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Wildflowers Of Detroit App Documents Natural Flora With Smartphone Technology

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A still from Wildflowers of Detroit's promotional video for Kickstarter.
A still from Wildflowers of Detroit's promotional video for Kickstarter.

Ever wonder exactly what species of grass is growing in Detroit's urban prairie? Or whether it's safe to eat the berries growing on the tree in the lot next door? Well, there's soon to be an app for that.

Wildflowers of Detroit is a community ecology project that uses smartphone technology to document and map flowers and other wild plants in the urban setting. It's the undertaking of programmer Matt Shultz and designer Gwen McKay, two former Detroiters who currently live in San Francisco.

The open source application allows users to photograph wild plant life with their phones and to share images, locations and other details with others in a public database. The project's creators say cataloguing this type of information will raise awareness of local ecosystems and give citizens access to high-tech tools for keeping track of local resources.

The Huffington Post spoke with Shultz and McKay about the project, foraging, Kickstarter and community empowerment.

Could you explain Wildflowers of Detroit?

Shultz: It's basically a way of using technology to get people involved in looking at what's around them and the natural environment that they're living in. Basically, what we're asking people to do is get out their smartphones, look around and take some pictures of flowers. Then they show up on a map and share it with the world.

What does an app have to do with urban ecology?

Shultz: One of the big things that we're looking at here is watching how the ecology of the city -- or really any place -- changes over time. It's something that a lot of time we have trouble seeing. We see just what's around us at a given moment. We don't know what was there a year ago or 10 years ago in a place like Detroit.

Where did you get the idea for the project?

Shultz: I think we got the idea living in Detroit and [from] an interest in foraging, honestly. Several years ago we got interested in wild plants that were edible, looking around the city for them. We know a few spots that are more natural -- that are away from where all the cars are -- and started to think it's probably something a lot of people don't realize is here.

Are you interested in maintaining those wild spaces?

McKay: The starting point is to see where things are at. We don't actually know if there are endangered or rare plants around, but through collecting the data through the community, we hope to find where those things are at. Actually, we hope that the things that are found will aid in resource management or aid in city planning.

Shultz: I think that preservation could be part of it, but the most important thing is just seeing what's there. If people are more aware of what's around them they can make their own decisions about if they want to preserve or whether they want to develop. We're just interested in telling the story of a city that's full of vacant fields filled with things that grow there, not just destroyed buildings.

Why did you decided to use Kickstarter?

McKay: It was great actually because we have been able to spend the last three months focusing exclusively on this project. When we were starting out, it was definitely tumultuous, because we had never raised funds for anything before. So we were spending every day doing promotion, talking to people. The plus side of that aspect is that we really expanded our network.

Who else is involved in the project?

Shultz: The Michigan Natural Features Inventory was one of the first organizations to have someone get in touch with us. Now that we've built the software, we're just getting to the fun part really where we can contact these people. We can start integrating that information and start working more fully with them.

The flip side of it is, there's also a lot of people on the technical end. We use github to share our software. That's an open source code sharing website. If you'd like to collaborate, it's free. It's open source. Or you can fix problems and add features and send them back.

What formats does the software cover?

McKay: Right now we have a website and an Android app and an iPhone app. We also have an email address (device@wildflowersofdetroit.org) that people can text images to if they have a non-smartphone that's capable of MMS [Multimedia Messaging Service].

Why should people check this out?

Shultz: Your city institutions -- mayor's offices and city planning boards -- they have all these technologies and they use them everyday. They plan neighborhoods. They approve zoning. That's fine, but there's really no reason that people in the community can't have these tools. Our interest is in plants, ecology, Detroit. You could take this software for anything really that you thought you needed to track the locations of. You can make your own and you could study them over time. Whatever you want, really, and then see it on a map.

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