Sunday, January 12, 2014

How can we improve the app?

Update: Changes have been made to the app since this post. For a more recent update list see here.

We need your help to develop a future version of the Loss of the Night app!

The app was put together in a very short time frame, thanks to a generous grant from the German Ministry of Education and Research that covered the programming costs. While I think we put together a very cool app, I view it as sort of a beta version, with lots of room for improvement.

I am currently writing a research proposal to fund my continued research into light at night. One important aspect will be citizen science observations of the night sky, and producing a greatly improved version of the app. Our team has come up with a number of ideas about how we can make the app easier to use, more fun, etc. But we expect that you, the app users, probably have a lot to tell us about what we could do better!

Below I list a number of the ideas that we have already come up with as possible improvements for a future version. You can look through the list, and if your idea is not there, then please add it to the comments. If you experienced any problems using the app, please let us know about them here (regardless of whether you have a proposal for a solution). We would also be particularly interested in what sorts of community features you might be interested.

Things to change/improve in a future version of the app


  • Get rid of non-red colors in every place they occur (in night mode)
  • Make text larger to aid far sighted viewers

Star search

  • When filling out the reason you can't see the star, give an option to go back to looking for it, in case the user accidentally clicked on the wrong button!
  • Improve star selection based on app data (preferentially use easier stars)
  • New option in "not sure": The star is right at the threshold of vision
  • Move more aggressively to faint stars
  • Bracket the NELM more effectively
  • Allow search to start with Venus or Jupiter
  • Make more use of "pointing stars"
  • Allow the user to change the sensor settings (speed and/or damping) to make the display more comfortable
    • Make use of magnetic field averaging to try to reduce jerkiness on some phones
  • When screen is frozen, allow navigation by sliding finger 
    • Add a compass-free option in "settings" menu for places with weird magnetic fields
  • Allow the user to adjust the number of stars displayed on the screen to match a given skyglow level? (a bit dangerous, as this could potentially cause biased observations)
  • Shaking the phone unlocks the locked circle (goes back to arrow) 
  • Try to work out that the user is standing on a balcony, and don't suggest stars in that direction


  • Allow user to adjust font and star size
  • Better way to deal with very bright locations
  • Feedback on how bright your location is  (i.e. how many stars can you see, how does it compare to natural, etc.)  Also, the idea behind the connection of number of visible stars vs skyglow should be emphasized, or illustrated by graphics
  • Provide immediate feedback on how precise your observations are
  • Feedback on how observing more stars improves your measurement
  • Strategies for classifying areas with NELM>5
  • Interface to allow advanced users to submit what their estimate of the limiting magnitude is
  • In "my measurements" show that the data is "waiting to send" or "sent"
  • New "constellation mode". Highlights a single constellation, and the user has to click on a star to declare it visible (turns from dot to star) and click a second time to declare it invisible (turns from star to empty circle or x), click third time for "just at visible limit"
    •  Or extend this mode to cover several hundred stars over the whole sky, and the observer can just pick which ones she wants to label?
  • Additional user demographic information (e.g. observational experience (none/expert))
  • Show SQM submissions in "my measurements" 
  • In iOS, make arrow turn your body first, rather than pointing "up" when you need to turn 180 degrees
  • Manual way to calibrate the compass to remove azimuth error.


  • Have the database in the background: users can log in see their observations - where they were taken, how they relate to those of others, see the observations of others, see the quality of the night sky (also how it might change over time), see the quality of the data they gathered themselves: the whole thing could have a feel of wikipdeia-ikeuser collaboration for science
  • Badges - you've observed 7 stars, you've repeated an observation at the same location ~1 year later, you've done 10 observations, 5 times in a single city, 5 locations, etc...
  • Guide users to locations that we particularly need measurements (e.g. repeat measurements from previous years).
  • Incentivize good data: Have a friendly cometition - where the best quality and quantity is rewarded (with a visit to the closest telescope and a personal lecture from an astronomer). Reward observations in particularly important locations
  • Option to share your observation via facebook and twitter

