help ESA better understand the weather with your smartphone

The European Space Agency has launched Camaliot, a citizen science app that empowers everyone, including you, to improve global weather forecasts.

One of the beauty aspects of science is its universality. It is not reserved for a handful of elites in white coats sealed off at the bottom of a state-of-the-art laboratory, far from it; Monsieur and Madame Tout-le-Monde can perfectly contribute to diverse and varied scientific projects.

The prestigious European Space Agency (ESA) is one of the institutions that regularly seek to collaborate with the general public; after its work on a form of strange life launched in French schools last year, the agency now invites you to integrate a vast network of Android users who wish to put their GPS receiver at the service of science.

Make an already universal system profitable

It starts with Camaliot, a public application programmed under Unity and downloadable by any user equipped with a smartphone under Android 7.0 or higher. Eventually, the engineers even hope to integrate it into many connected objects. The principle is relatively simple and is based directly on a well-known localization technique: GPS.

This technology is based on carefully placed satellites in very precise orbits. They constantly send messages that indicate both their position and the time of transmission of the signal. By comparing the delays of signals from different satellites with each other and with other monitoring stations, the device can thus know where it is on Earth with great precision.

It is an extremely robust system that has proven itself over many years. But ESA researchers have had an idea that allows them to kill with one stone; they sought to make profitable the round trips of this signal between the Earth and space by making it carry information on the atmosphere that it crosses.

Indeed, physically speaking, a GPS signal is neither more nor less than an electromagnetic wave. However, the behavior of the latter depends on the different environments they pass through. Certain parameters, such as the water content, can significantly modify the way the wave travels.

A constantly evolving global database

In theory, it is therefore possible to analyze these differences to extract meteorological data. With their application, the ESA researchers want to test this concept on a large scale. And for that, it needs many contributors like you!

At each contact with a network of navigation satellites (GPS or other), the application determines the signal strength, the distance from the satellite and other external meteorological parameters. For ESA, the objective is to collect as many of these readings as possible and to combine them in the same statistical model.

If they manage to build a user base large enough for the data to be meaningful, then they will have the Holy Grail available to them every data scientists : an extensive global database that is constantly updated. All that remains is to cross-reference it with all the other data already available to meteorologists.

Ideally, this new dataset will be used to feed various machine learning-based systems to further refine the conclusions, and thus offer even more accurate weather forecasts.

How to participate in the Camaliot study?

To bring your stone to this building, nothing could be simpler. Start by downloading Camaliot (in English) on Google Play. Once installed, the app will prompt you to place your device in an open location with no roofs or ceilings that could impair the signal. All you have to do is press “Start Logging” on the first tab to start the measurement.

From then on, your device will attempt to make contact with various communication satellite networks. This is not necessarily the GPS network; Camaliot can also query the European network Galileo, Glonass, Beidou, and so on. It will then take advantage of this to record data on the atmosphere as described above. You can then post your results online.

Please note that you will need to create an account in order to participate. Cameliot specifies that the application will keep the username, password, email address and measured atmospheric data. The FAQ specifies that this data is “necessary for the application to perform its task in the public interest, in this case in the context of a scientific study”.

If you feel like it, you can even integrate the global ranking of the application, which will reward the most active contributors! They will be able to win prizes such as Android smartphones or Amazon gift cards. But in the end, the real reward will be above all to contribute to a great citizen science project!

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