Thursday 30 April 2020

Apps for plant identification: interview with Hamlyn Jones

Lyn Jones botanising on Jersey
Image courtesy of H. Jones
Over the past few years, Hamlyn Jones, Emeritus Professor of Plant Ecology at the University of Dundee, has been developing his Visual-flora, a visually-based key to the plants of Britain and Ireland. Recently he has been impressed by the power of Artificial Intelligence as a supplement to, or even a replacement for, conventional keys and approached John Norton, Editor of BSBI News with the offer of a review of this developing new technology. 

This was readily taken up and Lyn's review has just been published in the April issue of BSBI News. You may have read it, if you are a BSBI member and have received your copy of BSBI News. Or, if you are not yet a member, you may have spotted the review in the sampler issue of BSBI News which we issued yesterday. 

The homepage of Lyn's Visual-flora app
We are always being asked on the BSBI’s social media accounts if there are any plant ID apps that we recommend, or if they are a good idea in the first place, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to pick Lyn’s brains on this tricky subject. And at the end of the interview, there’s a nice surprise for you all!

LM: Hi Lyn, before we start on apps, could you tell us a bit more about yourself please: when did you first become involved in botany and how?

HJ: I have been interested in plants from at least my early teens, and recently came across a hard-back notebook where I (neatly!) recorded every plant that I saw over most of a year. At one stage we even had two geese named after a plant (Psophocarpus and Tetragonolobus)! Then, at A level I was inspired by my Botany teacher, Mr Pickering, to the extent that I ended up studying Botany at University. This ultimately led to a career as a physiological ecologist studying how plants work and how they tolerate environmental stresses. It is only since I officially retired that I started to use my extensive collection of plant photographs to develop a visual key suitable for the newly-developing smartphones.

LM: So how did you come to launch the Visual Flora and could you tell us a bit more about it please?

Lyn on Jersey with fellow botanists
including County Recorder Anne Haden (on left)
Image courtesy of H. Jones 
HJ: The origins of my Visual-flora lay in my early recognition that an important way in which I and many others get to an initial plant identification is by scanning the pictures in Floras, rather than following the often frustrating dichotomy of traditional keys. We all know the adage "a picture is worth a thousand words". The initial iteration of the key used the power of hyperlinks in Powerpoint to develop a simple key to the flora of Jersey, but as I extended this to cover the UK flora and especially that of the Scottish mountains, it became clear that the language of the internet (html) provided a much more powerful basis for the key. This allowed the key to be operated as a website or downloaded to a smartphone/tablet.

LM: So the Visual Flora still requires the user to work through a key of some kind. What about other apps that work in a similar way? Did you review any of those for the review in the latest issue of BSBI News? And what method did you use in order to test them?

Screenshot of the
front page of the
Flora Incognita app
HJ: Early on I had been making much use of use of image sets such as British Wild Flowers to help with identification but could not find any really good plant identification apps that could be downloaded to one's phone. Most that I could find were too limited with only a few species covered, or else they required a subscription. The best was the ETI Flora of the British Isles (sadly no longer available), though the pictures were often at too low a resolution to be much practical use. I have not reviewed any of these apps at this stage, though I might in the future. For the review in BSBI News, I just concentrated on Artificial-Intelligence based apps.

LM: Ok, so you just looked at the apps that claim to be able to identify plants via Artificial Intelligence and Automated Image Recognition? What did you think of their performance?

HJ: Although I had been involved over ten years ago in a proposal to develop a plant ID app based on automated image analysis (together with a colleague from the Computing Department at the University of Dundee), it was only last year that I was introduced to the current automatic AI-based apps by my 10-year old grandson, who was staying in Switzerland. He was able to demonstrate very convincingly the power of Seek. I was so impressed that I started to investigate the wider range of readily available AI apps, eventually finding ten different apps to test. These were the ones that I reviewed in the article in BSBI News.

LM: So, what’s your verdict on plant ID apps: when, and to whom, might they be useful? And are there any apps available yet that can replace a trained botanist?

Screenshot of
pot marigold seen on the
Seek app. 
HJ: The various Artificial Intelligence-based plant ID apps are an increasingly powerful tool that are particularly valuable for beginners and less experienced botanists. The best ones can frequently provide very good clues as to the identity of an unknown plant, though the IDs still usually need checking against a traditional ID book, or a good dichotomous or multi-access ID app. Examples of the latter include MAKAQueS, Quentin Groom’s BotanicalKeys and, of course, my Visual-flora. I do, however, believe that AI apps still have some way to go before they can fully, if ever, replace traditional botanical skills. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that their ready availability might benefit botany and actually widen interest in plant identification and lead beginners into further use of more conventional floras and ID apps (including my own!).

LM: Many thanks Lyn for talking to us today, for reviewing these plant ID apps and – here’s the surprise we are delighted to announce today! -  for kindly offering to make your review available to everyone, not just BSBI members reading the latest issue of BSBI News. The review is now available to view or download here - we hope that you find it useful!

For anyone looking to get started with plant identification, the apps Lyn mentions are certainly worth a look but as he has explained, you will still need to check your identifications. To help you do that, we would suggest that you visit this page which has some helpful tips to get you started, including support available via social media, and there is an impartial review of the ID books currently available. You will also find more ID resources on our Plant Identification pages, especially this page aimed at anyone just starting out – it has links to some useful websites and free ID sheets. If you know of any ID resources that don’t appear on our pages, please let us know and we’ll add them! 

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