MEA, Otago Innovation app unravels plant mysteries

MEA, Otago Innovation app unravels plant mysteries

Hamilton-headquartered development house MEA Mobile has teamed with Otago Innovation on a new iOS app, Flora Finder, that helps identify our native plants.

MEA's work enabled the app's most compelling feature: the ability to photograph a plant on a smartphone and send it to the University of Otago's Botany Department to be identified.

To do this, it developed code so that leaf shapes could be recognised, turning the botany department's database of leaf images into digital approximations.

"Computers see images as a bunch of ones and zeros, not like humans who have been trained to instantly recognise shapes inside images. We quickly realised that speed was an issue, so we had to pre-process the large database of images that the Department of Botany supplied," says MEA Mobile co-founder Rod Mcfarlane.

"We turned all of the leaf images from that database into a new database of polygon approximations. When a user takes a photo of a leaf we turn that into a digital approximation and then use shape matching algorithms to compare it to every leaf in the database.

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The app identifies 87 of New Zealand's most common native trees and shrubs, giving a description and images of the plant. It also maps the location where the plant was found and adds the photo to the user's collection once the match is confirmed.

Each plant is identified by its Maori name and its European common name, as well as alternative names in both languages and its Latin name.

If the plant isn't in the app's database, users can request identification via an email to Otago's Botany Department staff. One of the department's staff, Dr Janice Lord, says the smartphone app will make native plant information more accessible.

"New Zealand plant species number in the thousands and books on the flora of New Zealand are cumbersome and expensive. The terminology and Latin names are also daunting, even for an expert," she says.

"This is a fun, easy to use app for tourists, trampers and casual walkers. "We tried to include the trees and shrubs they would be likely to see and that might catch their eye."

Otago Innovation also plans an Android version of the app.