Thursday, 20 February 2014

New App to Help Identify Native Flora

In the park, on a school trip or out tramping, here's a new tool to identify common native trees. 

With Flora Finder you take a photo of a leaf you're interested in, answer a few simple questions about the leaf to narrow down the selection and then see what matches come up. Flora Finder uses shape recognition technology to match your leaf with one (or more) of the common native trees in the database. There are 87 species in the database with more to come in the future.

It's encouraging to see a New Zealand App about our native flora that takes an interactive approach and makes full use of the iPhone or iPad capabilities of photography, mapping and feedback to the creators. Users can save their identified trees on a map for future reference. You can also use the App to email photos of leaves that weren't able to be identified to Otago University, and apparently this feature is proving popular.

Flora Finder will be very useful to community groups - I can immediately think of a seed collection project where, with only one expert in the group, the rest of us could have made good use of a leaf identification tool. Having a piece of white paper on hand for a plain background for photos requires a bit of planning and perhaps makes it less likely that people will use the App while tramping. But here the browse function comes in handy especially if you already have an idea of which tree it might be.

The process of answering the simple questions the App takes you through - size of leaf, whether its composite, what kind of edges does it have? - are great prompts for refining observation skills. That and the fact that there may be more than one possible match requiring further checking against the various descriptions, make this a great educational tool.

There's more to tree identification than leaves - bark, flowers, fruits - so I'll still be referring to my tree books at home. But I will definitely be using Flora Finder out in the field and will look forward to updates as more trees are added.

Flora Finder was created by Dr Janice Lord, Botany Department, Otago University; staff at Otago Innovation; and MEA mobile and costs NZ$4.19 at the iTunes store. For more on Flora Finder, go to the Otago University website here.