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Study gives UGA’s invasive species apps high marks

Among the hundreds of smartphone apps used around the world to identify invasive species, apps developed by the University of Georgia rise to the top.


This is according to a recent review of 41 apps published in NeoBiota, which ranked English-language apps available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store across 35 different features. Among all the apps scored, five developed by the UGA Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health—also known as Bugwood—received the highest marks.


While apps were scored for features such as overall design and use of built-in phone features, Bugwood’s central database system and review of all images by a person, not a computer, helped the EDDMapS series of apps rise to the top. The EDDMapS app series is designed for a variety of users and geographic locations, but all feed into a central database that is a core aspect of Bugwood’s outreach efforts.


“Even though apps were for different parts of the country, in the end it all fed into one centralized database,” said Chuck Bargeron, director of the Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health. “We had developed the website and the database before smartphones were a thing and before apps were a thing, so we had the web format in place; all we had to do was switch over to a smartphone format.”


For decades, the UGA Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health has worked with Extension agents and other professionals across the country and the world to identify and manage invasive species, whether it’s insects, animals or plants. The center has a database of thousands of images, many of which feed into the apps’ field guides.


When an app user snaps a picture of a potential invasive species, it’s uploaded to Bugwood via the app and routed to an invasive species expert for that user’s part of the country. If the image is confirmed, it’s added to the database and tagged appropriately.  Bugwood has a network of more than 800 experts across the United States and Canada that help with the identification and verification.


The apps created by Bugwood are one piece of a larger picture, though, that includes outreach and education. The center is constantly working with local Extension agents, state agencies and others to share the latest information on invasive species. Bargeron said he can see a direct correlation between places with active education programs and invasive species reporting. “We can look, state by state, and see what states get the most reports in a year,” he added. “And, it’s almost exactly correlated to where they have an active outreach program.”


The majority of invasive species reported are plants—insects and animals can be more difficult to photograph. Still, the Bugwood apps averaged 473 reports a day last year.


App users can also help point to trends and identify new invasive species. For example, Bargeron said one of the EDDMapS apps, Washington Invasives, was the first place to officially document the Asian giant hornet in the United States, thanks to a user in Washington state.


Bugwood is now working on consolidating its suite of invasives apps into streamlined versions for the general public, trained volunteers and professionals. The recognition by the University of Montana researchers who evaluated the apps reinforces Bugwood’s decision years ago to develop apps that are native to smartphones, rather than relying on a website in the shell of an app, said Bargeron. 


As a result, Bugwood’s apps are more stable, work more seamlessly with the phone’s features and are available offline—a key aspect for anyone working in remote areas for hours at a time. Bargeron said this is because the apps are created and tested by a team of dedicated programmers and biologists with real-world use in mind. Bugwood apps have more than 673,000 downloads; the apps cited in the study have been downloaded more than 115,000 times.


But the apps are just one aspect of the center’s mission, said Bargeron. He points to the outreach efforts by the Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health as key to the apps’ success.


“It’s not about promoting what we’re doing, it’s about awareness of invasive species issues,” added Bargeron. “If people are aware, there would be more reporting.”

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