Social media to some is the antithesis of all things nature. With people’s heads often bent over handheld devices, it seems like the last thing they will do is notice a chirping bluebird or flying ladybug overhead. But a new app for the iPhone seeks to change all that. Slate reports that Project NOAH, or networked organisms and habitats, can turn your mobile device into a handheld wildlife-spotting tool.

How does the Project NOAH app work? You simply take pictures of wildlife, tag it with your own words, and submit it to the site. The project, started by New York University students Yasser Ansari and Martin Ceperley, serves as a kind of repository for field sightings, creating a vast database that includes almost 5,000 wildlife sightings, both flora and fauna, around the world.

Why is the app so popular? Some say it has bridged the gap between professionals and amateur wildlife enthusiasts, like a “Foursquare” for bugs, plants and animals. It’s easy enough for amateurs to record the specimens they have found, but detailed enough that professionals can use the information in their research. Organizations such as the Lost Ladybug Project are in on it, as well as Project Squirrel. It has become a worldwide community for nature enthusiasts and eco-spotters.

The app for Project Noah works as a spotting tool and also a field guide for its users. You can add a photograph of an interesting creature, or you can access the database to learn of bugs, plants and more in a particular area. You can even help track migrating species or document endangered wildlife. Creators Ansari and Ceperley originally used the Google App Engine for the project, a free platform to build and host Web applications on Google's infrastructure.

Clay Shirky teaches at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program and was an adviser on the project. As she told Slate, "You can readily make the required professional rigor so large that it's a buzz kill for the amateur or make it so loosey-goosey in order to maximize participation that the resulting data isn't regarded as proof or evidence of anything.” It’s a free application, and until recently was funded only by a $50,000 grant from Cooney Center Prize for Innovation in Children's Learning in the mobile-learning category.

But Project NOAH got a big financial boost. National Geographic has recently purchased an interest in the company. Slate reports the project is about to embark on a “media blitz” that will likely increase its influence around the world.

For further reading:

New ecology app makes wildlife viewing a cultural sport
Project NOAH and its innovative app bridge the gap between professionals and amateur wildlife enthusiasts.