CloudSpotter (for iPhone) review

CloudSpotter (for iPhone) is a fun and educational tool that helps you identify and understand the huge variety of clouds that ply our skies.
Photo of CloudSpotter (for iPhone)

CloudSpotter (for iPhone) takes a refreshingly literal approach to the concept of “cloud-based app:” it’s all about “analog” clouds of the fluffy, wispy, rainy, or iridescent ilk. This citizen science app is a fun, educational, and challenging tool to help you identify, understand, and appreciate the wide variety of clouds that float above our world.

The app’s concept is simple: it lets you photograph clouds in the sky, identify them with the aid of the app’s “cloud library” or its step-by-step identifier, upload them to your collection of cloud photos, and wait for the app’s volunteer staff to verify (or nix) your identifications. You earn stars and badges for cloud identifications (and can compete with other cloud spotters in doing so), and occasionally get your images displayed in the app’s gallery for others to see. You might even help a new cloud type gain official recognition.

CloudSpotter, optimized for the iPhone 5, is compatible with iPhones starting with the 3GS, iPads, and iPods touch, provided that they run iOS 6.0. I tested it on an iPhone 5, as its camera is better than that of my iPad 2, the phone is far easier to point up at the sky and snap a picture, and it’s generally connected to the Internet when I’m outside. I tried accessing the app with my iPad; as content is scaled for the iPhone, the text suffers some degradation when enlarged to iPad size, though photos were easier to see on the large screen.

The War on Blue-Sky Thinking
CloudSpotter is the brainchild of the Cloud Appreciation Society, an organization founded in 2005 to foster understanding and appreciation of clouds. The society’s website lets its 32,000 members share their cloud-related observations, questions, and photos. From the society’s manifesto: “We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them….We pledge to fight ‘blue-sky thinking’ wherever we find it. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.”

The first time you open the app, you’re treated to a short, informative, and unabashedly cutesy (as in clouds and raindrops with faces) video showing how clouds form out of water vapor and eventually return it as rain. The app is suitable for anyone with a desire to learn about clouds, and for the most part the text is more descriptive than technical.

CloudSpotter Basics
CloudSpotter works only in portrait mode. At the top of the screen is a headline letting you know what section you’re in. Most of the screen area displays content, which varies depending on which section you’re in, and along the bottom are five tabs, one for each section. The first tab is the Cloud Library, which depicts 40 different cloud types, split into 3 sections: “The Ten Main Cloud Types” (cumulus, stratus, nimbostratus, cirrus, etc.); Other Cloud Types (everything from contrails and fog to tuba (funnel cloud) and some exotic varieties (that can earn you 5 stars for spotting) including noctilucent, Kelvin-Helmholtz—which looks like the crests of ocean waves—and the dark and dramatic-looking asperatus.

Each cloud type is depicted with a thumbnail, crossed by a blue ribbon showing the number of stars (from 1 to 5) that collecting it is worth. Clicking on the thumbnail enlarges the image and lets you scroll through up to about 7 additional images. It also provides descriptive text; identifies the cloud type’s altitude (high, mid, low, ground, multiple, or varied); whether or not it’s associated with precipitation; cloud types that can be mistaken for it; and cloud types often seen in conjunction with it.

The descriptive text is written for a general audience, providing details of the cloud’s appearance, characteristics, and formation. It escapes being dry by maintaining a light, conversational tone: “If you’ve never spotted a Cumulus cloud, then you ought to get out more.”

In Search of Unknown Clouds
Back to asperatus: it is not officially recognized as a cloud variety, but cloud spotters are looking to change that. There hasn’t been a new addition to the International Cloud Atlas, published by the World Meteorological Organization, since Cirrus inoculus was added in 1951, but in 2009 the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society proposed that asperatus (whose name is Latin for rough, because of its resemblance to a rough, turbulent sea) be considered as a new cloud variety. The idea has gained the support of some meteorologists, including Great Britain’s Royal Meteorological Society.

To gain official recognition from the World Meteorological Organization, however, requires understanding of the cloud’s characteristics as well as the conditions under which it forms, and cloud spotters worldwide have contributed images and videos of asperatus to that end. By photographing this rare phenomenon, users of the CloudSpotter app can not only earn 5 stars and a badge, they’re participating in useful research that could lead to the official recognition of a whole new variety of cloud.

Observations from CloudSpotter users will also be put to good scientific use in helping to calibrate NASA’s Ceres (Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System) instruments on three climate satellites that measure the amount of sunlight that is reflected back into space from the Earth. This information is used to calculate the surface temperature, but the amount and type of cloud cover—some of which, clouds over snow for instance, can be hard to discern from space—also affects the temperature. By using a worldwide database of sightings of different types of clouds from the app, scientists should be able to reduce errors in their temperature observations, and better understand the complex and crucial role that clouds play in regulating global temperatures.

