Earth app explains landforms

Researchers have created a travel app that links GPS and Earth info.

by Keaton Schmitt

While flying high above the ground, users of a new app can learn the details of how mountains and canyons below formed.
A team of researchers from the University of Minnesota’s earth sciences department created Flyover Country, an app that syncs GPS data with fossil and geological data to explain Earth’s history. Now, the team hopes to expand on their idea in coming months.
The app works offline and lets users plot a trip in advance to display which fossils and geographical landmarks they will fly over. Users of the app can then select any fossils or terrain they pass by and get information on how that feature came to be.
 “[The app is to get] people to find out about their own backyards, which is a really important way of hooking students on geoscience,” said Amy Myrbo, a member of the Flyover Country team and earth sciences researcher.
The team is working with the earth sciences department to integrate the app into course field trips, said Shane Loeffler, a master’s student and team member.
“[The team wants to] take some of the stuff that exists only on paper and move it into classes. … We think it has a lot of potential for education,” Myrbo said.
When the app works offline, the trip data is stored on the user’s phone, Loeffler said. Even in airplane mode, phones still get GPS signals, they just don’t send them out, letting the app work offline.
“When you’re on the plane, you don’t need to buy in-flight Wi-Fi. You can be in airplane mode, know where you are because of GPS and then read the articles about what you’re flying over,” Loeffler said.
The tool pulls together data from multiple sources, like databases from three universities and several online sites, Myrbo said.
The app links directly to some of the data sources, while others are stored on University servers to make the app work faster, said Reed McEwan, a member of the team and University researcher.
Last month, the team received a grant from the National Science Foundation to expand the app and make it more useful to researchers by letting them sort site data before they start research, Loeffler said.
“[With this app] you can ask more coherent questions that are in context with the data that already exists,” he said. 
The team is also working to include collaborations between researchers so users can see at a glance who has worked where and with whom, potentially allowing researchers with similar interests to get in contact, said Myrbo.
“[In the future], the app can function sort of as a recommendation tool for who you should work with,” she said.