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Can't tell your lilies from your daisies? There's an app for that

Photos of plants and animals uploaded to the free app helps advance research, teaching and environmental monitoring.

iNaturalist mobiilisovellus
The iNaturalist app in action. Image: Markku Pitkänen / Yle

A new mobile phone app can help beginners tell their lilies of the valley from their bird cherries, and also distinguish between wolverines and raccoon dogs.

Nine-year-old Amori Martinez Lahti loves roaming the wilderness and is enthusiastic about identifying different plants and animals. But sometimes the keen young outdoorsman draws a blank trying to classify some species.

"Plants are really difficult to identify when you can only a see bud and there are no leaves yet," Amori said.

The young naturalist was out and about on a jaunt in a nearby wood with his father, Kari Lahti -- and a smartphone. "We were trying out iNaturalist."

AI identifies, community verifies

iNaturalist is a mobile app that recognises flora and fauna. A user can take a photo of a plant or animal and upload it to the app, which then provides the name of the object in the photo.

It even works with blurry photos, making it easier to identify animals that may have been on the move when they were photographed. Identification is a two-step process.

"First, an AI [artificial intelligence] examines the image and guesses what it is. Afterwards, other iNaturalist users validate the answer," explained IT specialist Mikko Heikkinen of the Finnish Biodiversity Info Facility, FinBIF.

Story continues after photo

valkovuokkoja tutkitaan metsässä
The AI in iNaturalist is supported by crowdsourced knowledge. Image: Markku Pitkänen / Yle

The AI develops as more images of Finnish animal and plant life are uploaded. However even after just one week in operation, the app is already proving its usefulness. That's because an American version has already been in use for years.

"It recognises Finnish species rather well too. But it's sometimes still possible that it might suggest some American birch species instead of a Finnish one," Heikkinen noted.

The well-known research facility, the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society developed iNaturalist and also finance the service, which can be used for free.

Finland is the 11th country to join the service. The Finnish Museum of Natural History and FinBIF collaborated to roll out the Finnish version, which so far works on Android phones but is not yet available for Apple devices.

Sightings saved in a database

Amori's father, Kari Lahti, has his own reason for trying out the app, as he is responsible for marketing it. All photos of plant and animals are saved in a FinBIF database and are used to promote research, teaching and environmental monitoring.

Finland has a broad range of other nature monitoring services to which people can send their observations.

There are for example, websites that track the algae situation, invasive species (in Finnish), large predators (in Finnish), seals, porpoises (in Finnish) and of course birds (in Finnish) and weather phenomena (in Finnish). Nature lovers can also upload their sightings directly to the FinBIF service.

According to Lahti, Finland has a long history of public involvement in environmental monitoring and its importance shows no sign of declining.

"As resources diminish and there is no funding for monitoring, properly guided crowdsourcing is the way to keep in step and accumulate information," he concluded.

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