Continue Reading: Cloud Collecting

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Cloud Collecting
Clouds that you’ve photographed and submitted appear in My Collection under the second tab. At the top of the screen are the number of stars and badges you’ve earned, out of a possible 114 stars and 20 badges. Below it, the badges are displayed carousel-style; when you’ve earned a badge, the black-and-white image turns to color. You get a badge for finding your first cloud, for spotting 3 different clouds in a day, for identifying each of the 10 main cloud types, for photographing the rare asperatus, for having a cloud selected as Cloud of the Day, and more. The ultimate badge, Triumph in the Skies, is for those who have identified all 40 clouds and optical phenomena featured in the app.

Once you submit a cloud image, it appears in the My Clouds section below the badges. There, you can see the clouds you’ve identified (as well as the ones you’ve misidentified, shown with a line through the cloud name), and the number of stars each is worth. (You only get stars for your first identification of each type.) When you’ve uploaded a cloud photo, but before your identification has been verified or nixed, its thumbnail appears grayed out, with clock hands in front of it.

The middle tab, Spot a Cloud, has a camera icon. Once opened, pressing a second camera icon snaps a picture of the cloud. You can identify it either by choosing a cloud type from the library, or using the step-by-step identifier to home in on it based on its characteristics. Once you’ve made your identification, you then upload the image and wait for the CloudSpotter staff to verify your identification (i.e. “render a verdict”). This can, in my experience, take anywhere from almost instantaneously to the better part of a day.

The app’s interactivity is limited to uploading cloud images and having them verified, or not. You can’t comment on images, there are no forums, and if your classification is nixed, there’s no way within the app to get clarification as to why. CloudSpotter doesn’t have a built-in FAQ, although there is an FAQ on the app’s website. There you find that you can send an email to CloudSpotters support if you’re still convinced that your identification of a nixed sighting was correct.

I had occasion to do so, after I’d seen and photographed the top part of a faint 22-degree solar halo but my identification in the admittedly blurred photo went unverified. I received an email in response saying that my identification had indeed been correct, and offering to credit me for it. I declined, as it was also pointed out that since the photos of identified cloud types are posted in the public gallery, they’re instructive for newcomers, and that a photo that doesn’t clearly show the cloud phenomenon in question could prove confusing.

There’s no direct social media integration—you can’t, for example, tweet your latest cloud image (or your ranking among the cloud-spotting elite), email it, or post it to Facebook from within the app—though CloudSpotter does have active Facebook and Twitter accounts. Nor can you comment on photos seen in the app. If you’re really looking for a cloud spotting community, you can always join the Cloud Appreciation Society for a nominal cost.

You can’t upload images from your iPhone’s photo galleries into CloudSpotter; you have to take them from within the app. This ensures a level playing field for those interested in competing with other spotters in getting the most stars and badges. The clock started with the app’s launch on June 5, and people can’t stack the deck with older cloud photos, or ones take with other sources (or worse, by other people).

Cloud of the Day
CloudStream is a gallery showing recent confirmed cloud photos from participants, giving cloud type, the spotter’s name and location. It is split into 3 sections: the coveted Cloud of the Day (for which the lucky winner receives a Badge); Recently Spotted Worldwide; and Recently Spotted Near Me. I can’t vouch for their nearness, as some I that section have been from as far away as Australia. You can click on the thumbnails to access slightly larger images; once a large image is opened, you can scroll through the entire gallery by swiping across each image.

The CloudStream galleries (other than Cloud of the Day) are updated several times a day. The downside is that CloudStream is notably unstable, with very frequent crashes when the photos are refreshing—freezing or (more often) taking you out of the app. These crashes happen more often than not. At least, when you restart CloudSpotter, you’ll be right where you left off, and the images tend to load better the second time.

Get Off of My Cloud
The final section, CloudSpotter Rankings, is all about the competitive aspect of the app. A table ranks the top 13 users in terms of stars (and badges) earned, and shows your own tally and ranking as well (although it doesn’t indicate how many cloud spotters are ranked in toto). I’m amazed at the number of cloud types some of the “elite” spotters have managed to rack up, barely two weeks after the app’s June 5 launch. Still, I’m pleased with my relatively humble totals (currently ranking fiftieth out of an unknown number of spotters), and even more so that I’ve been able to identify some cloud types I’d been unfamiliar with, and notice patterns of cloud formation over the course of a day that I’d previously overlooked.

I am largely a newcomer to cloud spotting, though I’ve had a particular interest in the related topic of atmospheric optics: viewing and photographing solar and lunar halos, sundogs, rainbows, and related phenomena. I own several books on cloud spotting, but until I picked up CloudSpotter had made no effort to read them. Now I’m anxiously devouring print and online information to learn as much as I can about clouds.

The main thing that prevents CloudSpotter (for iPhone) from being an Editors’ Choice as an educational app is the annoying regularity with which the CloudStream section crashes. That said, I can strongly recommend the app. CloudSpotter does a great service by letting clouds have their day in the sun. It should prove a fun, challenging, and educational app for newbies and experienced cloud spotters alike, and it lets you contribute to useful research as well.

Specifications
Type Personal

Verdict
CloudSpotter (for iPhone) is a fun and educational tool to help you identify and understand the huge variety of clouds that ply our skies.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc