Sunday, 21 October 2012

PlantTracker - Invasive Plants go Mobile

A brilliant little mobile phone application was launched earlier this year which lets anyone with a smartphone collect and submit records of any of fourteen of the most invasive plant species across Britain. I gave it a try out recently, and  would thoroughly recommend it to anyone interesting in contributing to efforts to control  the spread of damaging alien plants. No great expertise is needed  - just a willingness to get out and about with your mobile nphone.

Developed at Bristol University, PlantTracker can be downloaded for free and installed on any smartphone or iPhone. Visit the website at to get the phone app. or to view the records already submitted.

Himalayan Balsam now chokes many
UK waterways. (Photo: GBNNSS)
All users need do is simply photograph the plant with their phone, then select one of three keywords to describe the size of the colony. Location coordinates are determined automatically by the phone network, but mobiles with GPS give much greater accuracy. Hit ‘Send’ to upload your record to a mapping website, which appear only after each has been checked by validators. Mine have sometimes appeared in less than 30 minutes! And they're dead accurate on the map.

It's no problem if you're in an area without mobile phone coverage. You can store your pictures and coordinates to be sent later.

Helpfully, the phone app contains a library of information and some great images to aid identification in the field before records are submitted. The species included are:
  • Japanese Knotweed
  • Himalayan Balsam
  • Orange Balsam
  • Water Fern
  • New Zealand Pygmyweed
  • Parrot’s Feather
  • Giant Hogweed
  • Floating Pennywort
  • Creeping Water-primrose
  • Piri-Piri Burr
  • American Skunk Cabbage,
  • Monkey Flower
  • Curly Waterweed
  • Screenshot of the PlantTracker website showing
    all Japanese Knotweed records received.
  • Rhododendron.

The website has its own blog, giving users feedback on developments and achievements. For example, when the project received its first verified record of Floating Pennywort (shown below) from a London park, the Environment Agency alerted the managers of the site where it had been discovered, and control measures were put into effect immediately to eradicate it. As you can see from the photo, it really is a plant with an invasive streak.

The website offers standard mapping as well as  Google’s satellite mapping, but not Streetview, which is a shame. PlantTracker can certainly help local groups working with INNS (Invasive Non-Native Species), and any scheme organisers needing full access to the data can contact the PlantTracker team for this.  Helpfully, users can also upload invasive plant records and photos direct from the website.

Surprisingly, PlantTracker doesn't yet allow recorders to be 'pre-approved' after submitting sufficient records of each species. So every report needs an accompanying photograph. I think this might discourage its use for more intensive local recording of particular species, as taking yet another and then another photograph of Himalayan Balsam is eventually going to be seen as a bit of a pain.

Floating Pennywort Hydrocotyle ranunculoides
(credit: GBNNSS)
My main criticism of PlantTracker is that location coordinates are displayed as Latitude and Longitude, whereas conversion to OSGB grid references would have been very helpful for local recorders. As someone who has operated a Biological Records Centre for over 20 years, I can say from experience that we tended to ignore records provided with Lat/Long unless it was something really special. The effort needed to convert each record is just not worthwhile. But I'd have thought that a little algorithm in the programme itself could have provided that conversion. I did like the feature to display all uploaded records. Now, had it displayed the National Grid Reference and the date, that would have been brilliant. That said, I do hope LatLong informaiotn will also be retained - it's great to be able to cut and paste it straight to Google Maps and be taken to the location.

At the  moment the amount of validated records presented on the online maps is nowhere near the amount of data available to us locally. But that's not the point. The point is that this app will, in time, generate additional records, encourage new recorders, and maybe generate a new wave of volunteers willing to help record and take action to remove these invasive species from our waterways and other habitats.

And if I were to offer one other minor criticism, I'd say it would be nice to be able to zoom in on the results page of the PlantTracker website to an area of interest and then to be able to change the species being mapped, rather than having to start afresh and zoom in all over again for each individual species.

All in all, PlantTracker is a superb and simple phone app. Both it and the related website are incredibly easy to use. No doubt future modifications will make them even more effective. The PlantTracker project is a collaboration between the Environment Agency, the NatureLocator team at Bristol University and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

It can be downloaded free from the iTunes store or Android Market.

If you are interested in contributing to efforts to control invasive species in your area, contact your local Wildlife Trust, Biological Records Centre, National Park Authority, or check out the GBNNS website for information on the increasing number of formal 'Local Action Groups' being set up around the country to try to control these alien invaders. 
This is an expanded version of an article written for Derbyshire Biodiversity Newsletter Vol 8 Issue 2 

This review was based on the Android version of PlantTracker ver 1.2.1 running on an HTC Desire HD

Nov 7th: Since this review was posted, I've had contact with Dave Kilbey from the team at PlantTracker. He tells me that OSGB grid references will be added in an update next spring (do keep the Lat/Long display on the database, too, guys). The pre-approving of recorders for particularly common species may be made more obvious - it does actually happen at the moment behind the scenes, but users don't know see it. A pat on the back for being appreciated as a competent recorder would go down well with most users, I'm sure.  I've even suggested that there could also be opportunities for getting greater involvement from the userbase by making the app a bit more like Foursquare, for examle. Users of PlantTracker could win 'badges' for becoming an 'approved' recorder, or for submitting set numbers of records, or for reporting more than one species, or for recording in a certain number of regions, whether they be countries, counties or 10km squares. Perhaps it's a case of 'watch this space'

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