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Mobile devices and their usefulness to field work

Updated Wednesday 4th June 2014

So much more than a telephone, mobile phones can be used for a variety of tasks when undertaking field work.

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Large sign displaying the wording 'I love my App' Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Rasica | It has been a while since mobile phones have evolved to become multi-functional devices, beyond their original design for voice communication. They have become increasingly powerful and capable of recording, processing and sharing various types of data (e.g. photographic, audio-video, location). The potential is has expanded even further with advent of smart-phones and their custom-built applications (apps).

The potential

Long gone are the days where field work was limited to pencil and clip-board, tape measure (and if lucky hand-held GPS devices). While those are still indispensable, and reliable back-up, the handy digital devices like a smart phone/tablet are encroaching in academic field work. Of particular appreciation being the easy storage and access of detailed information, not only in the field but also across my other work locations: office, home or even the humble coffee-shop.

It is with this in mind, we recently were keen to experiment on how and to what extent mobile-device and apps could complement field teaching. As part of the field teaching for the module on Storms, Seas and Rivers at Birkbeck, University of London students, we went to Santa Ponsa, Mallorca.

With low cost flight restrictions, we were particularly keen to see how we can do with do without bulky kit to transport, while ensuring tasks are adequately (if not more exceedingly) accomplished.

The practice

Our practical work, among others, included vegetation identification and survey, soil infiltration and particle size investigation, as well as landscape survey. We were able to use our mobile phones quite extensively. Some examples of which are given in the table below.

Throughout the tasks, when possible we compared mobile device measurements to that of traditional manual equipment.

Field investigation using mobile digital devices and their equivalents:
Feature to be investigated App Equivalent field kit
Location Google Earth, compass Paper map, GPS
Distance Google map Tape measure, paper map
Landscape photos Photosynth Digital camera
Recording plants Built-in camera Digital camera
Species identification LeafSnap*, iSpot* Field guide books
Note taking, lecture recording Notes, inbuilt camera/video recorder Clip-board and pencil, digital camera
Annotating photo, sketching features Jotter Clip-board and pencil
Topography, slope Altimeter, theodolite Ebney level
Time Clock Stopwatch
Calculation, data analysis CalcMadeEasy Scientific calculator
Weather BBC weather Local paper, hotel chart
Sharing information Dropbox, email Photocopying data sheets

* considered but not actually used

Display of twelve icons for mobile phone apps Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: The Open University


Overall the digital device performed to equivalent level on measurements and calculations as other devices but more efficiently and effectively [More results in process]. The availability of the information in digital format for easy reference, further analysis and sharing was a special plus. It was also particularly handy having less equipment to fly out and carry in the field.

Lastly, of course we ended up using the mobile phones for what they were originally built for, to find each other especially when lost out in the field!

Taking it further


Araya, Y.N. (2013) There is an app for that: the next level of ecological mobile technology British Ecological Society Bulletin 08/2013; 44(3):36-38

Snaddon, J. G Petrokofsky, P Jepson & K Willis (2013) Biodiversity technologies: tools as change agents Biology Letters 9: doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2012.1029

Stewart, M et al (2011) The Educational Potential of Mobile Computing in the Field Educause review online

Welsh, K and D France (2012) Spotlight on: Smartphones and fieldwork Geography 97 (1): 47-51





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