Doing fieldwork in a world of constant communication is a novel experience for me. This year I’m based the very not-exotic location of Gainesville, Florida–a perfectly nice town with lots of wonderful lizard habitat that’s completely on the grid. This means I have constant internet access in the field, and though a more hardcore field biologist might rue this situation, I personally think it’s quite nice.
More precisely, what’s really made fieldwork easier is having a smartphone. I probably sound like a stone-age troglodyte to most of you, but having switched to a smartphone only a few months ago, I’m still in awe of this technology. And nowhere has it proved it’s worth more than in the field. Here’s a list of functions I’ve used so far:
1. Navigation, obviously. This makes changing one’s plans midway through the day much easier. I still plan out our sites and routes before leaving home in the morning, but if we finish up with these sites early and want to add more sites, getting to them is a piece of cake. And when we lose our way inside bits of forest, using maps to quickly assess our bearings is easier than marking a GPS waypoint at the start of every trail.
2. Weather, again obviously. It’s been cool and cloudy in the mornings these last few days. Having up-to-date information on when it’s likely to get warm and sunny enough for lizards to emerge has helped me decide how best to use our time in the field.
3. Email. Being able to communicate with colleagues who’ve given me fieldsite recommendations, or folks in the Parks and Recreation Department who’ve helped me get permission for new fieldsites has expedited our work so far. It may seem like only a difference of a few hours, but the difference between emailing someone during work hours and emailing them in the evening can snowball into a difference of days between query and reply.
4. Internet. This morning we caught an Aspidocelis sexlineata in one of our sites. I’d never seen these lizards before, and for some reason, had convinced myself that they weren’t meant to occur in Florida. A quick google search and facebook message to a colleague let us identify the lizard as well as informed us of their range.
5. Camera. Much easier than carrying around a regular camera, and good enough for quick photos to identify critters.
6. Random Number Generator and Compass. We’ve been measuring perch densities in random plots (in the mornings, when it’s still too cool for lizards), and today I forgot to write down the random numbers we use to locate our plots. No worries, just install a random number generating app! And the compass allows us to orient our plots randomly once we get to the random location.
7. Notepad. I have to-do lists, addresses of parks that don’t show up on google maps, and all sorts of other useful information stored in a note.
None of these functions is irreplaceable–I could probably manage most of what I’ve listed above without a smartphone. But a large part of doing fieldwork is maximizing what one gets out of the limited time one has to collect data. Having a smartphone almost certainly makes me a more efficient field biologist. I hope I still get the chance to do off-the-grid fieldwork some time in the future–it would be terrible to become dependent on this technology–but in the meanwhile, I’ll be checking out this list of apps for field biologists!