Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Banish the Mushroom People

Uncharted needs an app. Fast.

We’ve already taken the timid, shaky step of ensuring that our website can handle uploads from mobile phones. But until we get our users away from their desktops or laptops, we’re not going to get the explosions in Explorer growth we’re hoping for.

I’m looking right now at an article at Slate.com on Project NOAH, a smartphone-based app used by amateur and professional ecologists to identify where in the world they might see a bug, a plant, a bird, a whatever.

It’s not making money, outside of a $50,000 mobile app in education prize. But it just attracted National Geographic as an investor and is doing exactly what we want Uncharted to do: bridging the gap between amateur and professional, but in our case, amateur and professional writers and photographers.

Here’s what Clay Shirky, a Project NOAH advisor (and one of my favorite web futurists) says:
You can readily make the required professional rigor so large that it's a buzz kill for the amateur or make it so loosey-goosey in order to maximize participation that the resulting data isn't regarded as proof or evidence of anything.
Slate’s Jill Priluck precedes that with this:
The app's user base, ultimately, is a worldwide community of eco-spotters. The largest number of contributions come from a teacher named Isabela in Spain. Plants are the most popular category. Insects and bugs follow. Of course, citizen science isn't new. In 1900, the National Audubon Society launched the Christmas Bird Count because of concerns about the diminishing bird population. But unlike the Encyclopedia of Life, another digital database of species, Project NOAH, using the camera phone, has bridged the usually stark divide between science professionals and amateurs who often are viewed as gadflies.
Part of me worries we’ve gone too far in the professional direction, which Shirky warns against. We get compliments on the photography and writing, which is fine. But I think we’ve gotten to the point that we’re scaring away other members of our staff who see what’s up and say, “Well, I can’t compete.” That’s the opposite of what we want. Maybe we need to reconsider our photographic and editorial rigor.

Among many, many other things to consider. This is what Yasser Ansari and Martin Ceperly, did with Project NOAH:
Early on, Ansari, the visionary, and Ceperley, the pragmatist, adhered to the lean and mean maxim so common in the little-guy economy. They designed a platform with few features, using Google App Engine, a free platform to build and host Web applications on Google's infrastructure. They launched the app early, well before they settled on a standard for species names—popular versus Latin, universal versus regional—and before they knew how data from the field would be transferred back to researchers. Their primary concern was releasing a product without serious bugs.
So this fits in with something I’m already hoping we can do: Simplifying the way we ask people to submit photos and stories. It’s already clunky for the web. It’s got to be nigh on impossible to do on a smartphone. If we can make it easy as pie to submit via smartphone, those of us still existing in a tethered world ought to have it easy as well.

Project NOAH’s site oozes simplicity. They don’t require that you sign up exclusively with them – they let you use the Google account you have already. Their page presents a simple map that invites you to explore, with only just a few words – something that’ll help them as they expand internationally. They’re not putting up traditional “old media” roadblocks like the slides we’re doing, or the banners we’re doing. They just open their world – literally – for exploration, through a gigantic Google map showing where fellow NOAHs have put stuff in.

Another Project NOAH secret is looking at how their audiences use what they’re offered. We’re not exactly doing that, in the sense of seeing what could be done with the site. We’re saying, “Hey, use this for your photos and stories.” Maybe we’re limiting ourselves, and our Explorers, on what they’d like to do.

Here’s what Project NOAH did:
Professional ecologists quickly adopted the product. Before the launch, Ansari had reached out to urban ecologist Steve Sullivan, who runs Project Squirrel, a partnership between the University of Illinois-Chicago and the Chicago Academy of Sciences' Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. Project NOAH supplied precise locality data that otherwise would be impossible to obtain. Sullivan now gets about 70 squirrel observations a week from Project NOAH, with a 90 percent accuracy rate for identifications. The app also began hosting a mushroom-mapping project in New York City and the Lost Ladybug mission at Cornell University. "We don't want to be this walled garden of data. We're more like a holding tank that reroutes data to other places and to curious people who want to see what's around them," said Ansari, who has a background in bioinformatics and worked on hardware for mobile gaming at Qualcomm.
They found a way for amateurs to really help professionals. Sounds kinda familiar, doesn’t it? And they’re helping in a way that’s actually helpful to both parties.

So, how could our Explorers help professionals? As much as we like to brag it up, our Explorers now are a collection of amateurs, with only a smattering of professionals. Where can we go to attract professionals, and what can we offer them as enticement? And how can we, as Shirky admonishes, keep that balance? At Project NOAH, they did a lot of observation on their users:
But they realized that Project NOAH could reach a bigger audience in March, when they participated in a five-day boot camp run by Startl, a nonprofit startup accelerator in the digital learning space. There they dissected where they wanted to take the product and who would benefit from it. Ansari and Ceperley recognized their product's range when they participated in a focus group of fifth- and sixth-graders—one 11-year-old girl talked about documenting a turkey in her backyard. "They hadn't thought enough about the end user, the experience," said Diana Rhoten, Startl co-founder and managing director. "They never imagined the diversity of experience this tool could provide."
I’m sure we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg in how people could use Uncharted, as long as we’re not out there intentionally or unintentionally putting limits on what our users can do.

So here lie our challenges: First step, a simpler interface coupled with the writing of a mobile app – that gets us first and foremost into the smartphone-using hands of current and potential Explorers. This includes some of the most basic Web 1.0 wrinkles we’re still stymied by, including the ability to have a rich text editor that allows constantly functional hyperlinks. (This is embarrassing: More often than not if we want to link to something, we have to create the link in an outside application, paste it in, and then hope it actually works.)

Then we look at our venture through new media glasses. We’ve come a long way from our old media start, but I’m certain we haven’t come far enough. I think in considering our approach, we can remove roadblocks that are scaring away amateurs while maintaining the attraction and usefulness to professionals.

Third, we look at how our users are using the site. Then we experiment with uses, encouraging different uses. In fact, tonight I’m going to link some photos I took at Meadow Lake to portions of a novel I’ve written, portions that were inspired by what I saw at the lake. Maybe one of the uses we’ve left untapped is as a niche for writers hoping to marry photographic (and soon, hopefully, video) inspirations to the writing they produce. That’s just a start.

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