Hawaii Researcher Builds App for Yellowstone

nps-geysers-app-1An award-winning researcher who recently joined the University of Hawaii has created a mobile app that can predict eruptions and notifies users so they can be prepared for them. But the eruptions in question are made of water, not lava, as the app was built for Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

Volcanic eruptions like those seen in Hawaii are notoriously unpredictable, a fact well illustrated by the constantly shifting situation in Puna on the Big Island. So perhaps that’s why Brett Oppegaard, a new assistant professor in the UH communications department, focused on Old Faithful, one of the most predictable geographical features on earth.

Old Faithful erupts every 91 minutes or so, and people have been able to predict when the geyser will go off for nearly two centuries. And Old Faithful is just one of several Yellowstone geysers that erupt on a regular schedule.

Oppegard, who is a social scientist rather than a geologist, has been studying “ubiquitous computing.” With the explosive popularity of smartphones, an app seemed like an ideal platform to explore the relationship between people and technology.

Although the NPS Geysers app (available for iOS and for Android) has a clear practical use for people visiting Yellowstone, Oppegaard was more interested in the concept of what he called “Old Faithful Time.” After all, much of what people did at Yellowstone revolved around Old Faithful’s eruptions rather than standard units of hours or minutes.

In the same way modern man has divided up time into units based on the Earth’s rotation on its axis (sunrise and sunset) and its orbit around the sun (seasons), couldn’t “Old Faithful Time” form the basis of a community’s schedule?

“That shifting of a community to ‘Old Faithful Time’ is fascinating, and represented in many analog forms at the park, such as on white boards, and on hand-spun clocks,” Oppegaard said today. “We wanted to start building our research project on the idea that Old Faithful time reflects a new way of looking at the world.”

Indeed, people far removed from Yellowstone could find themselves in sync with ‘Old Faithful Time’ thanks to the app. And since the app features a live video feed of the park’s main geysers, users around the world could be notified of an impending eruption and tune in to watch the spectacle along with the people in the park.

“Even the person just sitting at a desk in some cubicle maze somewhere can… join the real-time party of people around the globe enjoying this majesty of nature,” Oppegaard said. “These eruptions are fun to watch, and they bring people together.”

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The NPS Geysers app is actually the first official, sanctioned National Park Service app available for Yellowstone, and offers a lot to park visitors. It aggregates the park’s social media feeds from Twitter, Flickr and YouTube, providing easy access to up-to-date park news and media, including photos and videos. And future updates will add more interactivity, including educational games.

Oppegaard has a record of innovation when it comes to combining social science with technology. Before joining the UH School of Communications last year, he built the first interpretive app for the National Park Service. That app was for Fort Vancouver in Washington State, and the project won the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation’s Outstanding Achievement in the Media award as well as the John Wesley Powell Prize for outstanding achievement in historical displays from the Society for History in the Federal Government.

Now that Oppegaard is at UH, I’m wondering if he might apply his talents to the national parks in Hawaii, or other historical projects. I also found his blog, where he said he hopes to “give people more information about what life in Hawaii (and at UH) is really like.”

“I’ve basically only been able to find obvious PR sites about tourism, or blogs/rants from cranks who have left and are complaining about it,” he notes. “In fact, I have been very surprised about the lack of information easily accessible on this issue, so I hope I can provide some new and fresh ideas to those either in a similar situation as mine, or considering a move to Oahu.”

Though perhaps not quite as prestigious as an app for a national park, his perspective on island life is also something I hope he puts out there.

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