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Review
National Geographic Handheld Birds Interactive Field Guide
By Mitchell Waite
Updated: 4-1-08
Summary: This remarkable software turns your Palm PDA (or Pocket PC)  into an electronic field guisde. It combines audio recordings, images, and text descriptions in an innovative searchable application that offers identification guidance like never before.
Bottom line:
Most of us are familiar with reading documents on our computers - Adobe's popular Acrobat format for storing and making "eBooks" has flourished for years. It should then come as no surprise that eBooks have teamed up with handheld devices such as the Blackberry, Palm, and Pocket PC so people can read books and documents on there PDAs. But eBooks only allow flipping pages electronically and are not much of a leap over a regular book. One would expect more given the graphics, sound and processing power of the PDA.

For the 45 million birders in North America who use classic field guides - such as Peterson, Sibley or National Geographic - things are about to change. A small company in South Dakota has developed a product that some believe will make the classic paper field guide go the way of the buggy whip. While it might not yet be time to toss your field guide away you need to take a serious look at the world's first mobile interactive digital field guide - Handheld Birds.
 
This remarkable software turns a Palm PDA into an electronic consiglere to the birds of North America. It combines audio recordings, images, and text descriptions in an innovative searchable application that offers identification guidance like never before. Identification is facilitated by progressively narrowing the search based on state, time of year, and additional characteristics. While pricy the software represents a real break though for bird enthusiasts by not only eliminating the need for carrying large books in to the field but by providing a must faster way to identify birds than turning pages.

In this review I'll show you why you want to own this product, reveal some of the issues such a new technology presents, and give you the real world experiences I had in the field using it to identify birds.

But before I get going I need to make a full disclosure; the area of electronic field guides is one I have been fascinated with for years. I have developed my own web-based search engine for identifying birds called WhatBird. It uses visual icons in a parametric step by step configuration to help you find any of over 1000 birds and has become quite popular (http://www.whatbird.com). Its beauty is that it always finds an answer - you never get a screen that says "sorry no birds found". I have even created a version that runs on a Pocket PC and a cell phone, but I have not pursued either of these commercially. I only mention this so if you find my perspective a bit more demanding than the average birder you'll know why.

Overview of Features


National Geographic Handheld Birds includes more than 1,600 bird images and 650-plus range maps, plus other detailed bird information such as family, features, plumage, similar species, habitat and more. Birders can search through 867 North American birds by location, size and color, and swiftly transition from one bird to the next to easily compare and contrast unique characteristics. In addition to assist with rapid identification in the field, National Geographic Handheld Birds includes nearly four hours of actual birdsong and calls from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Birding enthusiasts can contribute directly to scientific progress by using the device’s eBird checklist to record observations and upload them to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

A Little History


The inspiration for Handheld Birds came from Dr. Paula Mabee, a professor of biology at the University of South Dakota with a keen interest in birding. Dr. Mabee explained she was frustrated by not being able to identify birds she could hear but not see. Or she would find a bird in her field guide that, according to the range map, should not be in the area where she heard it. Shortly after that USD adopted the Palm handheld and Dr. Mabee had an epiphany this device might solve her problems. She worked with the university to apply for an NSF grant and started developing the product. The real breakthrough came when she hooked up with PullUIn Software, located in Vermillion South Dakota. I spoke with PullUIn's CEO Mary Derby who told me that the idea of a handheld device for identifying birds was not brand new but at that time none of the ideas had made it out of the prototype stage. Ms. Derby said the National Geographic Society, who publishes one of the best field guides on the planet, provided the illustrations and range maps for Handheld Birds, while Cornell’s well respected and authoritative Laboratory of Ornithology provided the bird recordings as well as a great deal of guidance, support, and content. To Mary Derby Cornell was a critical element in the process. Indeed this idea had been presented to Cornell several times in the past but PullUIn was the first really experienced technology company to come forward and since they had forged a relationship with National Geographic Cornell felt that this was finally the right combination to make such a product a success.  PullUIn made great use of focus groups to help define the features and hone the overall working of the design. It's clear a great deal of thought and planning went into the design of Handheld Birds. Other collaborators include the American Birding Association, and the Sioux Falls-based Breukelman Kubista Group, BKG.

