May 7, 2014

UCF is banking that technology in the hands of water enthusiasts will help protect the Mosquito Lagoon’s fragile ecosystem in Brevard and Volusia counties.

REEL Florida, a free app available for the iPhone, debuts this month thanks to the dedication and ingenuity of biologists, communication experts, and techies at the University of Central Florida.

The purpose of the app is to help users avoid slamming their boats into oyster reefs that can cause thousands of dollars of damage and to avoid destroying seagrass that’s a key food source to hundreds of species found in the lagoon. There also are features for the novice water user, such as where to find the nearest boat ramps, boat-in restaurants and boat-tow service.

And if you spot a creature in the water that you can’t identify, you can look it up in the “things that don’t move” or “things that swim” sections of the species library. The library is full of photos of creatures that fly and crawl, too.

What makes this app cool is that you don’t have to be a geek to understand it, the developers say.

“We tried to make it very intuitive,” said biologist Linda Walters who with Denise DeLorme landed a $200,000 Florida Sea Grant to develop the app and create a new breed of environmentally responsible boaters. “We wanted to include the features people need and to make it easy to use so that people would actually use it.”

Walters teamed up with Jon Friskics in 2011, then a professor of digital media in the School of Visual Arts & Design at UCF. Walters and her students provided all the data necessary to map the entire length of the lagoon that runs from New Smyrna in Volusia County to Merritt Island in Brevard County. They logged GPS locations for each oyster reef, obtained seagrass coverage data and other points of interest.

Oyster reefs help keep the lagoon healthy by filtering out nitrogen, and each individual oyster can clean 50 gallons of water a day. Walters, her partners at Brevard Zoo and more than 40,000 community volunteers have spent the past several years restoring shorelines and oyster reefs in the lagoon as part of her research at UCF.

“It took a little longer than I anticipated,” Walters said. “I don’t think Jon realized how much data we would be providing.”

Friskics spent his free time developing the app and learning about the layers of data necessary to plot things such as seagrass beds in between becoming a father, leaving UCF and entering the private sector.

The REEL Florida app features:

  • Maps that identify locations of ecologically sensitive habitats.
  • Useful locations such as boat ramps, historic sites, popular fishing spots, marine gas providers, bait shops and channel markers.
  • Boundaries of Canaveral National Seashore and the Kennedy Space Center security zone.
  • A photographic dictionary of species known to thrive in and around Mosquito Lagoon (birds, invertebrates, marine mammals, marsh plants, seaweed, etc.).
  • Contact information for local services and agencies involved in managing and protecting Mosquito Lagoon.

Friskics is excited about the finished product and seeing how people use it on the water.

“This app aggregates that real-world data about the sensitive ecosystems in the waterways of Mosquito Lagoon and puts them all in one easy–to-read map,” he said. “In addition to that, the photos and names in the species dictionary that Linda’s team captured is useful for even casual visitors to the area — not just the boaters. I hope that there’s a little something for everyone that downloads the app and visits the area.”

The app is available in the Apple App Store store for free ( ). Copies will also be distributed at upcoming community festivals aimed at building awareness about the lagoon and the need to protect it.

“I don’t want people destroying the oyster reefs we’re trying to re-establish,” Walters said. “Not only is it bad for the lagoon, but a crash even at low speeds can cause thousands of dollars of damage to boats. We’re hoping that by providing this app to the community, they’ll avoid damaging their boats and help protect our lagoon.”

DeLorme’s students came up with the branding: “REEL Florida. Boat smart. It’s our nature.” The slogan aptly describes the overall project goals. DeLorme led the initial focus groups and surveys on what Mosquito Lagoon boaters consider important, as well as what they wanted to see included in an app.

Although the UCF team focused on the Mosquito Lagoon, Walters said the groundwork has been done so others could develop an app for use in other areas around the state and country.

Just don’t ask her to create the backbone to it, but she knows a guy, she said with a laugh.