Sedimentology: There’s an app for that!

This is a non-technical summary I prepared for the following scientific manuscript:

Duncan, C. J., Chan, M. A., Hajek, E., Kamola, D., Roberts, N. M., Tikoff, B., & Walker, J. D. (2021). Bringing sedimentology and stratigraphy into the StraboSpot data management system. Geosphere, 17(6), 1–14.

Figure 4 from the manuscript, illustrating the streamlined workflow sedimentologists use through StraboSpot

Have you ever failed to give complicated, detailed directions to someone? Maybe you struggled to find a restaurant nestled in a huge, multi-story shopping center without success? At some point, we have all felt some level of frustration trying to navigate somewhere without complete instructions in front of us.  

Sedimentologists study a variety of rocks like sandstone, shale, and limestone to understand how they form now and in the past. Most of their work is in remote field locations where these rocks are best preserved and exposed. Their work helps us to better understand and study industrial materials, energy sources, water resources, and environmental change. Until recently, sedimentologists struggled with an efficient, consistent way of sharing their unprocessed field data with one another. This made it difficult for other scientists to use this information in new ways. To better understand, imagine one of your foodie friends was raving about this new Thai restaurant they found. Unfortunately, it’s in a gigantic shopping center, there are no directions to the restaurant, and they can only tell you what general type of food they have at the restaurant. This is the dilemma of hungry sedimentologists.

A team of geologists banded together to confront this problem of location and data sharing. How did they do it? They made an app for that! The app is called StraboSpot, and it allows field-based geologists to consistently catalog their observations and measurements in one user-friendly app and database. Recently, a team of sedimentologists made the app even better with the addition of “Strat Mode.” In their newly published paper, they show how Strat Mode can be used to incorporate more detailed field observations and measurements (including sketches and pictures) along with the exact GPS location of this information. Strat Mode records this data and, essentially, allows you to track changes in this information over different layers of rock! The best part is that you can easily share all this work with your colleagues, and your colleagues can easily use what you send them. It’s like your friend was able to store a detailed set of directions to the new restaurant on their phone, and then they texted you a link with all of this information stored in it. All you have to do is click on the link and it opens up the directions in Google Maps. The directions navigate you to the shopping center using the GPS coordinates and then they take you step-by-step through the building until you arrive at the new Thai restaurant. You can verify that it’s the right place because your friend included a picture of the restaurant and a note that says, “you must try the drunken noodles!” To take it a step further, the link has this kind of information for ALL the restaurants on EVERY floor of the shopping center.

StraboSpot allows sedimentologists to record, store, and share data more easily. The developers hope this will welcome new discoveries and more collaborative science in the future. We can only hope that, one day, the developers of Google Maps will develop something like Strat Mode (Food Mode?) to navigate us directly to that new Thai restaurant!

Published by Courtney Wagner

Peter Buck Postdoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

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