The Competition


TapBirds. The closest product I could find in the same genre as Handheld Birds is called TapBirds which runs on a Pocket PC. While Handheld Birds is designed to replace your field guide, TapBirds is an inexpensive gallery of bird photos organized by bird shape. It contains 300 photos, summer and winter distribution maps and the ability to search by color, bird type and name. The company's claim that this is a field guide is a real stretch and I would not recommend this product. The photos are not that great in quality and the interface is not well conceived. You can find out more about it and download a demo at http://www.tapguides.com.

birdPod Maker. This is not really an interactive field guide but the popularity of Apple's iPod makes it worth mentioning. Basically birdPod Maker (http://www.ibirdpod.com) is software and data that enables the iPod to play back bird songs. Based on the Stocks Field Guide to Bird Songs which contains 650 songs, it organizes these songs into playlists that lets your search for birds by name or family.  The product seems mainly geared  towards people that wish to attract birds by broadcasting their songs. Photographs of warblers are also included if you have an iPod that can display color. The software with eastern and western birds sells for $99 and if you by it with the CD and an iPod its $374.99. I am a bit skeptical of this product.  Its not that hard to convert a CD of bird songs to the iPod using the iTunes software so I see this mainly as a convenience issue.  There are other CDs you can purchase with bird songs, including those from Audubon.

National Wildlife Foundation Handheld Guide to Birds. Several years ago while visiting the offices of eNature.com I was shown a product that was similar to Handheld Birds. eNature.com had taken a similar track as Handheld Birds, except they where working with Sibley for the illustrations. However there product lacked any kind of search feature, did not have sounds, and was pretty limited. For a very short time the product was offered for sale by the National Wildlife Federation as the "Handheld Guide to Birds" but then for some reason it was pulled off the market. While I had a copy of the software I did not use it much since it lacked a way to look up birds based on criteria such as location, color, etc. Thus you can imagine how pleased I was to discover that PullUIn's product had none of these shortcomings.

What's in the Box?

  • CD ROM - contains Product Activation, eBird Data Transfer Tool, Quick Start Guide, User Manual, Demo Video, and Instructional Video.

  • Small fold out manual

  • 128MB SD Card containing software

Installation Annoyances


Before I get down to the cool features of Handheld Birds I need to get this off my chest - I was a pretty annoyed at the installation process for this product. The Handheld Birds installer seems like it was made by the Department of Homeland Security. To install the software you must enter two 16 character alphanumeric strings you get from the Palm on to a web page after the SD Card is inserted and started, a 16 character key code found on the CD envelope that comes with the package, and your email address. But wait there's more! After you enter this information at the handheld birds' web site a 32 character alphanumeric code is returned to you. Now you must enter these 32 characters into your Palm device using graffiti or a keyboard if you are lucky enough to have one. The string is case sensitive and took me about a half hour to enter correctly  because with the Palm keyboard you have to press a special blue function key to discern numbers from letters and then another key to specify capitals. To add insult to injury just as I finished entering my code I hit the backspace key by mistake and it appeared that the entire code was erased! I had to enter it in all over again. Then I found out it was actually on the second row and the first part was still there, just hidden from view. Who ever designed this unwieldy scheme needs to be tortured like I was. It's certainly a poor way to get started with a new product. Hint: One way to make this installation easier is to copy the returned 32 character key code from the web site to a Notepad document and then put spaces between every 4 characters so they are easier to read off.

Once the painful installation was out of the way I took a breather then jumped in fresh to the product review. Things got much better.
 

The Interface


Essentially Handheld Birds is used to look up birds you see in the field on your Palm device instead of a book. Rather than turning pages you use its tabbed based interface and your stylus - content is in the middle portion of the screen and horizontal tabs run across the top of bottom of the screen - to select the function you wish: search, listen, read, etc.

The content in the center area varies depending on the function being performed. For example when you are in the search mode it shows a scrolling list of all the birds in the database, when you are viewing a particular bird it shows the species information about the bird including a drawing, Latin name, and a button for playing the birds call.

When in the species view the upper area contains the tabs: search, species, eBird and Help. The bottom area contains the tabs: home, appearance, range, sounds, and behavior. The tabs perform double duty as pop up menus, which while non standard, works very well.

