App helps people learn about, ID plants in Peninsula parks

SAN MATEO COUNTY (KGO) -- If you're miles from civilization, out in the woods this Labor Day weekend, there's an app for that. A Peninsula park district wants your help preserving nature and all you need is a smartphone.

It's biologist Coty Sifuentes' job to separate the good plants from the bad plants in the Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space.

"60,000 acres, and that's just a lot of land for a small organization such as ours," Sifuentes said.

Sifuentes about to get a lot of help.

"We want pics of the flowers, we also want a pic of the whole plant," he said.

With an app called iNaturalist, the park district is letting every visitor with a smartphone lend a hand.

"They're really our eyes and ears that we use out in our preserves," Sifuentes said.
Documenting what's growing and where.

"This is sticky monkey flower, it's one of our native species that we have," Sifuentes said.

The app can take the place of bulky field guides and answer a common question for volunteers and budding botanists.

But beyond replacing a pile of field guides, the app does something books could never do. It provides a sort of instant feedback that can make for a teachable moment. The app lets you post sightings even if you don't know what they are and let experts like Sifuentes weigh in.

"There's a lot of people out there that know their butterflies and know their birds, and you can get a response back sometimes in five minutes or so," Sifuentes said.
Volunteer Sharon Thomas says that might outweigh her biggest concern. "I mean you have to look around to notice all the great stuff in nature. If you're always down with your phone like this, you're going to miss it," Thomas said.

But used properly, Sifuentes says studies have found the app is one of the best ways to learn. "They become better and better at it. They actually become as good as experts in a lot of cases," he said.
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