resolution images and sounds, ability to receive/store/transmit data, ability to determine location, and ability to communicate with environmental sensors — open up a wealth of new opportunities for collecting and sharing data and information. This is particularly the case between communities/stakeholders and managers.

Apps designed specifically for coastal and marine conservation and resource management are still few and far between, but more are coming available. In addition to existing ocean apps, several terrestrial conservation and management apps give ideas for what can be done, and many geospatial and social apps are appropriate for any environment.

Some of the most important ways that apps can promote coastal and marine conservation and resource management include:

Increasing and improving field data collection by professionals

Apps can provide forms to speed field data collection, georeference photos and other observations, serve as memory and input-output devices for environmental sensors, read identification tags, rapidly transmit data from the field to centralized databases/analytical tools, and in turn rapidly receive data from centralized databases/analytic tools to guide next steps for field data collection (e.g., start a new transect). Some of these tasks are currently done with relatively expensive handheld devices. But apps for consumer-grade devices will make these capabilities more affordable and widespread. Some examples of apps for field data collection include:

  • iGeoTrak, which helps users develop customizable geospatial collection forms for field data
  • Open Data Kit, which provides tools for building data collection forms and collecting data on mobile devices and uploading to servers.

Enabling more meaningful and useful “stakeholder science”

Apps can facilitate “stakeholder science” by enabling the public with an interest in studying ecosystems to contribute data (e.g., participate in species inventories). Observations can be recorded, georeferenced, and sent to relevant management bodies in a structured manner that facilitates their use. This allows traditional scientific data collection to be supplemented with customary knowledge and observations from community members. Some examples of relevant apps include:

  • Mobile field guides for identifying species:
    • Fishes: East Pacific provides 3,600+ images of 1,397 species of neotropical shore-fishes
    • Fishes: Greater Caribbean provides 5,500+ images of 1,599 species of neotropical shore-fishes​
    • SeaPhoto provides access to 1,300+ images of 550+ species of marine life of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary​
    • Phyto helps users identify phytoplankton species.
  • Apps that harness new technologies such as face recognition software to identify species (e.g., LeafSnap).

Extending analytical and visualization capabilities to the field

Mobile GIS and mapping apps allow users to access institutional GIS’s, run analyses, and view and explore a huge array of maps, imagery, and features from the field, which can improve field work and extend the time available for conducting work. Examples of mobile GIS and mapping apps include:

Increase monitoring and enforcement effort (often through stakeholder participation)

Apps can also help increase monitoring and enforcement effort by allowing stakeholders to report problems (e.g., sightings of invasive species or pollution) and infractions (e.g., fishing inside a no-take area). In the case of species invasions, public reporting of potential sightings — including uploads of high-resolution photos that would allow species scientists to make positive identification — has the potential to facilitate more rapid, and thus effective, detection and response to invasions. In the case of illegal fishing, rapid and anonymous reporting can help law enforcement catch perpetrators. And even when perpetrators cannot be apprehended, accumulated data could provide a sense of the frequency, magnitude, and location of illegal fishing activity and how it might influence the effectiveness of spatial management measures. Examples of apps for monitoring and enforcement include:

  • Marine Debris Tracker, which allows users to report trash on coastlines and in waterways. The data can be uploaded for beach cleanups​
  • IveGot1, which allows users to identify and report sitings of invasive species in Florida
  • What’s Invasive, which enables park visitors to document and record the exact location of invasive species within parks.

Facilitating the participation of stakeholders/communities in decision making

Polling apps enable the use of mobile devices for real-time collection, processing, and display of stakeholder input and feedback.

Providing stakeholders/communities and professionals with easier and more rapid access to data and information

In general, apps are ideally suited for providing both stakeholders/communities and professionals with easier and more rapid access to data and information, particularly from field locations. Examples include:

  • Enabling visualization of potential coastal changes and promoting proactive thinking about management, conservation, mitigation, and adaptation
    • SLAMM View 2.0 Mobile, which enables interested parties to view and compare sea level rise scenarios and inundation maps on their mobile devices
  • Providing information to ocean users to help them avoid harmful activities
    • Whale Alert, which warns mariners when they enter areas of high risk of collision with critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.
  • Speeding and increasing the collection of fisheries catch data by enabling commercial and recreational fishers to upload catch information from their mobile phones
    • Release Mako, which allows anglers to report live releases of shortfin mako sharks in real-time
  • Improving consumer choices by providing information about the sustainability and health implications of seafood options
  • Increasing awareness and understanding of marine areas and resources by providing information to recreational users, students, teachers, and others via their mobile phones
    • Marine World Heritage, which helps users learn about the 45 World Heritage marine sites
    • California Tidepools, which allows users to search a database of photos, common and scientific names, and other information about California tidepool life​
    • Ka'ena Point Guide, which shows historical sites, ecological characteristics, and trail information for Ka'ena Point in Hawai’i
    • Expedition White Shark, which provides general information about great white sharks and lets users track satellite-tagged great whites
    • Sea Turtle App, which provides general information about endangered sea turtles and lets users track their worldwide migration.
  • Improving disaster preparedness and response (assuming the infrastructure for using mobile devices is still functional) by allowing early responders and affected parties to quickly provide information (including photos and GPS locations) about affected areas:
  • Improving maritime safety and efficiency by providing real-time oceanographic data (e.g. temperature, wave height, wind speed) for planning ocean activities:
  • Improving project management by providing dashboards with real-time data visualizations, plans, portfolios, and status accounts.

In addition to the apps listed above, we found a host of other ocean- and conservation-related apps that might also be useful to ocean conservation and resource management in operational and educational capacities. These include a wide variety of apps that provide current conditions and forecasts of weather and tides; apps that promote maritime safety such as nautical chart updaters; commercial apps for managing marine assets such as oil and gas pipelines, marinas, and wind farms; and apps that help citizens to lead more environmentally sustainable lives. If you use an app for ocean conservation and management, we would love to hear about it! You can contact us at ebmtools [at]

Acknowledgements: We would like to thank participants in the EBM Tools Network listserv for providing the information and sources for this article.

Sarah Carr is coordinator for the EBM Tools Network and a regular contributor to OpenChannels.

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