Thursday, September 21

Environment 185 class uses smart phone features such as GPS to research green issues on campus

While most students use their cell phones to text or chat, those enrolled in an environmental studies class are putting a scientific twist on the gadget.

Four current research projects for the class Environment 185 incorporate the UCLA Center for Embedded Network Sensing’s technology for gathering information through smart phone features like cameras and GPS.

Students in the course are split into action research teams to examine green issues on campus and work alongside officials to make UCLA more environmentally friendly, said Isis Krause, a third-year geography/environmental studies student and co-director of the course. More teams have begun collaborating with the center on data collection since the partnership formed last winter quarter.

“We work on innovative technologies and applications for everything from seismology to public health to ecology,” said Deborah Estrin, director of the center. “Everyone carries phones with them, and even a simple phone can be used (for a scientific purpose).”

The Institute of the Environment runs the hands-on class, which is directed by two students. The 11 action research teams meet up on their own time over the 20-week run of the course, Krause said.

Six students in the class are creating a map of drinking fountains on campus using the center’s WeTap application. The Android-based program allows them to snap pictures of fountains, geocode their locations and pinpoint them on an online Google map. A brief description of factors like the accessibility and water quality of the fountain accompanies markers on the map.

By raising awareness of where fountains are and showing that the water they provide is safe, the team hopes to encourage people to refill bottles instead of buying single-use ones, said fourth-year sociology student Allison Loevner.

“Plastic is the No. 1 pollutant, and if we could reduce it, that would be an amazing, amazing goal to meet,” she said, adding that they hope to post their maps by those already in campus buildings.

Several students also plan to use a smart phone application to identify where cyclists are locking up their bikes other than designated racks ““ for example, some use poles and benches, Krause said. The team aims to suggest places where racks are needed to UCLA officials, she added.

Another group is analyzing the effects of UCLA’s switch from mixed-stream to single-stream recycling, which will be implemented spring quarter.

“Instead of putting your aluminum cans in one bin and your Daily Bruins in another, everything will go into the same bin and it’ll be sorted on the back end by machines and people,” said Chris Meehan, a fourth-year sociology student and one of the project’s leaders.

Meehan and other students on the team will use the technology when the new recycling bins are in place. After locating the bins via smart phone, they will update the version of UCLA’s online interactive map that shows the spots of recycling cans on campus.

Since the WeTap group inspired this part of the project, the recycling team may use the same application instead of having a new one developed, Meehan said.

Joey Degges, a third-year computer science student, spent fall quarter building the WeTap program after alumna Evelyn Wendel, founder of a nonprofit organization of the same name, brought the idea of the software to the center. Degges took the code from similar applications that the center has developed and adapted it.

Though the center mainly collects data on the UCLA campus, projects have also been developed with non-Bruin users in mind.

Several national parks use the What’s Invasive cell phone program to photograph and locate invasive plant species. Biketastic, another recent application, allows cyclist commuters to chart their route. The paths taken by users are then traced on a map posted online.

The main ethical problem that the applications raise is privacy, said Katie Shilton, a graduate student researcher at the lab. For example, those who viewed the Biketastic map could figure out bikers’ identities by examining where they started and ended their commute. Some cyclists have coped by cutting out the first and last few hundred meters of their trip.

“When I participated in early data collections, it raised my awareness that it really means something when someone can look at your data,” Shilton said.

To protect users’ privacy, the center is looking into secure personal data vaults for when the technology is more integrated into everyday life. It could take anywhere from one to five years for data-collecting applications to become widespread, said Jeff Goldman, administrative and development director at the center.

“Clearly the trend line for smart phones indicates that they will be much more common and much less expensive,” he said. “We’re a research center, so we’re not thinking about what’s happening now but what will happen in the future, and working toward that.”

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