iPhone 4 ID? OMG!

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Image: Jorge Quinteros, Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Jorge Quinteros, Wikimedia Commons.
If you thought that acquiring the expertise to identify plants took many years of application, you’d be wrong. Now – apparently – it takes only one application (or ‘app’ in modern parlance). Or such seems to be the intention behind Leafsnap, the first in a planned series of electronic field guides being developed by researchers from Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institution in the USA. Using software originally developed to recognise human faces, the ‘app’ (which is free!) identifies tree species from photographs of their leaves. In addition to an identification, Leafsnap provides photographs and information about the tree’s flowers, fruit, seeds and bark. But before you rush to sell your CTW (or whatever passes for the equivalent of that venerable tome today in the UK and elsewhere; be advised; the app so far only works for trees in New York City and Washington, DC (though the developers have their sights set on the trees of the entire continental USA). Beyond the gimmicky nature of the tool is a more serious exercise. As people use Leafsnap, the app automatically shares their images, species identifications and the tree’s location with a community of scientists who will use the information to map and monitor population growth and decline of trees nationwide. For those of us new to the world of the app, this video that demonstrates how to use the tool:

And for the technically minded, the app is available for the iPhone, with iPad and Android versions to be released later this summer. Not wishing to sound cynical at all, doesn’t this seem a bit like scanning an item at the supermarket to get its price? How much real learning of the species will result? Will it lead to a more ID-literate generation? Or is the process too reliant on the technology and getting further divorced from the up-close-and-personal hands-on involvement that’s needed to really appreciate the finer details of species’ identification? In which case doesn’t this begin to sound like a version of DNA barcoding that was in vogue a few years ago and very much – for some! – the bogey-man of the time? Still, if this app helps to increase and improve ID skills I cautiously welcome it.


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