For example when viewing a species the range tab popup displays the items: Range Map, Range, Habitat and Conservation.

Searching


The search feature allows sorting by first name, last name, or taxonomically. So you can sort a bird as American Robin, or Robin, American. Clicking on the bird's name brings up the species page. You can also enter the name of a bird in the text box and it will scroll the list as you type, predicting the bird you are looking for at the top of the list. The taxonomic sort is particularly useful because it allows you to view all the species for a particular family at one time.

The three tabs at the bottom of the search display (color, size, location) are used to select specific characteristics for a bird. The software uses a "narrowing" algorithm, such that each characteristic you specify reduces the number of birds in the scrolling list. When you click on a tab, for example location, a small popup menu appears with more choices. In the case of location you can select Region, Month or Habitat. Here is how those work.

Location


You might start your search by selecting the state or province that you are looking for your bird. Clicking on the location tab pops up the menu with three items and if you click on the menu item called Region you will get the screen which lists the states and provinces of North America (Mexico, Baja and Hawaii are missing).

It seemed strange to me that the program does not allow you to select multiple states or provinces, because if you're on the border between two states you may have to repeat your search twice. But this might not be as bad as it sounds since you can vary one aspect of the search without affecting the others.

One thing that I found a bit unusual was that there is no OK or Cancel buttons on these selection screens. I am used to finding an OK or Cancel in all the operating systems I have used (Windows, Macintosh, Linux as well as the mobile devices from Microsoft called the Pocket PC. And the Palm itself uses these buttons in various places. In Handheld Birds you "accept" your selection by clicking on the tab that popped up the menu, in this case location. Or you can click anywhere outside the popup, such as another other tab. This took me a little while to get used to, but once I adapted it was second nature, and I can see how the designers saved room by using this approach since it eliminated the extra space of the buttons.

Summary


After you chose a search item, such as the region, color, etc you must view the results of your search on a different screen accessed by summary tab. The number of birds matched is not displayed anywhere except on this screen. You would think the number of birds matched would appear at the top of the scrolling list of birds since the goal is to make that number as small as possible. I learned to get an idea of the effectiveness of my choices by looking at the scroll bar on the search list - as the search list got smaller the thumb got longer.

When we selected the state of Texas the software narrowed our search from 867 species down to 459 birds that are only found in Texas. The clear button lets you remove the search item. I would have preferred that instead of eliminating it, it took me back to the mode I was in when I made the selection so I could alter it or if I wanted clear it there.

Month


One of the best search features of Handheld Birds is the Month menu item. I assume it's been put on the location menu because the state and the month are intimately intertwined. All 12 months of the year are displayed on this screen. I could not determine where this monthly data came from, but I assume eBird.com, since that site allows you to see a birds population in a particular state at a particular time of month. For our search we selected the month of November.

After selecting the month we clicked the summary tab to see how our list had been narrowed.

The summary screen shows that when we viewed birds in Texas in November the number of matched birds went from 459 to 394. While this is still a large number of birds, Handheld Birds lets you narrow it down further by habitat, color or size. 

Note also that the Handheld Birds summary screen always shows the state of all five other attributes, displaying No habitats selected for example.


Habitat


Another nice feature of Handheld Birds is that you can select any of 12 different habitats you have seen your bird in. The habitats cover open ocean, coast, lakes, rivers and ponds, wetlands and marshes, artic and tundra, grasslands, hedges and shrublands, riparian and woodlands, mounts, urban and residential, and finally feeders. I found these good choices however I was somewhat confused by hedges and shrublands which are not really a habitat but more of a location within a habitat. I also wondered if birders would be able to differentiate riparian from woodlands. Wikipedia defines the Riparian zone as the interface between land and a flowing surface water body. It would seem hard to me to be able to say that a bird spent its time in a riparian zone or a coast.

I selected Coasts for my Habitat which narrowed our list down to 321 birds, not much of a reduction - clearly many birds can be found wintering on the coast of Texas.

Color


For a birds color the software allows multiple choices. From what I can tell the colors you select are ANDed, meaning a bird must have ALL the colors you chose to qualify as a match. Therefore if you select a color combination that does not exist; the screen will display that nothing meets your criteria. The WhatBird.com search engine allows both AND as well as OR logic, with OR being the default. When you OR the colors it means that any bird with one of the colors in you selection will be selected. This way there are always a number of birds that meet the criteria and you never get the dreaded "none found" screen.