Extra features

  • Improved tutorial with tips and tricks
  • A "talking" tutorial that tells you how to find the stars, asks you to turn in different directions, etc.
  • Find a way to calibrate the compass within the app
  • Port to iOS and maybe WindowsPhone and Blackberry
  • Display user's location on a map to make sure it is correct
  • Allow observing below 45 degrees and making maps of the stellar visibility on the full sky dome
  • Check the clock using GPS and warn the user if their phone's clock is off by more than 2 minutes (and then exit app). Prevents records having a false time
  • Check whether the phone has a compass, and don't allow start if there is no compass
  • Timetable of observing times for your location
  • Option to turn on push notifications to let you know when you can next observe
  • Allow phone to connect to SQM-LU for autonomous logging (and maybe all-sky sampling?)


  • Record whether screen is in day or night mode
  • Record language settings
  • When doing a 2nd observation, ask whether GPS needs to be re-acquired (have you moved?)
  • Get rid of the "start observing" button
  • Split strings.xml file to make translation easier
Now it's your turn. What other changes should we make to the app?


  1. Make the red circle change back to the circle and pointer when the phone is moved. I am a very new stargazer and I want to know i am looking at the right star. Stars I am familiar with are easy (Orion's belt stars etc.) but stars that I am not familiar, i need to look at my phone and see what stars are around the one I am looking for, then back to the sky to try and find it. Thanks.

    1. Thanks for your comment Tepi!

      When it's locked on a star, if you hit the back button it will unlock and go back to the pointer. [I think we had planned on having it that shaking the phone would also unlock, but I guess we never put that in]. I hope that in a future version we can have a more complete tutorial with these kinds of tricks in it - I will add it to the list above. Thanks again!

  2. Once a star is LOCKED, don't LOCK the circle, some times we need to go back. Also, it would be nice if you could have the star name LARGER with the MAGNITUDE of the star. Some times it's too difficult to identify which star you want us to identify if there are more than a few stars in the area. Illustrating the Star Name and Magnitude allows people to understand more what you're trying to identify. Larger well know stars are easy pickings, but, since you want to measure the light pollution, you'll want to know if we can see fainter stars. I've used it a couple of times, but, I'm frustrated with the lack info about the star you want me to find.

    1. Thanks for your comment dhubbell!

      Regarding the lock, please see my comment to Tepi above.

      Maybe we can add an option to adjust the size of the fonts for the star names, that might help you with identifying them. For now, when the stars are close together, you can use the zoom function (the + and - at the top of the search window) to zoom in and check which it is.

      We don't display the magnitude because it would likely lead to biased analyses. For example, if a user reports that they can see a star with mag 3.8 and then is asked if they can see a mag 3.5 star, if they're not sure they might decide to say "visible" rather than "unsure" or "not visible". It would also make it easier for vandals to create fake data. At the moment, it would be extremely difficult to generate self-consistent data that doesn't match what you actually see.

      I hope that as we acquire data, we will learn to reject stars that are ambiguous and focus on better stars. I wrote a bit about that here:

      One example of a problem area is the Pleiades. Because we did the app testing in the spring, we didn't think to screen out all of the Pleiades stars. Of course if we ask for a star there, it would be very difficult to know which one we're asking for. All Pleiades stars will be removed in a future version.

      I'm sorry that the app was frustrating for you, and I really appreciate your taking the time to write in! Please try the zoom buttons, and see if they help. If that doesn't work, you can still contribute to understanding the night sky through the GLOBE at Night program,

  3. The area where I live has a strange magnetic field, so that the internal compass on my phone does not work. This means that the app does not scroll the map as I move the phone around, which leaves me unable to figure out which star I'm suposed to be looking for. I have managed to make observations in other locations, which is why I believe that it is an environmental problem and that there isn't anything wrong with my phone.
    Perhaps you can add an option to disregard the compass and allow the user to scroll the map manually?

  4. Thanks for the suggestion moleman! It's unfortunately too late to put it in the version that's currently in development, but I will add it to the wishlist for a future version. We have a new "settings" menu where you can toggle things like this, so it could just be an option there.