How an ecology app for sharing nature photos built a community—and became a business.

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Oct. 5 2010 11:57 AM

Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home

How an ecology app for sharing nature photos built a community—and became a business.

Sighting from Project Noah. Click image to expand.
A duck sighting from Project NOAH

A couple of months ago, I found a ladybug in my bathroom. I released it back into the wild—well, Brooklyn—but I probably should have taken a picture of it first for Project NOAH. This new mobile ecology platform is turning images of sporadic animal and plant sightings in the confines of homes, backyards, and neighborhood parks into scientific contributions on a mass scale, and it became a quickly acquired business in the process.

In late February, then-New York University students Yasser Ansari and Martin Ceperley launched Project NOAH (Networked Organisms and Habitats), a database of spottings, a field guide, and a repository for ecology surveys, including the Lost Ladybug Project. Just seven months later, the platform that started as a homework assignment has cataloged almost 5,000 sightings from Central Park to Beijing and is being used by students from San Diego to Brooklyn. Last month, National Geographic purchased a stake in the company.

Project NOAH has found the sweet spot between professional scientists and casual naturalists. It began as an app for people to share their nature sightings but has evolved into a scientific and culturally relevant tool for both the masses and the experts. Project NOAH functions as a kind of Foursquare for flora and fauna, a way for amateur nature spotters to record the bugs, leaves, and birds they've found. Those data, in turn, have become a valuable tool for professional researchers.

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Early on, Ansari, the visionary, and Ceperley, the pragmatist, adhered to the lean and mean maxim so common in the little-guy economy. They designed a platform with few features, using Google App Engine, a free platform to build and host Web applications on Google's infrastructure. They launched the app early, well before they settled on a standard for species names—popular versus Latin, universal versus regional—and before they knew how data from the field would be transferred back to researchers. Their primary concern was releasing a product without serious bugs.

Professional ecologists quickly adopted the product. Before the launch, Ansari had reached out to urban ecologist Steve Sullivan, who runs Project Squirrel, a partnership between the University of Illinois-Chicago and the Chicago Academy of Sciences' Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. Project NOAH supplied precise locality data that otherwise would be impossible to obtain. Sullivan now gets about 70 squirrel observations a week from Project NOAH, with a 90 percent accuracy rate for identifications. The app also began hosting a mushroom-mapping project in New York City and the Lost Ladybug mission at Cornell University. "We don't want to be this walled garden of data. We're more like a holding tank that reroutes data to other places and to curious people who want to see what's around them," said Ansari, who has a background in bioinformatics and worked on hardware for mobile gaming at Qualcomm.