UMN team updating geoscience app amid growing popularity

Later this year, the app will be available on seatback screens on some major airlines.

by Wesley Hortenbach

A University of Minnesota geology team is looking to improve its in-flight education app as the project attracts national attention.

The app designers say Flyover Country — a free mobile app that gives airplane passengers information about the terrain they’re flying over — makes geoscience accessible to the public. Ahead of an in-flight option planned for release this year, the team is relying on analytics and user feedback to make upgrades.  

Geology graduate student Shane Loeffler started working on the Flyover Country app about three years ago. The app allows users to enter their destinations on a map and download information about their flight paths, like rock types and cloud formations.

Loeffler came up with the idea while traveling in 2014.

“I was flying, and I had this kind of lens that as a person learning geology … I could interpret the land forms to some degree, but most people staring out the window have no idea what they are seeing at all,” he said.

Now, the team is looking to add specialized data sets that may interest scientists, said University researcher Amy Myrbo, who has worked on the app for several years.

“A member of the general public isn’t going to care about the chemical composition of some rock, but we are going to have that in there for the researchers instead of having a different app for both,” Myrbo said. “There’s definitely a spectrum between just the general public interested in history to these sort of armchair geologists who are actually interested in the science and what they are flying over.”

Later this year, the app will be available on seat back screens on some major airlines. The information will be incorporated into the existing flight path maps on the screens, she said.

The team has also been updating the app based on usage analytics, said University researcher and analytics specialist Alex Stone.

Many people use the app even when they’re not flying, Stone said. Users may open it up while they’re on a road trip or to read articles when they’re not traveling, he said.

The group received a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation — a government agency that funds scientific research and education — in 2016 that lets them pursue these app upgrades.

“The National Science Foundation is funding a lot of the databases about geology, and they got excited when we said this would be a great outreach tool to start pushing all of the science the taxpayers have funded over the past few decades,” Myrbo said.