Thursday, June 27, 2013

CloudSpotter (for iPhone)

CloudSpotter (for iPhone) takes a refreshingly literal approach to the concept of "cloud-based app:" it's all about "analog" clouds of the fluffy, wispy, rainy, or iridescent ilk. This citizen science app is a fun, educational, and challenging tool to help you identify, understand, and appreciate the wide variety of clouds that float above our world.

The app's concept is simple: it lets you photograph clouds in the sky, identify them with the aid of the app's "cloud library" or its step-by-step identifier, upload them to your collection of cloud photos, and wait for the app's volunteer staff to verify (or nix) your identifications. You earn stars and badges for cloud identifications (and can compete with other cloud spotters in doing so), and occasionally get your images displayed in the app's gallery for others to see. You might even help a new cloud type gain official recognition.

CloudSpotter, optimized for the iPhone 5, is compatible with iPhones starting with the 3GS, iPads, and iPods touch, provided that they run iOS 6.0. I tested it on an iPhone 5, as its camera is better than that of my iPad 2, the phone is far easier to point up at the sky and snap a picture, and it's generally connected to the Internet when I'm outside. I tried accessing the app with my iPad; as content is scaled for the iPhone, the text suffers some degradation when enlarged to iPad size, though photos were easier to see on the large screen.

The War on Blue-Sky Thinking
CloudSpotter is the brainchild of the Cloud Appreciation Society, an organization founded in 2005 to foster understanding and appreciation of clouds. The society's website lets its 32,000 members share their cloud-related observations, questions, and photos. From the society's manifesto: "We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them?.We pledge to fight 'blue-sky thinking' wherever we find it. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day."

The first time you open the app, you're treated to a short, informative, and unabashedly cutesy (as in clouds and raindrops with faces) video showing how clouds form out of water vapor and eventually return it as rain. The app is suitable for anyone with a desire to learn about clouds, and for the most part the text is more descriptive than technical.

CloudSpotter Basics
CloudSpotter works only in portrait mode. At the top of the screen is a headline letting you know what section you're in. Most of the screen area displays content, which varies depending on which section you're in, and along the bottom are five tabs, one for each section. The first tab is the Cloud Library, which depicts 40 different cloud types, split into 3 sections: "The Ten Main Cloud Types" (cumulus, stratus, nimbostratus, cirrus, etc.); Other Cloud Types (everything from contrails and fog to tuba (funnel cloud) and some exotic varieties (that can earn you 5 stars for spotting) including noctilucent, Kelvin-Helmholtz?which looks like the crests of ocean waves?and the dark and dramatic-looking asperatus.

Each cloud type is depicted with a thumbnail, crossed by a blue ribbon showing the number of stars (from 1 to 5) that collecting it is worth. Clicking on the thumbnail enlarges the image and lets you scroll through up to about 7 additional images. It also provides descriptive text; identifies the cloud type's altitude (high, mid, low, ground, multiple, or varied); whether or not it's associated with precipitation; cloud types that can be mistaken for it; and cloud types often seen in conjunction with it.

The descriptive text is written for a general audience, providing details of the cloud's appearance, characteristics, and formation. It escapes being dry by maintaining a light, conversational tone: "If you've never spotted a Cumulus cloud, then you ought to get out more."

In Search of Unknown Clouds
Back to asperatus: it is not officially recognized as a cloud variety, but cloud spotters are looking to change that. There hasn't been a new addition to the International Cloud Atlas, published by the World Meteorological Organization, since Cirrus inoculus was added in 1951, but in 2009 the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society proposed that asperatus (whose name is Latin for rough, because of its resemblance to a rough, turbulent sea) be considered as a new cloud variety. The idea has gained the support of some meteorologists, including Great Britain's Royal Meteorological Society.

To gain official recognition from the World Meteorological Organization, however, requires understanding of the cloud's characteristics as well as the conditions under which it forms, and cloud spotters worldwide have contributed images and videos of asperatus to that end. By photographing this rare phenomenon, users of the CloudSpotter app can not only earn 5 stars and a badge, they're participating in useful research that could lead to the official recognition of a whole new variety of cloud.

Observations from CloudSpotter users will also be put to good scientific use in helping to calibrate NASA's Ceres (Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System) instruments on three climate satellites that measure the amount of sunlight that is reflected back into space from the Earth. This information is used to calculate the surface temperature, but the amount and type of cloud cover?some of which, clouds over snow for instance, can be hard to discern from space?also affects the temperature. By using a worldwide database of sightings of different types of clouds from the app, scientists should be able to reduce errors in their temperature observations, and better understand the complex and crucial role that clouds play in regulating global temperatures.

Continue Reading: Cloud Collecting


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