This guest post is by Ian Everett, the Marketing and Communications Manager for Milwaukee County Parks.
We all know the classic phrase ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, and in the past few weeks that’s become a key job function for all of us. We’re all becoming pivoting pros and innovation experts, and for my role as Marketing and Communications Manager for Milwaukee County Parks, that has meant rapidly finding new ways to encourage residents to minimize their park and trail use by staying home.
To help with this effort, my team designed, built and launched a new web app, called the Squirrel Census, in just five days, with a budget of under $400; and I’m going to share how you can do it too.
Before I jump into the app creation details, it’s important to share the genesis of this project. The first source of inspiration was the New York Squirrel Census, an imaginative ‘multimedia science, design, and storytelling project’ that logged 2,373 squirrels in Central Park.
Additional inspiration came from our own Natural Areas team at Milwaukee County Parks, who manage community science and wildlife monitoring projects for natives like salamanders, prairie crayfish and the endangered Rusty Patch Bumblebee.
Finally, inspiration also came from the knowledge that just a short walk from our administration office, is a woodland that’s home to the elusive northern flying squirrel – a fact that most people living in the area are probably not aware of.
The concept of the Squirrel Census is simple. Census takers watch for squirrels in their garden, yard or neighborhood, and log the species, activity and number of squirrels that they see.
The goal of the app, however, is not to gather accurate scientific data, but simply to provide a very easy entry into the world of wildlife watching, and hopefully inspire avid squirrel watchers to become interested in bird watching, insect identification or even become future natural areas volunteers.
To make the squirrel census app a reality I turned to Glideapps.com – a service that enables users to create no-code, web based apps, using just a Google spreadsheet.
‘No-code’ means no technical coding skills are required, as the app-builder features a drag and drop set-up. ‘Web-based’ means the app functions in a web browser and can easily be added to a phone home screen, without the hassle or expense of adding it to the Apple or Android app stores.
Glide apps can be built from scratch or created using an existing template. For the Squirrel Census app I adapted an existing template for a gamified app, which included functionality for users to earn digital badges for completing tasks.
I tasked our park’s graphic designer to create a series of squirrel digital badge designs, and hired a very affordable Glide Apps expert to help with some custom gamification for the app. As images used on the app need to be uploaded to the web, I also set up a free account at Cloudinary.com to host images.
Glide Apps does allow for unlimited free apps to be hosted on the platform, but I also upgraded to the Pro version ($29 a month) for this app, to access more features.
Here’s how it works: Users create a profile when they first open the app; they submit a short form for each squirrel sighting, and they earn badges such as ‘early bird’ for submitting a form in the morning, or ‘week streak’ for submitting forms daily for a week. Users can view a leaderboard, squirrel statistics, and information on each of the four squirrel species that live in Milwaukee County.
To help engage our online community, our communications team is also developing virtual, educational programming focused around squirrels and wildlife watching – such as the quirks of black and white squirrel ‘color morphs’, or videos on squirrel obstacle courses.
As a project created in just one-week, it’s not perfect, and I know we’ll find errors and bugs – but that’s actually a core principal of my approach to design.
Over the past few years our creative team has adopted a methodology based on human-centered design – a concept championed by design firm IDEO.
Rather than waiting for a design to be perfect before launching, this methodology encourages the use of rapid prototyping, gathering user feedback and continually iterating designs based on the feedback.
The core principle of this methodology is that the ideal solution can only emerge with direct feedback and ideas from the actual users.
The Squirrel Census has helped us add some light hearted relief to a very serious news feed, and hopefully created some fun for families stuck at home – but ultimately I’m hoping the app will provide an inspiring introduction to ‘no-code’, as these tools can drive innovation and help with the rapid pivoting we need right now.
To help you get started I’ve created an open-source template version of the app for you to copy, customize and improve with your own ideas and creativity.
To copy the Squirrel Census app go to https://squirrelcensus.glideapp.io on a desktop or tablet and click the ‘copy this app’ button.
All you’ll need to be able to use Glide Apps is a Gmail account and a couple of hours to go through the tutorials – and if you don’t have the time, challenge your community to create their own apps instead!