Conservation Tools: Mobile Apps Spread Awareness of Coral Triangle's Reef Fishes

© Conservation International /photo by Mark Erdmann

“Conservation Tools” is Human Nature’s new blog series that aims to spotlight how cutting-edge technology is helping scientists explore and protect the natural world.

Just over a year ago I blogged about the satisfaction of wrapping up a five-year project supporting my good friend Dr. Gerald Allen to produce the three-volume, 1,292-page book set “Reef Fishes of the East Indies,” which comprehensively documented the amazing reef fish diversity of the Pacific Ocean’s Coral Triangle region.

We’re now just as pleased to announce the digital transformation of these weighty tomes into a set of three iPad apps that link together seamlessly to provide detailed information on 2,655 reef fish species.

Also available as a single large app for the Kindle Fire, these digital versions contain over 3,000 high-definition photos and are designed to be fully functional in the field without an Internet connection — perfect for field scientists and divers or snorkelers traveling to remote reefs.

Indeed, the idea for the apps evolved from discussions with numerous diving friends and scientific colleagues who loved the books but expressed frustration at not being able to easily lug the 14 pounds of paper to their dive site for ease of reference.

The learning process we’ve gone through in developing these apps has really underscored to me the incredible potential of these electronic tools compared to conventional books.

Originally, we envisioned a simple “e-book” approach — in essence, a glorified PDF document. However, as we worked closely with Kerry Tremain and Arjun Gupta and their app development team at 36 Views, it became obvious that a properly designed app could incorporate a wide range of additional interactive features.

After nearly a year of work, we are very happy with the final product, which allows rapid browsing of the thousands of images while also providing interactive features not possible in a printed book, such as note-taking, creation of favorite lists and sharing of images and species descriptions by email or social media.

Particularly appealing to me is the ability to regularly update the apps as we find new species, expand known distribution ranges or otherwise increase our knowledge and understanding of a particular species. I already have nearly 200 updates in the queue for the apps, including the addition of new species such as our recently described Halmahera walking shark find.

The digital format also makes it easy for us to add photographs of the different color varieties of a given species (such as geographic variants or juvenile color patterns). This would be impossible in print format without dramatically increasing the size of the book.

With the greatly increased convenience and — just as importantly — the significantly reduced price of the apps (at US$ 36, approximately 1/7 the price of the three-volume book set), we are confident these new tools will promote a greater public appreciation of the mind-boggling marine biodiversity of the Coral Triangle region and the wide range of ecosystem services this biodiversity supports.

A key strategy of CI’s conservation programs here is to help local communities and governments derive tangible benefits from conserving their natural capital. As marine tourism is increasingly important to the economies of the nations in this region, the apps are specifically designed to appeal to divers, snorkelers and nature enthusiasts.

Speaking of benefits, I should mention that the proceeds from sales of the app go to supporting our marine conservation programs in Indonesia and the Bird’s Head Seascape, so you can feel doubly good about your purchase. I also note that with the iPad apps, volume three is a free download as a “sampler” — so you’ve no good reason not to download your copy today!

In future iterations of the apps, we intend to add mapping features and the ability when looking at a given species description to immediately compare images of all similar species that might easily be confused with it. If only we’d had such tools available when I was doing my Ph.D. research!

In just a few short years, mobile apps have become a major way many people around the world receive information. I hope our apps will help teach and inspire more people to care about this beautiful and important corner of the ocean.

Mark Erdmann is the senior advisor to CI-Indonesia’s Marine Program.