In this age of excess, there's one thing we could all use a little more of: Nature! It's life giving and life affirming. It's all around us. And yet, most of us still don't know it all that well. No longer! Leafsnap will turn you into a tree-identifying citizen of the future.
Do you know your maples from your elms? I don't! Because despite whatever resolutions we might make to "get outside more", "get better at identifying trees" isn't an item you'll find at the top of many 21st century to-do lists. It's at least a few dozen slots below "correctly tag my MP3 library", which is something I've been trying to get done since like 1999. So, yes, tree familiarity has been decidedly low priority. But! As it turns out, learning even a little about trees - getting a rough sense of the kind you have in your neighbourhood, or just knowing the proper name for one you think looks particularly nice - gives you a nice little push to look up from your iPod and at the greenery around you, a small up-tick in your awareness and appreciation of nature, and that's what the "get outside more" business is all about, isn't it?
Leafsnap, a terrific free app for the iPhone and iPad developed by a team from Columbia University, is the smartphone user's secret weapon to a more meaningful relationship with trees. It's incredibly simple and strangely addictive: find a tree, grab a leaf, snap a picture. The app scans its outline - parsing criteria like smooth or jagged edges, single- or many-lobed - and tells you what tree it thinks it came from. It's similar to the "whoa! this is the future" feeling you get when you deposit a check via smartphone. (If you're not doing that, get with the times!)
If you live in the American northeast, it will likely give you a few possible matches (the Leafsnap crew is working with the Smithsonian to add other regions' trees to the database). From there, you can check out nice, high-resolution images of the front and backs of the leaves, the bark of the trees they comes from, those tree's flowers and so on to help determine the correct match. It's imperfect tech (and currently requires a network connection), but it gets you in the ballpark. The app also supplies some background information on the species, maps of where they grow natively, and so on.
When you get a match, you can add it to your personal catalog and you can share it with the rest of the Leafsnap community; hitting a "local species" button at any point will bring up a list of matches in your immediate area. The Leafsnap developers hope this crowdsourced data might eventually be used by scientists to track the populations of various species. But even if you don't care much about populations or genuses or flowering months, it's kind of cool just to be able to walk by a tree and say, "oh that's an White Ash", in a Renaissance Man kind of way. If you must think about it in these terms: your cursory tree identification skills are bound to impress somebody, at some point.
The most successful apps usually offer some sort of new distraction or convenience. But the most exciting ones do something a little different, harnessing the power of our gadgets to help us explore and understand the world we live in. Angry Birds are fun; real birds are amazingly, profoundly, endlessly cool. So even though I hadn't had much curiosity about it until last week, I think it's kinda cool to know that the tree in front of my apartment's a Littleleaf Lindon. Or so I think. But at least I'm looking! Bring on birdsnap. [LeafSnap for iPad;LeafSnap for iPhone]