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Making It

How A Geologist Designed The Perfect App For The Window Seat

What dinosaur digs, glaciers, or extinct volcanoes are you flying over?

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I was on a flight from Chicago to Phoenix, peering out the window as the sun rose over the snow-dusted alien topography of the southwest, when I saw it, what could only be describes as a volcano-like formation rising out of the ultra-flat landscape around it. I nudged my seatmate to check it out, wondering out loud what it was. (He gave me the side-eye.)

If I’d had the new app Flyover Country, I would have been able to pull up the exact coordinates of our flight using my iPhone’s GPS signal, which works even when in airplane mode. It would have explained that the formation below was a nine-mile-wide extinct volcano called Sierra Grande. It’s part of a line of faults, the Raton hotspot trail, stretching from Colorado into Arizona, roughly the route our flight was taking that morning.

Following the information trail in the app’s UI, I could have read about the many other formations I had already spotted flying along this million-year-old fault line. I also could have seen where dinosaur bones have been discovered down below, or how a nearby volcanic field had gotten its name.

Not everyone has a burning desire to know what they’re seeing 35,000 feet below. But for Flyover Country’s creator Shane Loeffler, who traveled the world for his field work at the University of Minnesota, flying is a chance to observe "planetary scale processes and the ways humans live around them." The app, which launched on iTunes and Google Play in December, was developed after Loeffler pitched the idea to his cocreator, University of Minnesota's Amy Myrbo, and it was funded by a National Science Foundation grant that was accepted just "29 hours after we sent it in," Myrbo says in a presentation.

Unsurprisingly, Loeffler got the idea for the app on a plane. "I realized that most people don’t have my geology background, and that they might be missing out on some of the wonder of that view because there was no good way to know where exactly your plane was, let alone what stories the landforms below could tell," he tells Co.Design over email. "I tested the GPS in my phone while flying, found that it worked, and realized that there was a great scientific outreach tool waiting to be made." When you open the app, you draw your flight path (it can be very rough) to access the relevant data points, which are then downloaded to the app so you can access them offline.

Flyover Country is part of an initiative called EarthCube. Created by the National Science Foundation in 2011, it's a loosely defined coalition to fund "community-created cyberinfrastructure" that makes huge stores of data about the natural world more accessible to everyone—through technology like Flyover Country. "Creating content for the entire world of potential flight paths would be impossible, but right now is an amazing time for open access to geoscience data thanks to initiatives like NSF’s EarthCube," Loeffler says.

Next, he wants to add augmented reality to the app, so you could simply hold up your phone and look through the data overlaid on the world below, "the same way that night sky apps do, just upside down," he says. According to the Smithsonian, there are also plans to create a similar app for cloud formations and weather science—allowing you to read about the types of storm clouds you might be bumping through, or why certain types of weather make for certain flying conditions.

At the same time, what's so wonderful about apps like Flyover Country is that they don't rely on VR headsets or nascent hardware—though there are already a few VR apps for geologists, too—all you need is access to a mobile phone. And a few excited scientists.

Cover Photo: via Shutterstock

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