Years before anyone had heard of an iPhone, Neil Bailey and Stewart Thompson, academics in the Life Sciences department at Oxford Brookes University, realised mobile devices could be superb data collection tools.
They also recognised they had an unparalleled ability to capture the interest of the younger generation.
Their early judgment proved sound. Today, WildKnowledge, the company they span out from Oxford Brookes in 2006, is a recognised specialist developer of mobile applications in data gathering and exploration.
As well as private individuals, the firm’s growing client list includes the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB, National Geographic, the British Museum and the NHS.
WildKnowledge (WK) runs an online portal which allows users to create their own mobile interactive trails (WildMap), recording forms (WildForm) and build a database with decision keys (WildKey).
The company also undertakes work for a variety of clients who want to use smartphones as a tool to engage people in new ways.
Mr Bailey (pictured) said: “It is all about enabling people to use their mobiles to gather information on the move and then quickly visualise and share their content through our online portal.”
WK is no ordinary ‘app company’ and the co-founders’ first innovation involved fitting mobile devices (Personal Digital Assistants, or PDAs) with decision keys to help children identify and tag butterflies.
After a series of trials and a Lottery grant it was clear children could use the devices to gather fascinating data, culminating in the discovery of a rare ladybird in the garden of London’s Natural History Museum under the noses of 10,000 taxonomists.
WK was set up with investment from a number of investors and the brand was chosen to reflect the offer of a portal where anyone can create their own content without restraints.
The company initially targeted the education market where mobile learning was an up and coming niche area with progressive schools interested in using Windows-based PDAs.
The launch of the iPhone in 2007 changed the mobile landscape overnight but for a number of years schools could not afford the devices, making it nonsensical for WK to develop iPhone apps.
This didn’t stop Neil Bailey casting envious glances at the profits app developers were generating from relatively simple, quirky apps.
So WK took a strategic decision to enter new markets for its data gathering/exploration technology. This review foresaw the squeeze on education budgets and released WK to explore how its technology could be used on more powerful, exciting devices such as Android and iPhone.
In addition, WK started offering versions of its technology to clients who needed applications. This strategic expansion proved to be a highly successful move with the company developing its prestigious client list of wildlife trusts, museums and environmental organisations.
WK has also attracted clients in the healthcare market where its technology is used for data gathering and rapid assessment, such as prioritising which children should be treated in emergency departments.
The firm has recently been awarded a Technology Strategy Board grant to create an app that will interpret how a person walks — enabling doctors to assess whether a patient is improving or deteriorating.
Mr Bailey is excited about the future, given the widespread adoption of tablet devices and advent of mobile sensors in areas such as movement, heart monitoring and measurement of pollution levels, which are significantly increasing the demand for mobile data gathering.
Ironically, he also sees the company revisiting its roots and selling applications to schools which now have suitable technology.
“Looking back, we had the ideas and went to market too early. The concepts were great but schools did not have the devices.
“I had to convince schools to buy mobile phones in order to have our software, which was tantamount to persuading someone to get a new car so they could buy your car radio.
“Now tablet devices are widespread, in homes, schools, museums and hospitals so rather than build an app from scratch they can leverage our technology, making apps affordable to any size of organisation.”
Along with the data gathering side of the business, new opportunities on the ‘exploration’ side are also presenting themselves.
For example, WK is about to launch an interactive mobile movie app that will allow visitors to the Olympics to explore the streets of London. Closer to home, quite literally as WK is based at Oxford Centre for Innovation in the city centre, it has created an Oxford Castle trail app.
It has been a long road for WK with its origins in PDAs and butterflies, but you cannot help thinking that their time has now come.
So whether you want to create your own train spotting app or share your favourite walk as a multi-media interactive experience, check out the WK website and have a go at creating your own application. Contact: 01865 261432 Web: www.wildknowledge.co.uk This page is co-ordinated by Oxford Innovation, www.oxin.co.uk