Apr 23

Be kind, snitch on a weed !

Diverting a mobile app dedicated to flora amateurs, Otago University scientists want to use smartphones against damaging plant species. How much will it help protect New Zealand unique ecosystem ?

Tackling weeds and invasive animals is priority number one for conservationists of New Zealand. Whether they try to restore the native environment or keep a piece of land pest free, it’s a demanding task which needs a constantly renewed attention. Thus, a little help from citizens, volunteers or even tourists can’t do harm sometimes. 

The answer to this is usually simply manual labor and don’t rely on any technology. Scientists at Otago University nevertheless think smartphones could be of help. Adapted from a first app that helps identifying 90 native plants, Flora Finder – Weeds is dedicated to invasive plants. Worried about this spiky, blooming grass or bush ? Take a picture of a leaf with your phone, feed it on the app and shape matching algorithms will tell you whether it belongs to a “good” or a “bad” specie.


 Shape matching algorithms and different filters will identify damaging plants from a single leaf
© University of Otago

Due to be released next october, the environment-friendly app has received recent support from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) New Zealand with a 5,000 dollars grant. This can seem like a tiny amount for nature conservation and a mobile app development, except that in this case most of the work is done, I have been told : 

All the core infrastructure we need is already built in Flora Finder – shape recognition technology, GPS mapping, email connections, collection building

Graham Strong, commercialisation manager at University of Otago


So ultimately Flora Finder – Weeds will look more like an “add-on” to the existing version, rather than a brand new app aimed at eradicating New Zealand’s green nightmare. It won’t be exactly crowdsourcing either, as data gathered by app users won’t be collected nore interpreted by a third party. Spatial data, generated thanks to the phone GPS, will also be at the discretion of the user.

Instead, after successfully identifying the weed – or not, the weed spotter will have to get in touch with a local expert via email about his or her next step. Provided that the expert in question has time to reply…

In a word, Flora Finder – Weeds might not reshape wildlife conservation once it’s released, probably even not after a few weeks or months of use. But, at least, it will bring some technology in the toolbox of “pest-free New Zealand” hacktivists. Not to mention that conservationists might enjoy using the app for educational purpose.


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