I found it interesting that the designers picked brown and chestnut as colors. Our research has shown that people are not good at differentiating shades of brown. Rust or Rufous is also missing from the color set which most birders we have found are familiar with and use when writing about birds. I did like that the color "iridescent" was available. We selected green as a color and then clicked the summary tab again.

Now we see that by combining the location, month, habitat and color we have narrowed our list of matches to green birds on the coast of Texas in November which results in 62 birds. Now things are getting manageable. At this point we can either keep searching or just click on each bird name in the summary screen to display its species page.

Size


Continuing on our quest, the size tab popup presents five different sizes available for narrowing the search. Size is noted by a bird type, such as Smaller than a sparrow, Sparrow, Robin, Crow and Goose-sized or larger. I missed that the length in inches was not included. However using birds to define lengths of birds does not seem like a design good decision because many beginning birders may not know the difference in the size of a Crow or Robin and so might not really be able to select the correct value.  This screen does allow you to select two size values but that will mean the list of found birds will not be reduced as much as picking one.

I selected Crow for size and finally my list was reduced to just 15 species, which is a manageable number.

The summary screen showed all the characteristics I had selected so I could at anytime clear one of the values and try a new one. Now I was ready to view the birds I had narrowed my match list to and see if I could identify the bird I saw.
 

Species Screen


When you click on a bird in the search list it is replaced with the species page for that bird. This page is loaded with some new tabs at the bottom as well as some from the search page. For example from our previous list of 15 birds I clicked on the American Wigeon.

I found the species page easy to use. The menus at the bottom change to attributes of the bird itself which include appearance, range, sounds and behavior. You can move back and forth through your match list with the next and previous buttons. I felt the image of the American Wigeon was way too small. While there is a large zoom button you can click which enlarges the bird to a more viewable size, as with the issue of the summary screen, this makes me have to click too often. In computer parlance this issue is referred to as modality, meaning you must change modes. The golden rule of design is to not force the user to lose track of where they are and having to leave the main species page just to get a better look at the picture seems wrong to me. Too modal.

Clicking on the image or the Zoom button gives a large picture of the bird. The images in Handheld Birds all come from National Geographic who puts out one of the best field guides on the market. My one complaint is that even when zoomed it is hard to see details of the bird. This is because the resolution of the Palm screen is 72 pixels per inch compared to a image printed on paper which is more like 300 to 600 dpi. I suggested to the CEO of Handheld Birds that they offer a "supersize it" version of the zoom mode where the image could be made 4 times larger, extending beyond the edges of the screen. You would pan the image in any direction to see more detail.

I like that additional ID information is provided next to the bird image, but the font is pretty tiny, more for munchkins then humans.

The numbered buttons at the bottom of the screen provide additional subspecies information, for example here you can see the Eclipse male and female and the marks that make them different.

Each species has a tiny range map button in the lower right corner that brings up a nice range map. While using many bird field guides I have found range maps to differ with each other. Even National Geographic and Cornell show different ranges for birds.

When viewing the map a "key" button brings up another screen, which show how to interpret the colors of the maps.

Unless you are familiar with the colors that National Geographic uses in its books, this can be daunting to memorize. I think it would have been far better to slide the map to the left side of the screen and provide a key that was scrolled and remained visible so you could read it while studying the map. Some of the lines like direction and extend of irregular breeding ranges are just too tiny to be of any practical use.

The large X at the upper right of the screen is used to "close" the species screen. It returns you to the original species page. This is where the designers stuck with the more familiar interface elements found in today's software. The mix of paradigms seemed troubling to me, but then again this is the first incarnation of the product and they got a lot more right the first time. I am sure the next version will improve on some of these weaknesses. None are show stoppers.

The species page also provides a small sound player that lets you hear the call or song of the bird. You can pause the sound at any time, while its progress is displayed by a small thumb on a slider. I found the volume for the sounds far too low, certainly not loud enough for "phishing" a bird call (attracting birds by generating there call). It was particularly difficult to hear outdoors and I had to hold the Palm to my ear to make out the call when in the field. Along with the player is a text description of the call in mnemonic form. There is also a button to add this to your observation list and eventually to eBirds. More on that later.

