Love Nature? There’s an App for That!

Posted by on Oct 16, 2014 in Green Voices | No Comments
Evan Hirsche and Sam Serebin, co-founders of Discover Nature Apps. Photo courtesy of Evan Hirsche.

Evan Hirsche and Sam Serebin, co-founders of Discover Nature Apps. Their “Discover Ding” app debuts on October 19, 2014, at Florida’s Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of Evan Hirsche.

On Sunday, October 19, visitors to the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge will be encouraged to experience the refuge in a whole new way: by downloading a free “app” to their smartphones.

Debuting this weekend, Discover Nature Apps (DNA), are the brainchild of Evan Hirsche, the former president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, and his business partner Sam Serebin, an award-winning graphic designer. Hirsche and Serebin will be rolling out their new product at the refuge’s annual “Ding” Darling Days—and they’ll be doing it with the full support and encouragement of refuge managers and the nonprofit refuge Friends group, the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society.

But why would anyone encourage visitors to bring their phones to a wildlife refuge? “So many visitors to public lands are already showing up with smartphones in hand. More than 70 percent of adults already own these devices,” Hirsche says.  “By 2020 nearly everyone will own a smartphone, and they’ll be using them for many things besides communication, entertainment and social media. Smart devices will be part and parcel of our existence. We’re coming at this venture from the perspective of the inevitable.”

For Hirsche, a nature lover, bird watcher and long-time environmental advocate, his realization of the inevitable came on a Florida wildlife drive with his family two years ago. His daughter Katie, then 9, was sitting in the back seat. And she was bored. There was nothing much to see out the car windows, so Katie asked her dad for his iPhone “so she could play whatever game had caught her attention.”

Hirsche found the experience profoundly disturbing. “This is a kid who loves, loves, loves the outdoors,” he says, “and yet these devices are so addictive, so ‘sticky’ that they trigger a reaction in people’s brains that makes them crave more.”

Back home in Maryland, Hirsche had a chance meeting with Serebin, a nature lover like himself with a long line of media credentials, including designing publications for The Nature Conservancy and National Geographic Adventure, and experience developing smartphone apps.

“Like me, Sam really loves the outdoors, and he has kids too, so we began brainstorming about how we could create something that would have a long-term impact on how people experienced nature and public lands in a smartphone-immersed world,” Hirsche relates. “We came up with the idea of a game-based nature app—something fun and interactive and educational that would require people to look up to see and experience the places they were visiting.”

Many nature guides can be downloaded as smartphone apps, “but they’re just books stuffed into a digital format. They’re not very interactive,” Hirsche says. “We felt we needed to take it a step further.”

And so they have. The “Discover Ding” app that will debut on Sunday features the beautiful photos, information about the refuge and its history, flora and fauna that you’d expect from a top-notch field guide.  But it offers much more.

Are you looking at a flock of roseate spoonbills on the wildlife drive? You can use a GPS tag to pinpoint the location as a “field tip” and post a photo so other visitors can find them too. Subsequent visitors can use the same GPS coordinates to report whether the spoonbills are still there. “It’s a crowd-sourced field tip system that allows you to immediately share exciting finds with other visitors,” Hirsche notes.

No cell coverage in remote parts of the refuge? “No problem,” says Hirsche. “Because so many public lands have large areas without any cell coverage, we designed our app around smartphones’ built-in GPS capabilities!”

Are you competitive? The app includes a game “designed to get people to look up and around and explore and experience their surroundings,” explains Hirsche. “It features fun and interesting clues keyed to various GPS locations around the wildlife drive, and awards points for correct answers. It’s silly, educational, a little irreverent and lots of fun for visitors of all ages. When you’re done, you get a virtual badge that you can share with your friends on social media.”

Hirsche and Serebin plan to roll out additional apps for refuges in coastal Oregon and California early next year, and hope to develop even more as the idea of virtual signage, interactive games and crowd-sourced field tips catches on with refuge managers and visitors.

The apps developed by DNA “will never replace the wonderful interpretive staff at refuges and parks, but they will help supplement the limited resources available for interpretation on our public lands,” notes Hirsche.

“I’ll consider our venture a success when my daughter and her 85-year-old grandmother, neither of whom are self-proclaimed naturalists, can go out on their own and come back excited by what they’ve seen and learned and shared using the app.”

For more information, visit www.DiscoverNatureApps.com.

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