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.

But they realized that Project NOAH could reach a bigger audience in March, when they participated in a five-day boot camp run by Startl, a nonprofit startup accelerator in the digital learning space. There they dissected where they wanted to take the product and who would benefit from it. Ansari and Ceperley recognized their product's range when they participated in a focus group of fifth- and sixth-graders—one 11-year-old girl talked about documenting a turkey in her backyard. "They hadn't thought enough about the end user, the experience," said Diana Rhoten, Startl co-founder and managing director. "They never imagined the diversity of experience this tool could provide."

Rhoten not only helped flesh out the idea for the product, but she connected Ansari to people and institutions that would expand its learning audience. Steve Gano, director for education and digital media at the American Museum of Natural History, was an early data tester who started by submitting a picture of a raccoon running around the museum grounds. Educators are finding disparate uses for NOAH: A sixth-grade class in San Diego that planted a garden is documenting the ripening vegetables. A home-schooled 9-year-old girl in New Zealand is photographing insects for a science fair. And a Brooklyn elementary school plans to use the app to monitor Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal, a Superfund site.

The app's user base, ultimately, is a worldwide community of eco-spotters. The largest number of contributions come from a teacher named Isabela in Spain. Plants are the most popular category. Insects and bugs follow. Of course, citizen science isn't new. In 1900, the National Audubon Society launched the Christmas Bird Count because of concerns about the diminishing bird population. But unlike the Encyclopedia of Life, another digital database of species, Project NOAH, using the camera phone, has bridged the usually stark divide between science professionals and amateurs who often are viewed as gadflies. "You can readily make the required professional rigor so large that it's a buzz kill for the amateur or make it so loosey-goosey in order to maximize participation that the resulting data isn't regarded as proof or evidence of anything," said Project NOAH adviser Clay Shirky, an author who teaches at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program.

Project NOAH's business model is similar to many mobile app startups: Build a viable platform that fills a void and attracts users, and investors will follow. The app doesn't generate revenue. Researchers and casual hobbyists don't pay to be members. And, until Project NOAH was acquired, its only funding was $50,000, which it received after winning the Cooney Center Prize for Innovation in Children's Learning in the mobile-learning category. The founders even considered being a nonprofit but didn't want to be saddled with funding restrictions and paperwork.

It turned out to be a good bet. In April, NOAH unexpectedly found its customer when it did a public five-minute pitch to Silicon Valley angel investor Ron Conway. An audience member told National Geographic about the project, and the following Monday, Ansari and Ceperley were in the early stages of partnership talks. The platform is about to go global with a cross-media blitz, in hopes of turning wildlife spotting into a cultural sport.

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Jill Priluck is a writer living in New York City.

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