Species Details


There are four tabs at the bottom of the species page: home, appear, range, sounds and behave.

Home


The Home tab has four items: Home, Intro, Family and Cool Facts.

Intro is where you find the general description of the screen. Words that are red are glossary linked, you click on one and are taken to the definition of the word. This is an outstanding feature when using Handheld Birds as a learning tool, and is one of the reasons such products may do more than just supplement paper based books.

Thankfully the information in the Intro was not the same as the cryptic text found in the National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America. The writing is easier to understand and seems written for a beginning birder rather then a professor of ornithology.

The Family item explains the taxonomic family the bird belongs to, in this case Ducks, Geese and Swans.

Finally Cool Facts is a nice extra, I found out things I did not know about this bird, such as that the American Wigeon was previously known as "Baldpate" because the white forehead strip resembled a bald man's head. This same information can be found at the Cornell All About Birds web site (http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/)

Appearence


The appear menu (which I assume stands for appearance) contains the items Illustrations, Key Features, Plumage, Similar Species and Description.

This menu area is packed with information, much more then you will find in most book based field guides. The Illustration item takes you to the same drawing we looked at before; I would have liked it to say Photos and taken me to a gallery with photographs from experts.

Similar Species


Similar Species is a great feature. They could have just given links to similar birds, but instead this item tells you why the species is different- a great way to learn the bird kingdom.

Range Menu


The Range Menu has the same Range Map we saw earlier, plus an additional information in text about range, habitat and conservation (how the species is surviving in North America).

Range


The Range information is a good extra because it helps make more sense of the earlier Range Map by explaining where the bird spends its time in the major seasons.

Sounds Menu


The Sounds Menu has one of my favorite features of Handheld Birds and, if nothing else, this makes the whole package shine like the iridescence of a hummingbird throat.

Audio allows you to play the birds call like the main one on the species page and Voice is the same audio description on the species page (so why are these here I wondered) but it is the feature called Similar Sounding that stands out.

Similar Sounding


The Similar Sounding feature goes a great way towards fulfilling the prophecy Dr. Mabee's vision. It allows you to listen to the songs of birds that sing or call much like the bird you have matched.

For example the Band-tailed Pigeon has three birds that sound like it. Clicking on any name plays the song right there on the screen, so you can alternate between them and get a good idea of the sound differences of each bird. Plus the text further explains what makes them different.

eBird.com and Sightings Lists


A button on the species page called add initiates a process of creating what is called a "sighting" list. A sighting is a record of the location, time, date and other details of your bird observation. When you use this feature in Handheld Birds the results of your sightings are stored in the Palm's memory. When you sync the Palm with your PC the information is uploaded into folders on your desktop in both Excel and text formats. You then upload the text lists to a private area you have previously set up at eBird.com  You can also user the Excel lists to keep track of you observations. At least that is the theory. In practice I found the entire process overly complicated.

You start this process by performing a search and getting to a species page. Then you click on the add button. If you have not done a search then when you use this feature you will have to scroll though a new list of birds and find the one you are looking for. This list is not the same one you looked at when searching, it's ordered by family and unless you know a lot about your bird it's hard to find.

The process starts with a screen where you create a "location" which lets you specify where you are doing your observations.

Clicking on New Location brings up a screen that allows you to enter the name, which might be something like My Backyard or At the Beach, etc.

I won't go into all the details of setting this up but eventually you get to a screen where you select your bird and the number of them you observed. Here we entered 3 for Wood Duck.

There are many more screens you will go though to record information about your sighting. The thing that threw me off was that I expected you would be building a "life list" with this feature. But that is not its intended purpose. The goal seems to be to populate the eBird.com web site with observations so that they can have a record of a species life in North America and see how its population varies. How they use this information was not made clear anywhere in the documentation.

The thing I did not like about this feature is that while you can continue to add sightings to a Location each sighting must be a new list with a specific date and time (you can reuse a particular location). When you sync Handheld Birds to your desktop all your lists are deleted from the Palm.

Suffice it to say this is what I believe is the biggest weakness of the Handheld Birds product. I don’t expect many people will use it and would have preferred just a simple database that I could update with my observations and optionally upload into Excel.

