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Leafsnap: the electronic field guide that gets smarter with use

Ever been out on a hike, a camping trip or just a walk in the neighborhood and been faced with the question “What kind of tree is that?” More often than not, my own answer is “I don’t know.”  Leafsnap, a new “electronic field guide” developed by Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institute (which I covered very briefly a few months ago) is designed, in part, to change that answer. Using your iPhone, you can take a picture of a leaf, flower, or fruit from a tree and identify it through comparison with images in the app’s database. Think of it as facial recognition software for the nature lover.

That’s pretty cool, and it could help all of us with our knowledge about our natural surroundings. But Leafsnap goes beyond education for the nature newb; It’s also a powerful tool for collecting information on plant species. Each time a hiker or park-walker snaps a picture of a leaf, that information is geo-coded. Scientists involved with the project receive a stream of information coming in from Leafsnappers that allows them “to map and monitor the ebb and flow of flora nationwide.” These pictures taken by hikers could be used for a variety of purposes: identifying loss of biodiversity in a region, tracking “movement” of species into new areas (possibly brought about by changes in climate and weather patterns), or documenting invasive species. The curious hiker thus becomes a citizen scientist.

The Leafsnap database currently includes the trees of New York City and Washington, D.C., but developers plan to include data from around the US eventually (and existing user participation should make this relatively painless). The tree database is the first application in a planned “family” of such field guides, and developers also are working on versions for iPad and Android.

Used Leafsnap yet? Let us know about your experience with it. If you haven’t, check out the video preview above and let us know what you think.

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Image credit: Luciano Belviso at Flickr under a Creative Commons license