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Partnership creates money-saving apps for MDC

Photo of Yi Shang and his research group.

Yi Shang (bottom, right) and his student researchers who work on apps for the department’s partnership with the Missouri Department of Conservation, pose for a group photo at a workshop workshop about the partnership. Photo provided by Yi Shang

Digital technology methods that make life and work easier aren’t limited to individuals. For state entities that once dealt with endless paper forms and long response times, technology also has optimized the way they conduct business. The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), which oversees hundreds of conservation areas in the state, as well as manages and regulates its fish, forest and wildlife resources, is one of the state agencies that has discovered benefits to a digital transition, and its partnership with the University of Missouri Computer Science Department has made that transition smoother.

“To me, it’s really the creativity,” said Joel Sartwell, a systems analyst with the MDC Central Region, who leads MDC’s end on multiple projects with the CS Department. “A lot of times, we get together and have these brainstorm sessions, and they are creative… it’s just so quick, the response of [the computer science students] — the lightning speed. They’ll work on something and have me a solution by the next week.”

Sartwell said the partnership formed through serendipitous connections between MDC and the College of Engineering: Sartwell works with Sherry Gao, wife of Mizzou Engineering Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Professor Frank Feng, who in turn is acquainted with computer science Professor Yi Shang through the college.

Sartwell reached out to Shang to collaborate on projects beginning in the 2014-2015 academic year.

Since then, Shang, Sartwell, and several student researchers have met weekly to discuss the projects. Along with Feng, whose research is included in one of the projects, the team has collaborated to develop seven projects.

MU/MDC Projects

Project Name: Unstaffed shooting ranges app

Photo of two MDC clerks using the app to take a survey.

Missouri Department of Conservation clerks use the app developed by MU students to conduct a survey at an unstaffed shooting range. Photo provided by Joel Sartwell/MDC

The problem: MDC survey clerks needed a way to electronically survey unstaffed shooting ranges. MDC had developed a method using custom-built software that only worked on a particular mobile device, but at a cost of about  $3,000 per mobile device, the software wasn’t the most economically sound choice.

The solution: Shang’s group developed an Android operating system application that could be used on the MDC clerks’ existing Android devices.

Status: Survey clerks used the app to collect data, which now is being processed.

“Surveys are done. In the can,” Sartwell said. “Unstaffed shooting range surveys were a success. They were done collecting data and entering it into a digital database within hours of collecting the last survey. In the past, a yearlong survey would take months to enter, if on paper.”

Project Name: Black Bear website

The problem: For years, MDC collected GPS data from tracker collars that wildlife biologists have placed on about one-third of Missouri’s black bear population. The challenge was how to display the data.

“How do you display 200,000 bear locations on a webpage and have it make sense for an unfamiliar user?” Sartwell asked. “We literally have 200,000 points on nearly 100 bears. How do we get that information up, quick and in an interesting way?”

The solution: Student researchers came up with a number of ways to create home ranges. They would take a group of points and turn them into a polygon that would quickly display on the map. This turned into a user-friendly interface for a web based program.

Status: The site is online and accessible to the public. The site calculates the bears’ home range and trajectory, although not in real time.

“We developed a system and turned it over to them. Currently, the site is operated and administered from the MDC IT infrastructure,” Shang said.

Project Name: Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in deer

The problem: During the fall and winter months of deer hunting season, MDC staff used a paper survey system to report chronic wasting disease survey data of deer in Missouri. This required MDC staff to collect information about the deer, hunter, date and location, which was a time-consuming task.

The solution: MU researchers created an app whereby MDC staff can enter the necessary information, submit the data and receive information back within minutes. The information is used to benefit the hunter — so he or she will know whether the meat may be kept or should be discarded — and animal researchers who will be able to update the status and condition of deer in the area.

“Data all goes to a central database,” Sartwell said. “It’s probably longer to collect the data than it is to upload the data.”