In the Field


So how does Handheld Birds perform in the field? Being lazy I used it in my front yard where my feeders greet a good variety of visitors each day. The most common are sparrows but I also see a lot of nuthatches, finches, towhees, jays, and so on. During the month of December a group of about 10 small birds appeared at the feeder. They had a distinct yellow crown bordered by black on either side of it, and made a high pitched song that sounded like "tsii tsii tsii". Into Handheld Birds I entered Location = California, Month = December, Color = Yellow, Size = Smaller than a sparrow, Habitat = Urban and Residential and Feeders. The program narrowed the search list to 2 birds: the Golden-crowned Kinglet and the Verdin. Looking at the Kinglet I saw what appeared to be an exact match. I listened to the sound and it was definitely my bird. The entire process took my less then 3 minutes.

I next tried another small visitor whose identity I knew, the Black-capped Chickadee. I used the same search criteria as the Kinglet except for color I selected black, white and gray. I ended up with just four birds: Bushtit, Anna's and Costa's Hummingbirds and the Verdin again. Cleary there was something wrong with my search parameters. I changed the settings to Size = Sparrow instead of Size = Smaller than a Sparrow. That matched 36 birds and included my Black-capped Chickadee. Handheld Birds says a House Sparrow is 6.3 inches in length while the Black-capped Chickadee is 5.3 inches. So clearly my first size selection, Smaller than a Sparrow ,should have worked. This shows the search is not perfect.

I had good luck with almost every other bird I tried to identify and found that when there are distinguishing colors the program is more accurate.

I wished there where more attributes to search on, such being able to specify the color of the crown, head, throat and breast as well has head shape and pattern, bill shape and length and so on. But I still found Handheld Birds very satisfying.

Besides helping to ID birds I found the product makes a terrific educational tool. I carried it with me around town for a few weeks. When I had any idle time I would bring out the Palm and just browse the birds in the search lists. The information on each species was extensive and when I couple it with the songs my knowledge of birds defiantly got way better.

I would have liked a way to keep a history list of the birds I was studying, so I could return to where I left off, but all in all I think this product is a super deal and recommend it to anyone with a serious interest in birding.

Conclusion


While Handheld Birds may not yet fully replace your field guide, it does offer the first useful tool for supplementing paper based field guides, and for that I give it four out of five stars. However when you add the search features, the ability to hear the bird's call or song, and to compare with the songs of other birds, I raise it to a full five stars. While I believe there is more work to be done on the user interface this product has a bright future as long as the developers keep pushing the envelope. The eBirds feature was my biggest a disappointment - instead of a simple and somewhat limited reporting system I expected a history and life list storage system and an integrated sharing of life lists over the internet along with more of a social engineering bend to it. I was also somewhat disappointed in the quality of the graphics, but the sound features are outstanding, especially the ability to listen to similar sounding birds with one click.

Recent News for Pocket PC and Smartphone Owners

A new product called StyleTap emulates the Palm operating system on any Windows Mobile device, Pocket PC or Smartphone. I tested Handheld Birds on an older HP IPAQ Pocket PC running Windows Mobile 2003 and it ran like a champ. The only areas where I saw differences was in the way the screen fonts on the bird images appeared broken up, but then I don't think those labels are all that important. The bird calls and sounds were much louder on my IPAQ. Other than the blurry tiny fonts everything else worked exactly like it does on the Palm. StyleTap is available at
www.styletap.com.

Handheld Birds Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Interface is intuitive
  • Sorting works very well
  • Keeps a sightings list on the device
  • Allows transfer of sightings to eBird web site maintained by Cornell University
  • Location information includes valuable month of the year data
  • Drawings and sounds are of excellent quality
  • Range maps have more than the usual information
  • Ability to compare similar songs is incredible
  • Once an attribute for a bird is selected you can toggle though the list and see how each bird expresses the attribute

Cons

  • Installation difficult
  • Steep learning curve, scads of important information hidden by menu system
  • Drawings resolution and size are too small
  • Interface paradigm is not consistent
  • Search lacks attributes such as head pattern, bill shape, etc
  • Audio must be louder and there is no volume control
  • Only one location can be selected at a time
  • Photographs of the birds would have been helpful
  • No educational games
  • eBird feature is way to complicated and not that useful
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