Sunday, January 09, 2011

Who Tweeted That? A Proposal for inter-disciplinary Research

I love my Android Phone (I have a Nexus One), and more importantly, love the fact that there are three apps that I use regularly that I myself have written -- for uploading photos, for knowing train timings while getting ready to work in the morning, and bus timings as I leave work. Being an engineer, the ability to make stuff which can be used in real life is indeed very satisfying to me :).

The above, combined with the inordinate amount of time I have spent recently writing research grant proposals, led to the following blog post, which was originally posted on my Crazy Ideas blog.

Let me know what you think :).

[No, this is not about the latest means of communication, rather, about something which has been in vogue for about 150 million years.

Motivation and Context

Often as I am walking in my neighborhood or near my lab (which is next to a forest), I hear bird calls, and wonder what bird is trying to communicate with its peers. Now, if it were a celestial object, I would have whipped out my phone and used Google Sky Maps, but alas, there is no such app for bird calls. Hence this proposal/idea.

The proposed system

My idea is rather simple, at least in terms of a user interface. Quite similar to apps like Shazam which let users find out more about a song they are hearing. Basically, it should work like this from the user's perspective:

  • I install the app
  • When I hear a birdcall, I click "record" and point my phone toward it
  • When done, I click the "upload" button
  • I get the information about the bird (Name, Wikipedia link, samples of bird calls. etc.) on my phone :)

Paying for the app

Now, apps like Shazam make money when people end up buying the songs that they recognize using the app. For the app being proposed here, there is no such revenue stream. However, the users can 'pay' by uploading the location of the phone (and consequently, the bird) when they upload the bird-call. Of course, the system should not store any other data which is personal, but the location can be very useful to secure funding to create this system (see below).

The players behind the curtain

I feel that in order to provide the functionality proposed above, several unanswered questions will need to be addressed by specialists of several disciplines:

  • Ornithologists, who can provide the information about existing samples of bird calls, as well as locations where they are commonly found, so as to quicken the search. They will, in turn, gain valuable data about where the various bird calls were heard (by virtue of the location uploaded by the users), which might lead to interesting discoveries.
  • Computer Scientists, who will have to solve the problems of performing the search at large scales while being responsive enough so as not to bore a smart phone user :).
  • Mathematicians/Digital-Signal-Processing researchers, who will have to propose ways to model bird calls for easy searching, as well as propose compression techniques suited for audio which is neither voice nor music.

So, do you think the above idea makes sense? Is there an NSF/NIH/EC call where this can be proposed? Do you know of researchers who would be interested in working on this? Let me know in the comments.



  1. Makes perfect sense to me. Now, if you could just show me how to get my favorite clock on my front screen on my Xperia X10 (the screen that comes up when I first start my phone).

  2. So the big thing that jumps out to me is the duration of the birdcall. Shazaam and the like work but they require sometimes upwards of 30 seconds to figure something out. For birdcalls it would be hard to replicate this effect unless you could record and have it automatically duplicate to an analyze-able length. no?

  3. @Starman: Thanks. For the clock, are you finding it hard to move the clock widget to the main screen?

    @Bhavna: Good question, and indeed, something for the researchers to think about :). Also, I normally see that birds end up repeating their calls themselves, so that should give a sizable audio clip.