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Damien Dechambre - 20/03/2014

Pl@ntNet: one year after launch the project is booming!

Launched in 2013 at the 50th Paris International Agricultural Show, the Pl@ntNet application allows users to collect, annotate and search for images to help them identify plants using their smartphone. The fruit of collaborative work between computer scientists and botanists, Pl@ntNet has found its audience and has even surpassed its inventors' expectations. Making botany accessible to everyone does not seem like such a far-fetched idea after all. Pierre Bonnet, coordinator of the project for CIRAD, and Alexis Joly, a researcher at Inria's Zenith team, provide an initial appraisal of the Pl@ntNet venture and reveal upcoming initiatives.

Initiated in 2009, the Pl@ntNet project, backed by Agropolis Fondation, brings together scientists from Inria, its partners (CIRAD, INRA, IRD) and professional botanists and enthusiasts from the Tela Botanica network. "This project is a real scientific and human adventure," both for Alexis Joly and Pierre Bonnet. However, it is an adventure that has a clear objective: to provide a collaborative platform and tools to make it easier to share information about plants.

Pl@ntNet: plants and humans

Pl@ntNet is a unique system in its field that allows its users to submit several photographs of a single plant depicting different detailed views of its organs (flower, leaf, fruit, stem). These photos are then automatically compared with the images in a botanical database, enabling the user to find the name of a plant's species from a list of results. The iPhone version of the Pl@ntNet application, launched at the beginning of 2013, has now been downloaded 80,000 times. The Android version, released in January 2014, has already registered 3,600 downloads. "Between 500 and 1,000 people per day use the app during the summer. We've even had up to 150 uses per day in the middle of the winter! These figures are higher than we could have anticipated," says Pierre Bonnet. Pl@ntNet has been enriched by the data collected by its users and, thanks to a snowball effect, has become much more widely used. "At launch the application had a repository of French flora totalling 800 species. Pl@ntNet now contains nearly 4,000 species and 86,000 images," says Alexis Joly. Despite these good figures, the two researchers, who are the first to be surprised by the interest the app has attracted, refuse to label it a success. The Pl@ntNet application would not have worked so well without the technological progress of the last two years in mobile telephony. This includes the fact that the latest smartphones take very good quality photos. What's more, the initial challenge was sizeable. "Presenting such rich structured visual data and basing this on the leaves, flowers and stems of the majority of species in French flora was something that didn't exist at all," says Pierre Bonnet. 

Making nature searchable and reawakening people's interest in examining

Pl@ntNet includes an automatic plant identification tool based on photos, which draws on the visual search engine Ikona-maestro-pmh initially developed at Inria by the Imedia team, then improved as part of the project. It also draws on the wealth of the Tela Botanica network to enrich the database used, as well as on the data sent by numerous enthusiast contributors, from students to retired individuals and school pupils. "This is a collaborative knowledge production initiative, like Wikipedia. The idea is that the whole is enriched by the users," explain Pierre and Alexis. In addition to the data collection afforded by this participatory aspect, Pl@ntNet is of both educational and ecological interest. "We'll be able to try to measure the ecological impacts of natural phenomena or human activity," says Alexis Joly. With a smartphone application, everyone can conduct tests and contribute. This makes Pl@ntNet a good way to raise the public's awareness of the flora around them, as well as issues connected with invasive and allergenic plants. This awareness-raising involves concrete actions such as the organisation of initiatives, participation in the Science Fair and other events, etc. The project team has also moved onto social networks and is involved with schools, media libraries and is working on collaborations with botanical gardens. "We're currently helping schools with digital herbarium projects at a classroom level. The teacher and their class are therefore actually contributing to a research project whose finished product they can use. Through this exchange, we'd like to collect numerous botanical data that we can work on," explains Pierre Bonnet.

From germination to growth, Pl@ntNet is continuing to develop

In one year of existence, the application has been significantly enhanced. For example, it now includes much more information about flowering dates. What's more, although Pl@ntNet is proving popular in France, it could well replicate this internationally given that 74% of users are from other countries. Researchers are currently working on a multilingual version, which will soon be available in five languages. "Based on the phone's language, the application will provide the name of plants in the country's language," explains Alexis Joly. As a result, having initially focused on the taxonomy of flora in France, Pl@ntNet will be opening up to other floral regions. The next challenge involves tropical flora, a sizeable challenge in every respect because the floral designs, larger in size, are far more numerous and diverse. What's more, 3G coverage in tropical regions is perhaps not as stable in some areas as in Europe... Researchers are also taking a look at invasive plants, the environmental and economic impact of which is still unknown.

We've made the transition from nature guide to nature app

It's worth remembering that Pl@ntNet is the result of a scientific project that aims to produce new methods and data sets, based on plants, that are applicable in ecological work. Thanks to the data collected, the Pl@ntNet project forms part of the initiatives of the "Life CLEF" forum. This forum brings together researchers from all over the world, from computer scientists to biologists, image processing specialists and bioacousticians. One common issue unites them: assessing the relevance of multi-media approaches to help identify living organisms based on social data. The subject of their work takes into account data collected in the field by thousands of users, along with all of the variability this implies, both in terms of acquisition and the quality and volume of data. "With Pl@ntNet we have mechanisms that we use to assess thousands of species and that are enriched on a daily basis thanks to contributors in the field," explains Pierre Bonnet. The "Life CLEF 2014" forum makes data concerning birds, fish and, for the fourth consecutive year, plants a central component of the studies.

Numerous other challenges lie ahead and are not insignificant, as Pierre Bonnet explains. "The application currently mobilises a lot of data. One of the difficulties will be maintaining a level of stability and fluidity in order to enable the application to progress with a growing user base." The team is also assessing its potential in far more rich and complex flora than tropical flora. This is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges that the project is yet to face. The breadth and visual diversity of plants worldwide is so extensive that a great deal of work still needs to be carried out to make them searchable by large numbers of people. However, an opportunity has opened up and the popularisation of plant identification is now under way!

Keywords: Pl@ntNet Bioinformatics