Preventing wildlife poaching and trafficking may eventually be easier with a computer app designed by University of Guelph researchers that has passed round one of an American technology contest.

The LifeScanner app was designed by scientists at U of G’s Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (BIO) in collaboration with SAP Canada. It was among 44 first-round entries selected from hundreds submitted to the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, run by the United States Agency for International Development.

The contest aims to use science and technology to combat wildlife trafficking, with finalists selected this fall. Those who make it past round two will receive prizes worth $10,000 and a chance to win a grand prize worth up to $500,000.

Sujeevan Ratnasingham, BIO director of Informatics, led the team that designed LifeScanner.

“The app mobilizes ordinary citizens to be partner scientists, allowing them to essentially use DNA barcoding to discover the diversity of living organisms around them, while giving professional scientists access to additional data and more resources,” he said.

A LifeScanner kit contains vials used to store collected samples, such as fur, an insect, raw meat, or a leaf. The app reads a QR code on each vial to connect the sample with geographical and other information to help scientists with analysis.

After sending the kit to partner labs, a user “can track the analysis and get information on the species they have encountered – all from their mobile phone,” said Ratnasingham.

The team began working on the app in late 2013 and completed the current version last fall.

“It seemed like a natural step forward for LifeScanner,” he said. “It can be used in many ways, including to track poaching, to prevent wildlife crimes, or at border control.”

The Guelph team is working with labs in the U.S., the United Kingdom and Switzerland to extend LifeScanner’s reach.

“Right now, the app is mostly used in the developed world, but we need to expand it to the developing world, where most of the wildlife crimes occur,” he said.

“This contest opens the door for dialogue with government agencies and non-governmental organizations involved with wildlife crime prevention. We need to ensure their needs are met and we have an effective deployment strategy. Our goal is to enable more access to the science and technology around DNA barcoding.”

The next round of finalists will be selected later this year and the grand prize will be awarded in 2016.