Searching for Cicada Song: A crowdsourcing project

One of the most exciting things about the rise of the smartphone is the effect that it has had in enabling crowdsourcing projects. It is now possible to recruit volunteers and to provide them with equipment at next-to-no distribution cost, people can simply be asked to download an app and contribute. Of course, not all crowdsourcing is the same, even if it follows the same basic pattern of using a crowd of users to solve a problem. One of the most interesting aspects of crowdsourcing is that of user reward – essentially the question of how you incentivize someone to collect and share data with you. With OpenSignal (and WeatherSignal) we use two intertwined processes – we provide a basic utility to the app (showing you how to get a better connection/giving you access to your phone sensor readings) and then also feed back our collected data into the app so everyone can benefit (by showing maps of coverage and weather respectively).

Cicada join the hunt

We also have a particular soft spot for projects which use a third mechanism, appealing to a user’s general curiosity or interest. This was the model that Kickstarter was designed to encourage – giving people the potential to invest in a project that they felt was worthwhile without getting anything material in return. Kickstarter has slightly drifted away from that model (although not deliberately) but it still remains at the core of most projects funded successfully, and certainly some of the most exciting ones. Essentially this process kicks the whole idea of the free rider off the bus, but then lets him tag along behind as the bus route ends at destination knowledge. It is this idea of philanthropic crowdsourcing that gets us especially excited, no matter how big or small the question to be solved is. In fact much of the appeal of projects like this is when they are especially niche, as it is possibly even more rewarding to see them succeed (everyone loves an underdog).

One such project that has very recently come to our attention is the New Forest Cicada project. Specifically, this project is dealing with the hunt for a rare Cicada (which hasn’t been sighted for a decade) in England’s New Forest. The project works through (yep, you guessed it) a smartphone app that listens for the 14KHz song of the New Forest Cicada, a frequency that can’t be heard by most humans. Millions of visitors go to the New Forest every year, and it is hoped that if some of them install the app it will be possible to discover hitherto undiscovered colonies. In practical terms, when you tap the button the app listens for 30 second bursts at a time and then analyses the data to see whether the Cicada song is present, sending back data on the result and location of the test. Obviously from our perspective this ticks all the boxes: sensor repurposing, crowdsourcing and using smartphones to examine the world in novel ways. And while this may seem like a very parochial crowdsourcing project, for us that only makes it more intriguing. Hopefully anyone reading this who intends to go down to the New Forest this summer will install it before they go, and get to join in the quest for the song of the Cicada. The only thing about this project that bugs me is the name, what was wrong with CicadaSignal?

cicada detected cicada survey

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