Want to identify plants with your smartphone?

Editor’s Note: We have been receiving a large number of requests to identify plants for people. We don’t have the resources or expertise to be able to do this. Please contact a local university extension expert if you are unsure about a plant that you are looking at. You can check up with iBoPlanet™ to see if they have completed their app, but please do not ask us to ID your plants! Please enjoy the interview below. Thanks!

Recently, we received a message from an enterprising Floridian who wants to help people identify every plant they come across – with nothing more than a smartphone and a camera – and an application that he is building. His name is Steve Bowen, and he is trying to raise money for his smartphone app, called iBoPlanet™. He explains it in detail with a video on his Kickstarter fundraising page. The basic idea is that if you had a plant you wanted to identify and learn more about – all you would need to do is take a photograph of the leaves and iBoPlanet will match it to its database of plants and tell you the name, species, and some nutritional or environmental details about it. Add in the ability to tag your plant find with your location via GPS and see other people’s finds, and the plant-oriented folks out there might find this useful for research, ecology, and for educational purposes!

Being a plant-oriented person myself, I was intrigued, and so I asked Steve some questions about his project. Having taken a floristics course while an undergrad at UC Davis, I know how difficult it can be to key out and identify plant species, and that process often involves the use of flowers. We had a good conversation about it, which I shall present to everyone here to read and consider:

Me: In a nutshell, how does/will the app identify what species of plant someone is looking at?

Steve: From a high level, this will be determined through 1 of 2 ways:
1) the optical image technology will recognize exact dimensions, shapes, lobes, sinus, veins, petiols, midribs, margins, and leaf blades and cross reference that image with an open source database created (wikipedia-style) by users who have the app.
2) the optical image technology will recognize exact dimensions, shapes, lobes, sinus, veins, petiols, midribs, margins, and leaf blades and cross reference that image with databases of images of hundreds of websites through what is referred to as API (accessing existing databases) or RSS feeds to determine the species of plant or tree.

Me: Many species of plants look very similar on their leaves, and botanists will turn to identifying the species based on their flowers or other morphologies. Will your app be able to identify these plants all the way down to the species level, or what will its limitations be do you think?

Steve: At this point, we don’t see this as being too much of a problem but you raise a good point. However, the app SHOULD be able to determine all the way down to the species level and is the primary reason for the development of the app. We need to be able to not only tell not only that it’s a “Maple Tree” but whether its an Amur Maple or a Nikko Maple – for example and the optical image technology should be able to determine this. There MAY be a margin of error + or – 5% but we will be able to provide an open source gateway for that error to be corrected by Scientists correcting the issues (These “Scientists” will, of course, be vetted)

Me: If the program is confused about what species you are trying to identify, is there some way it will indicate that confusion, or will it decide on the closest match to species? For instance, if it can determine if the plant is a Maple, just not which species, will it just say that it is a maple or pick one of the species?

Steve: This is an excellent question. there WILL be algorithms in place (kind of like Google Goggles ™) that will be able to differentiate to within a degree of certainty. At this point of the design phase, we don’t know whether we will allow the algorithms to calculate “percentage of likelihood,” provide 2 or 3 results and then allow you, the user to pick the image that most closely resembles the image, or calculate probability and then conduct a 2nd cross-reference through the API/RSS feeds to drill down further to get closer to a 100% match. I am still working with a programmer who is highly regarded in technological mathematical algorithms to determine the best course of action. The project site at www.i-bo-planet.com will provide these types of updates as time goes on. Even after (if) the project is fully funded by its deadline. NOTE: If the project is NOT fully funded we receive $0 but, if we are successful, updates will continue throughout the software development life-cycle (SDLC) of the project until launch on the iTunes distribution platform.

Me: You mentioned that you would have the nutritional or medicinal value amongst the information presented – what will be your source of information for these characteristics? What if a mis-classification puts someone in harm’s way based on the information you present?

Steve: An even better question as “Safety” and “liability” will obviously play a huge part in this app’s conception. It is for this very reason that we are still determining whether or not the app should be “open source” (users upload their information after they are vetted to create our own database), access API/RSS, or both.

Me: Do you know at this point, or can you describe what the source of information would be for nutritional or medicinal value of the plants identified by the application?

Steve: The sources for this information are virtually limitless given the nature of how we will be able to access the informaiton through API and RSS Feeds. However, we will limit our sources of data aggregation to those of the highest repute and who are recognized by the botany/plant and tree genetics/horticultural communities. Perhaps you could make some recommendations? This is an organic process (no pun intended) and will evolve constantly to perfect after we launch. At this point, some sources we are considering are:

1. University Botanical Departments
2. Reputable blog sites
3. Botannical Gardens public domains
4. World Agroforestry Centre
5. KEW
6. USDA
7. Any other reputable public domain website
8. Open source options for professionals, such as yourself and you readership to play an active role in providing content. This will also apply to all other features of the app and the resultant website.

