Leafsnap’s creators to receive the 2011 Edward O. Wilson Pioneer Award

Oct 10, 2011

Professor David Jacobs will receive the 2011 Edward O. Wilson Biodiversity Technology Pioneer Award for co-inventing Leafsnap, the First Mobile App for Plant Identification. This award honors individuals who have significantly contributed to the preservation of biodiversity. “As computer scientists we usually do work that is just within our field, so it’s nice to see that people in other fields appreciate what we do,” said Jacobs. “This has been a great project. It's really been a great collective effort.”

Years ago, Professor Jacobs and Professor Peter Belhumeur of Columbia University, approached Dr. John Kress, then Chief Botanist at the Smithsonian, to build a system that identifies pictures of plant species using the object recognition techniques they developed. After obtaining a grant from the National Science Foundation, and thanks to the collective effort of students, specialists and volunteers, Leafsnap was launched in May. The app has been a resounding success: it had over a third of a million downloads in the first two months.

Leafsnap can analyze the photograph of a leaf and instantly search a collection of leaf images, acquired under the supervision of the Smithsonian Institution, to help you identify the tree. The technology behind this free app is similar to that of face recognition. Once you snap the picture of the leaf with your iPhone or iPad, the image is uploaded to a server to search for a match, and within seconds it returns with results of possible species. “This type of visual recognition makes people more engaged,” said Jacobs. “[Leafsnap] gives you the information that helps you to figure out what you are looking at.”

Currently Leafsnap’s species gallery contains details about all the trees in New York City and Washington, D.C. The App's inventors plan to increase this collection to include the trees in continental United States, about 800 species. According to Jacobs, volunteers’ contributions could help the growth of the present gallery. “A lot depends on how enthusiastic people are, ” he remarked.

Jacobs and his co-pioneers are now trying to make this botanists’ guide available on the Android platform. They are also considering the possibility of advancing the reach of this technology. “Most people are interested in having object recognition at their fingertips,” explained Jacobs. “There are a lot of biologists interested in using this for other kinds of organisms, like insects or seashells. There might be some challenges to overcome for that, but the possibilities are really interesting.”


The 2011 Edward O. Wilson Biodiversity Technology Pioneer Award will be presented to Jacobs and his co-inventors by The American Computer Museum, the world's oldest continually operating museum of its type, in October.

About Dr. Jacobs:

David Jacobs has a PhD in Computer Science from MIT, where he was a member of the Artificial Intelligence Lab. He joined the University of Maryland in 2002, after spending ten years working at the NEC Research Institute.
For more information about Dr. Jacobs, click here.