Engineering

Engineering Undergrad Wins Lake Tahoe App Contest

The UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center (TERC) has launched a new smartphone app, “Citizen Science Tahoe,” that encourages beach-goers of all ages to tap in what they see at Lake Tahoe; creating crowd-sourced observational data that will be shared with the scientists to better understand conditions around the lake.

The app, available for download at CitizenScienceTahoe.org, was programmed by Shahzeb Khan, a UC Davis sophomore studying computer science who won a university-wide competition for the best app proposal.

“Working on the app and solving problems has been a fun challenge,” said Khan. “Collaborating with TERC has also been a great work experience.”

UC Davis sophomore Shahzeb Khan's design was selected to power a new smart phone app that transforms Lake Tahoe visitors into citizen scientists.

UC Davis sophomore Shahzeb Khan’s design was selected to power a new smart phone app that transforms Lake Tahoe visitors into citizen scientists.

The Citizen Science Tahoe app, which launched in mid-August 2015, turns Tahoe shoreline visitors into research partners, by encouraging them to share observational data about what they see, while walking along the celebrated lake’s beaches.

The kicker? This is the first app that Khan, a UC Davis sophomore computer science/engineering major, has taken into production.

“I knew how to do it, at least the programming part,” he admits. “But I’d never launched any prior to this one. I’ve always wanted to design an app, though, and this competition gave me the necessary push, because it came with a deadline.”

Khan learned of the competition at the beginning of spring quarter, thanks to a College of Engineering email alert.

“It sounded like an interesting challenge, and I felt that I could do it. No completion date was mentioned, so I just got to work and coded up a little prototype. TERC had requested only written documentation for the initial entry, but I took it an extra step and sent them a video of my working demo.”

Khan’s self-taught programming skills date back to fifth grade, if not earlier. He started out by designing web sites, then advanced rapidly; he gives credit to “a good computer science class in high school.” He also acknowledges a fondness for childhood tinkering: “I always took apart my grandmother’s old gadgets,” he laughs, “trying to figure out what made them work.”

TERC quickly informed Khan that he had made it to the second phase, at which point he was asked to develop a working beta version of their concept. “I knew that a certain number of people — I didn’t know how many — had been contacted to develop beta versions, and that, based on those, TERC would select one student to take the project to production.”

Thanks to his working prototype, Khan had a good start; he subsequently fine-tuned his app during spring quarter, while maintaining a regular course load. “Engineering classes are known to be demanding,” he acknowledges, “but I don’t regard programming as work. I’m fast, and I enjoy solving problems; this was a good one.”

TERC representatives kept in touch weekly. Khan provided updates of his code-in-progress, and they provided feedback, asking him to focus on various details.

“When you’re dealing with an app that includes GPS coordinates,” he explains, citing one example, “you have to think in terms of a real-world scenario. How will cell signal strength be, in a place like Lake Tahoe? I had to be concerned with how the GPS implementation APIs (application program interfaces) would work. If there’s no signal, will the user still be able to record observations?”

The biggest challenge?

“Compatibility. Lots of devices are out there, even in the iPhone family. Plenty of people still have iPhone 4s, with their smaller screens, so I had to think about screen ‘real estate,’ compared to the newer phones with larger screens. Androids are much worse, in terms of device fragmentation. Something might look fine on my phone, but maybe not on yours.

“But you have to choose your battles. Ultimately, we reached the point where things look pretty good on 99 percent of all devices, so that has to suffice.”

The work paid off, and Khan got the news in late July: His app had been selected. Aside from bragging rights, the achievement included a $4,000 cash prize.

“Citizen Science Tahoe” debuted just a few weeks later. The interface is attractive and user-friendly, with visitors to Tahoe’s 71-mile shoreline encouraged to report on water quality, beach conditions and the presence of algae and local species; each of those categories is subdivided further. Under “Local Species,” for example, users can indicate whether they’ve seen plants, shell animals, fish, birds or dogs. Each observation automatically records the user’s location, date and time. Users also can add photos and their own comments, and they earn points for every recorded observation.

More experienced observers can track invasive species and water inflow via the “Eyes on the Lake” and “Pipe Keepers” categories.

“After meeting all the spec requirements,” Khan explains, “I included some additional features that I thought would be cool, like the Global Leaderboard. That allows lake visitors to compete with friends, and with people they’ve never even met.”

This perceptual data will help lake researchers better understand Tahoe’s fragile nearshore: the lake region most frequently experienced, but — surprisingly — least investigated. Funding assistance for this project comes from the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association, along with a $150,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.