I appreciate your excellent questions. Moving forward I hope this is a lesson not in futility, but a learning platform by which we can utilize technology to further the stimulus of botanical/horticultural/eco education. Even if the app is 90% effective, through open source technology the 10% variance can be overcome and we can create a global community of interactive enthusiasts about the plant and tree life that make up our world.

So there you have it – a deeper look into this proposed project. Steve is looking for comments and suggestions for his project, and hopefully also some donors. There are about eleven days left in his Kickstarter campaign and a long way to go. Feel free to talk about it, ask questions here (and over there), and maybe someday there will be a way for every one of you to find out what that odd little plant growing in your back yard actually is!

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Karl is a Ph.D. Candidate in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison. In addition to his research on the genetics of sweet corn, he is also completing a minor in science communication and is working on several media projects about plant breeding. His favorite produce might just be squash.


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42 comments to Want to identify plants with your smartphone?

  • This and one for insects would be great for pest management.

  • Yeah. What Judi said! Weeds and bugs!

  • Ewan R

    I hear Seralini wants one for identifying legitimate awards.

    Joking aside however – very cool app if it gets off the ground.

  • @ Judi – You brought a smile to my face with that comment. That was will be coming with a 2nd generation app for insects. Glad to see we’re all thinking the same thing.

    @ Brian – theoretically, through open source, data management and cross-referencing, weeds will be able to be identified with all pertinent removal techniques etc..

    @ Ewan – haha! touche! actually, you can identify ALL of the rewards I am offering to backers of the project at http://www.i-bo-planet.com. =)

  • Vanessa Rivera

    Great idea. Leafsnap already does it on my iphone

    • Hmm, I didn’t know there was a similar application available. Here’s a link to the Leafsnap site for those who are interested. It includes flowers and fruits, but of a limited number of tree species it appears.

    • True. LeafSnap is the same concept. You can also look up another one called “What do you know botanical” on itunes. However, you’ll be able to see (from the comments section of the app on iTunes) that there are a multitude of short-comings to the apps practicality as well as, as Karl mentioned, limited database provision on a more macro level.

      iBoPlanet will address all the short comings of LeafSnap and others as well as a story-board/Twitter-style interactive element to allow users to converse (locally, nationally and globally – in the future) and share experiences.

      Furthermore, with RSS/API technology we will literally BLOW these other two apps out of the proverbial water.

      Steve
      Founder, iBoPlanet.

  • Leafsnap similar but id only, not a lot of other info and dirrguide has a similar project in works. You might want to collaborate rather than reinvent the wheel.

    • Susan,

      You are correct: ID only. Not comprehensive. iBoPlanet will be fully comprehensive with information extending to medicinal, nutritional information etc…

      Collaboration was considered. And that is a good point. However, we feel that (since LeafSnap is being developed out of Columbia University) we would be able to provide more functionality and technologically advance features to, in this case, reinvent the “wheel.”

      Good point though and this was considered.

      Steve Bowen
      Founder, iBoPLanet
      http://www.i-bo-planet.com

  • Dani

    This is an excellent idea and would be useful for a wide range of activities and professions. As an archaeology student with an interest in ethnobotany, an app to identify plants quickly and effectively in the field without carrying around half a dozen plant keys would be AMAZING! My one question is if it if possible to create mathematical equations for identifying leaves, then wouldn’t it be possible to create and add similar equations for nuts, seeds, flowers, and berries to further solidify the identification process? I’m no programmer so I don’t know what is possible.

  • I am also available for further discussion on FB at http://www.facebook.com/iboplanet and twitter @iboplanet if any of feel the need to continue our discussion on a different platform. However, Biofortified.org provides an excellent medium thanks to Karl’s support.

    Steve
    iBoPlanet

  • richard hencke

    I would love to see this come to fruition. As a collector, I can usually id all but the unusual or rare. Leafsnap is E coast oriented; here on the W coast we have stuff from all over the world.

  • Angus Mclellan

    Would love an app like this leaf snap does it but only got USA , need one for uk or all plants

  • Karsten

    I know that google is working on reverse-image identification technology. The idea is that you can take a picture and they will hook you up with info. Maybe you could hook up with them.

  • Jimmy

    Master Naturalist here and would love to have an app like this to help ID plants in the field (and a smart phone that you can see in full sun!).
    Is there a way I can be notified when the app is available?

