Spidentify: Australian develops app to help identify spiders in our back yard!

Spidentify: Australian develops app to help identify spiders in our back yard!

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Caitlin Henderson calls herself a spider juggler! And, try as hard as we may, we couldn’t come up with a better moniker for the 27-year-old spider enthusiast. This Australian’s love of the eight-legged creatures pushed her to create a unique mobile app called Spidentify. The app, she points out, strives to diminish the ignorance and irrational fear surrounding spiders, provide accurate information about them, and be an online repertoire of all possible types of spiders. 

Caitlin developed the app along with Minibeast Wildlife, her family's invertebrate education business. And, in a bid to strengthen the database of the app, Caitlin and her father Alan Henderson also travelled more than 3,000 kilometres from Melbourne to Cairns, photographing different kinds of spiders.

In a conversation with TAL, the hiking lover speaks about the need for an app like Spidentify and the challenges she faced while creating it.

What prompted you to create this app?

It was years of watching and listening to people around us - the way they spoke about spiders and interacted with them. Australians have been consistently told that spiders are dangerous and deadly! Therefore, it is natural to be afraid of them. Also, Australians have a lot of questions about these creatures. Over the years we (Minibeast Wildlife) have received thousands of messages and emails with spider- related questions usually accompanied with a blurry or dead spider photo attached - asking about their names, and if they are deadly. 

We figured that if people are asking the same questions every time, then there's a lack of information out there. We wanted to change that. 

How does the app work? Please take us through the mechanics of the app.

The app can be used in two ways. If you've found a spider you don't recognise, you can use the ID tool which prompts you to answer a series of questions about the spider - Where did you find it? What shape is it? What colour is it? They're simple questions that don't require any specialized knowledge to answer, and assistance is also provided if you get stuck answering the queries. 

Using what you've described, we search our database and give you a list of most likely species. All our photographs are taken on white backgrounds and in high resolution. This will help you zoom in to check out the minute details easily and then compare it to what you've found. If you already know a bit about spiders, you can skip straight to the field guide and browse by family, habitat or location, or have a look through everything provided. It is like going through a book.

Each spider has its couple of pages of information, with a colour-coded bar at the top letting you know straight away if their bite is dangerous or not.

 Caitlin and her father Alan Henderson after the completion of their 3,600 km drive to photograph spiders for the app. 

Caitlin and her father Alan Henderson after the completion of their 3,600 km drive to photograph spiders for the app. 

What kind of research did you put into this app?  Did you have to go through many trials to get the app right?

The research that went into Spidentify was extensive because there were so many layers to what we were trying to work with. The app contains actual information and not content collated from the net – that means that, on a given day, I could go from bashing around in the bush with a camera to reading a text written in the 1800s in German (which I don't speak).  

Designing an ID tool that would work for someone with no scientific knowledge was also a massive task. I collected hundreds of ID requests I'd received to work out the most common species people were asking about. I also looked into the words that were being used to describe them, and which other species they were being confused with. We tested our ID tool constantly with spiders that would stand still long enough. We also went through many redesigns before we found the one that achieved what we wanted.

What kind of problems do you think the app is trying to fix?

If you're arachnophobic or uneasy around spiders and you find one in the yard, what do you do? How do you know if it's dangerous? Do you google "black hairy spider" and hope for the best? Do you burn down the house?

There's so much misinformation out there - so many myths that keep getting dredged up and reinforced by hysterical headlines or scary photos on the internet. Information online is confusing and conflicted, with the wrong names assigned to wrong spiders, and perfectly harmless species being labelled as deadly. That's helpful for the pest control companies but not for someone who wants to know that their children can play safely in the backyard.

 A wrap-around Spider ( Dolophones sp. ) camouflaging against a twig during the day, Warrandyte, VIC.

A wrap-around Spider (Dolophones sp.) camouflaging against a twig during the day, Warrandyte, VIC.

How did you pitch the app to potential investors?

That's easy - we didn't. Spidentify was built entirely by our small, dedicated team at Minibeast Wildlife. That means the cost of the app ($4.49) goes directly back to covering the costs of developing it, and towards helping us with our future work.

Why do you think such an app is essential? What kind of space does the app fill? 