Status: The app currently is in use by MDC staff. In counties that have mandatory deer hunting check-ins, Sartwell said MDC staff use the app, which has greatly increased their efficiency.

Project Name: ‘Generic App’

The problem: As evidenced in other projects, the MDC conducts many surveys, but staff members don’t want a custom-developed app developed for every survey. What they did want was a one-trick pony — something that could help them build several digital surveys that staff members easily could use.

The solution: A single smartphone application that allows users to create a new, ready-to-go Android-based survey without the need to make another survey application or need a programmer. The process takes mere minutes.

Status: Currently under development

Project Name: Bowhunter App

The problem: In addition to the “Generic App,” which only works on Android, the MDC needed to create surveys that work across multiple operating systems.

The solution: This need for a “cross-platform app” coincided with an idea to provide Missouri bowhunters a digital platform for recording observations. The Bowhunter App was developed to work across the Android and iOS operating systems, as well as on a desktop app. The goal for the project was to create an app that will generate other multi-operating system apps.

“It’s like Twitter for bowhunters,” Sartwell said. “It’s a quick ‘who, what, were, when’ diary.”

Status: The Bowhunter App is in use by the MDC, replacing the paper records.

Project Name: Website Development

The problem: MAE Professor Frank Feng and his research team are working on an energy flow model where food is the “energy flow” (kCal). They are creating a program that will simulate the interaction between waterfowl and food supply, enabling MDC researchers to predict patterns and trends without the need for first-hand observation of wildlife. This simulator requires a website that provides an easy user-interface for the MDC researchers.

The solution: Shang has two undergraduates working on a website that will serve as the user interface for the simulator that does not “require the user to be a rocket scientist.”

Status: This was the project that served as the catalyst for the partnership between MDC and Mizzou Engineering. Both parts of the project are continuing. Feng’s group is calculating the uncertainties of the mathematical model, while Shang’s group is developing ideas for displaying the data.

Project Name: Fish measurement app

Photo of Guang Chen standing in on the Missouri River shoreline.

Guang Chen, a doctoral student in Shang’s research group, poses for a photo before going onto the Missouri River for field work for the fish measurement app. Photo provided by Joel Sartwell/MDC

The problem: MDC fisheries biologists measure fish in Missouri waterways to get an understanding of the fish species, the waterway and the health of both. This can be a time-consuming task that involves net catch-and-release of multiple fish and the risk to fish due to the length of time out of water.

“The process to capture, store and document the fish takes a lot of time,” Sartwell said.

The solution: Doctoral students in Shang’s group are developing an app that will use a mobile device’s camera function to automatically capture fish measurements and determine the type of fish using deep learning, in particular convolutional deep neural networks, a bleeding edge machine learning technique for image and video recognition, which is also a major component in the success of Alpha Go, Google’s champion-level software for the board game “Go.” In the event the fish cannot be kept still long enough for a still photo, the group plans to develop video capturing capabilities that will use the longest length captured in a video.

Status: The app is in its first semester of development.

The benefits

Shang and Sartwell both said they have found value in the partnership and the projects blossoming from it. From Shang’s perspective, there are many benefits academically, professionally and in serving the community.

“These projects give the students hands-on opportunities to apply state-of-the-art technologies in solving real-work problems and to learn how to work with stakeholders and create innovative solutions to new problems,” Shang said.

“It feels good to help the community with the talent we have in the computer science department at MU. This will also help students after they graduate because it will give them a tangible product that they can use to show future employers,” Shang said.

For Sartwell and the MDC, the benefits are financial.

“We have real world problems the CS department can address,” Sartwell said. “We have need and they have the talent and desire.”

At a recent meeting, Sartwell said he and Shang did a rough calculation of the cost MDC might have incurred trying to create the same projects without the partnership with MU.

“Dr. Shang realized he’s probably saved us millions of dollars in development alone,” Sartwell said.

Update April 8, 2016: Details have been added to the fish measurement app and the “Generic App” has been clarified.