  • I like the idea, but I think identifying plants with an algorithm is a very hard problem. The existing solutions need the user to take the photograph with a clear figure/ground separation for the algorithm to stand a chance.

    I also recently developed an app which can help identify plants, but mine relies on a community of human experts. It’s called “What The Flora?“.

    You can submit plants for identification by tweeting a photo with the hashtag #whattheflora

  • Do you think this program would be available for android phones , i.e. non iPhone users?
    I’m really excited about getting involved and using this program but I don’t use iPhone’s.

  • rachel

    Will the app be able to identify the plant by taking a pic of just the leaf. I have a bouquet of flowers and there are some greenery to fill spaces and it kind of looks like ferns but not quite sure. And this is how I found this site because I googled “how to identify plants” and so was wondering if a pic of the leaf can be identified also?? Please help!!

    • It sounds like the app would be able to identify a plant by using a leaf picture, but it doesn’t sound like the app is available yet.

    • Hi Rachel, I don’t think iBoPlanet ended up going live, but there are similar programs out there. If you have an iPhone or iPad, Leafsnap is a pretty cool app that will ID a tree from a photo of a leaf. I don’t think it includes non-trees like ferns, though. vTree is an iPhone app that also IDs trees, although you have to answer questions about the tree rather than take a photo. PlantNet is an iPhone app that seem similar but does more than trees.

      A dichotomous key might help you ID the plant by answering a series of questions. The hard part with your fern is that you don’t know where it is from.

      Please let us know if you are able to find a good app!

  • Mistee

    This would be a great app and I for one would make great use of it. I am not the best gardener in the world or that good but I do like gardening and I want to know what Im pulling up before i do, quickly. I hope you get the funding you need

  • Kim Chesney

    I have been searching for this! I am very excited that reputable scientists are getting together for such a major undertaking for the benefit of all. I definitely want the app.

  • Susan

    Would love to have this app. Please let me know when or if it is published. Thanks

  • michael mattingly

    this would be a great app. good lock with it. I will be the first to download it.

  • Felicia

    I purchased beautiful flowers and shrubs a long time ago and planted in my yard for landscaping. Ive since done stem cutting propagating and have several in my greenhouse but don’t know what they are. I look forward to something like this to help me identify them.

  • billibob

    Well, how much do you want for it? I have an android phone.
    When I go to the park, I feel so in the dark that I cannot identify the bushes, trees, and flowers that I pass by. Talk about…. knowledge being worth more than all the gold in them darn hills, this project is one of those.
    Get it done young man. You should have the lite version by now!

  • I am very excited on learning about this app– please hurry & put on market! I am into edible landscaping and edible flowers and plants,and this app would be so helpful! Thank you.

  • GG

    It would be great to tag each picture with its precise GPS location (and a time stamp) and to create a map from multiple pictures…

  • Cathy Zupe

    How nice it would be to submit a picture of a plant and be able to identify it. Many times we just can’t find it in our plant books.

  • we made an iPhone App which works a little differently, from a server with a 3 hours delay. It’s name is iHerbarium. It’s free.

  • Brenda

    Have you managed to develop this ap yet?

  • roger loh

    Dear Karl,

    Please notify me when your app is ready. Definitely very useful tool.

    regards

    Roger

  • Pierre

    There is a free web & mobile App that allowed to make image recognition (for flowers, fruit, learf and bark) for more than 3 600 plant species of the french flora, called : Plantnet (for iphone) or pl@ntnet-identify on the web.
    http://identify.plantnet-project.org/fr/base/tree

  • Michael R.

    Can a plant/weed database be added to Google Goggles instead of inventing a whole new app?

  • Len Bunyard

    It would be and will be a great significance when the floral Congress of library’s adds such a program in their library with free access from an app. It so happens the reason I’m here I have a beautiful flower I would love to know the name of and the only to describe it is by picture. ……. so on with my search.

  • Charles

    Good day to all you folks.. I was reading all these posts with a lot of intent as I wish to start a PhD thesis on leaf identification and would like to get feedback on the areas that would be helpful to the community at large.. I have gone a step further and looking at the issues that Google Maps might / supposedly have on identifying land cover.. Would love to hear your views.. I would be starting my PhD in Australia within this year..

  • [...] more on the iBoPlanet app; http://www.biofortified.org/2012/02/want-to-identify-plants-with-your-smartphone/ Share this:Twitter from → Articles ← Agroforestry in West Java [...]

  • [...] strongly recommend checking out Steve’s wordpress blog, NoLeaflessLand as well as reading this interview.   I think you’ll be very impressed!  (And in the interest of full disclosure, today I put [...]

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