I think it comes down to this: People in Australia are terrified of spiders and they don't need to be. The disparaging way in which we talk about our common, native animals is actively encouraging people to develop crippling phobias of them. We are also passing on these phobias to our next generations. It's true that some of our spiders are dangerous - a tiny percentage of species have the potential to deliver severe bites, and many of these species are rarely encountered. It's a handful out of an estimated 15,000 species, and we've had antivenom available for the most dangerous spiders for almost four decades. Dogs are far more dangerous. Spidentify is designed to reach out and bridge that gap between what we think we know about spiders and the truth.

What kind of challenges did you have to face while creating the app? And, what kind challenges do you continue to meet after it has been designed and released?

When it came to Spidentify, we certainly made it as hard for ourselves as possible! We wanted to provide our users with crystal-clear ID photos on white backgrounds, and that meant we had to find everything in the wild and photograph it, even if we already had their pictures in the natural habitat. My dad (Alan Henderson) and I drove from Melbourne to Cairns – almost 3,600 km-  and photographed about half the spiders in the app on that trip alone. We chased things up trees, lost them in our clothes, climbed around buildings, and at one point accidentally knocked down a nest of sleeping wasps that woke up pretty quickly!

There were technical challenges of course because we were building an app for the first time. I think one of the funniest roadblocks we've come up against has been the perception that all apps should be free, but thankfully as soon as people see the level of detail and work that has gone into Spidentify, $4.49 doesn't seem like a lot.

 The Jungle Huntsman ( Heteropoda jugulans ) on a rainforest tree in Kuranda, QLD.

The Jungle Huntsman (Heteropoda jugulans) on a rainforest tree in Kuranda, QLD.

What has the reception been like? How many downloads has the app registered?   

The response both within Australia and internationally has been incredible! Spidentify was a very ambitious project for us, and despite all our testing, we just couldn't predict how things would go once we let it loose. Within hours of release, we had feedback flooding in from users that were so impressed and grateful that they had finally identified that spider living in the veranda roof or the backyard, or even the one they found on holiday three years ago. It has been only two weeks since the launch, and we've already had thousands of downloads.

How many spiders’ information do you have in the database?

We launched with 256 spiders included, which represents a selection from the most common species and some of the most interesting. We will add to this in future updates.

 The Studded Triangular Spider ( Arkys walckenaeri ) hanging from a silk line in Ballarat, VIC.

The Studded Triangular Spider (Arkys walckenaeri) hanging from a silk line in Ballarat, VIC.

You also have a photography page; please tell us about that.

I run a page currently on Facebook, and Instagram called She's Got Legs, which is essentially invertebrate education comedy. I post photos of invertebrates, usually images of Australian spiders and insects, and try to have a bit of fun with the way I explain about them. It's been an absolute joy to run so far, and it's been a collision of my absolute favourite things - science, art and making people laugh.

Why do you love/or are fascinated by spiders?  

They're extremely interesting animals, and we don't need to go on safari in a foreign country to see them. The habits and abilities of invertebrates are unusual, mainly because they are so different from us and other more significant, traditionally more well-liked vertebrates. Spiders are indeed among the most intriguing of all, with their array of predatory habits, a variety of types and uses of silk, and sometimes their sheer strangeness or ingenuity.

 The Gold-faced Jumping Spider ( Simaetha tenuidens )   sitting outside her silk leaf retreat in Mareeba, QLD.

The Gold-faced Jumping Spider (Simaetha tenuidens) sitting outside her silk leaf retreat in Mareeba, QLD.

The other part of why I focus on spiders so much is that they have a huge PR problem. They're one of the most visible links between humans and the natural environment from which we are becoming increasingly isolated. Rejecting bugs and spiders from our lives means pretending we don't rely on each other to keep existing, and it means kids are not growing up understanding how closely we are all linked.

What are your future plans like?

Working on Spidentify has opened a door for me, and for all of us who worked on it, to so many more possibilities. We've got many more projects in the works - some of them include creating apps, and we've got requests for international versions of our current app that will keep us busy for a long time should we go down that avenue. I have some other projects on the go which are writing-based, including expanding She's Got Legs. Hopefully, there's some time for sleep in there too!

Download the app here. 

Follow She's Got Legs on Facebook. 

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