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Want a 'Star Trek' tricorder? Your smart phone could be getting close.

With a growing army of citizen scientists, the mobile technologies in a smart phone could help researchers improve weather forecasts or track the impact of a changing climate on vegetation. 

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The "Star Trek" tricorder, that invaluable tool for figuring out if Capt. James T. Kirk's next breath on a new planet would be his last, may not be that far from its debut.

Researchers are taking advantage of the hidden and not-so-hidden features of off-the-shelf smart phones and tablets to improve weather forecasts and keep tabs on the amount of particulates in the air – as well as perform more-routine tasks such as tracking changes in vegetation with the seasons or monitoring the water level in streams.

The goal is to develop apps and inexpensive add-ons that allow a growing army of citizen scientists to gather the data that researchers are seeking but don't have the time or graduate students to gather.

The term crowdsourcing may be relatively new, but in the world of science, enlisting the help of people outside academia to help with research isn't. Still, it is changing character.

Amateur astronomers have long helped their professional colleagues with observations that the professionals didn't have time to gather themselves. With the advent of personal computing, people could turn their PCs into number crunchers for climate modelers, cellular biologists, and researchers sifting through signals from radio telescopes in hopes of finding E.T.

The widespread popularity of smart phones and tablets, which host powerful processors and lots of memory to accommodate still and video cameras (in addition to making phone calls), means that researchers have a potentially huge army of data hounds. If willing to add an app, or in some cases a small clip-on device to their phone, these people can provide important environmental data at a more fine-grained level, over a wider geographic reach, and potentially over longer periods of time than any one researcher or team of researchers might gather, notes Sandra Henderson, director of citizen science for the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) and cofounder of Project BudBurst.


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