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Friday, October 22, 2021

Can smartphone apps help science?

The average cost of red Roma tomatoes at Safeway is $0.56 each. The average cost of a pack of 75 seeds to grow tomato plants – yielding bunches of tomatoes seasonally – is $1.59. For most college students, the latter, cheaper price holds more appeal. But how do you know if your backyard is suitable for growing tomatoes?

UC Davis soils and biogeochemistry Ph.D. student Dylan Beaudette, along with his advisor, soil research specialist Anthony O’Geen, have developed SoilWeb, a smartphone application that identifies the soil type and properties at your location from any mobile phone with GPS.

The SoilWeb application allows users to access information from the Soil Survey Geographic (SSURGO) Database for all soil survey areas in the lower 48 states.

SoilWeb classifies the soil you are standing on and links you to vital information about that soil, such as chemical and physical properties. This information helps determine potential uses for the land.

Beaudette said this application is useful for many different people.

“For a student or gardener or someone who owns property, SoilWeb allows them to identify all major soils mapped at their location and read about any limitations the soils might have in respect to growing crops,” Beaudette said.

According to O’Geen, SoilWeb could also contribute to soil conservation efforts.

“I think the benefit is that this [application] is generating a lot of enthusiasm for students, and that is good for just general soils knowledge,” said O’Geen. “The more we know about them, the more in the future we take better care of them. Most people don’t consider soils, they just walk on it … there is a lot to soil, and this is an opportunity for people to be exposed to that.”

Soil Survey has been collecting data for years on soils throughout the U.S. Now, through the use of the SoilWeb application, that information can be accessed anywhere – from your backyard to a crop field in the middle of Montana.

“Soil Survey is best used when you are out in the field…but you need a computer to look it up. That is mainly why we developed the smartphone app; it frees you from your desk,” O’Geen said.

Randy Dahlgren, chair of the department of land, air and water resources at UC Davis, identifies accessibility as one of SoilWeb’s major draws to the general public. “If you are driving along in the country side, you could just hit the button on the iPhone there … it’s kind of like a travel guide, providing you with information on what you see as you are driving along,” Dahlgren said.

Many terms typically used to classify and describe soils are foreign to the average person. The SoilWeb application provides information in language any interested person could understand.

“All the different terms are linked back to definitions in plain English … our primary goal with this project and related projects is to make soil information more accessible to non-specialists,” says Beaudette. “If something we have done has made people more aware of soils around them and the limits of that soil, we think it’s a good thing.”

CAMMIE ROLLE can be reached at science@theaggie.org

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