Bugging the Digital World

Young entrepreneurs are creating a digital, 3-D encyclopedia of insects that doubles as a free field guide.

By | September 28, 2012

The Earth's multitude of insects sport flashy colors, vicious choppers, fuzzy antennae, and glistening wings, but identifying those champions of animal diversity, as they creep into dark corners and lurk under leaves, can often be tricky, requiring a magnifying glass and bulky taxonomic keys. That’s exactly what French high school student Pierre Estienne hopes to change. In fact, he has an app for it.

The problem first bugged Estienne a few years back when the then ambitious 14-year-old spent years doing painstaking research to ID a new beetle (now known as Coenochilus hervillardi Estienne.) “It takes a lot of time, and nothing is on the Internet,” Estienne, now 17, says. “I thought that we could accelerate that.”

This year, the entrepreneur and amateur entomologist, along with a group of teenaged colleagues, formed the non-profit Biodiversity Software, and have worked up a prototype of Insecta, an open-source, image-rich "encyclopedia of bugs" that people could carry with them on their tablets or smart phones. The encyclopedia will ideally allow users who download the free app to use image- or description- based searches to ID insects they encounter. Estienne aims to have each insect displayed as a movable, 3-dimensional image to aid identification—and awe. “This is an incredible opportunity to sum up the knowledge that we have about our biodiversity, with something that is beautiful and useful as well,” Estienne says.

And the idea is catching on. When Arizona State University natural history professor and director of the International Institute for Species Exploration Quentin Wheeler met Estienne this past summer, the project blew him away. Estienne showed up with his Insecta prototype at the Natural History Museum in Paris, where Wheeler was giving a talk on remotely controlled microscopes that people could use, via the Internet, to examine museum specimens.

The image quality of Insecta struck him the most. “They’re very impressive, very top shelf sort of images that draw people in,” Wheeler says. “When you’re using it you’re going to know there’s a good quality image each time.”

Wheeler, who has himself been starting projects to engage the public in IDing insects, thinks that there’s a waiting audience for such a venture. “If you see something in the field, whether you’re a scientist or a citizen, your first question is, ‘What is that?’” An iPad app, Wheeler says, will be a welcomed companion.

But the road to making the app a reality won’t be easy. Estienne and his colleagues will first start a fundraising campaign to pay for the software development. Then there’s the task of collecting all of the high-quality bug images, which has presented a challenge, Estienne says. “The biggest problem so far has been the Paris museum,” he says, which won’t allow his non-profit to use images of museum specimens for fear they'll be used commercially.

But increasingly, museums are warming up to the idea of sharing their collections, says Cindy Parr, who works with the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), based at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.  Parr, who facilitates collaboration with museums, small projects like Estienne’s, and EOL, says that museums are realizing that it’s better advertising to have images of their collections out in the public, with attribution, of course. “And they get more outreach credibility,” she adds, which is better for everyone.

“Insects are everywhere, everybody sees them, sometimes they cause problems for people, but all of them have interesting stories and can be beautiful in their own way,” she says. “So the more people that we have out there, getting those images out, and telling those stories, the more we’ll grow the [natural history] audience even bigger.”

Estienne agrees and hopes to one day be a full-time entomologist working in a digital-era museum. But for now, he still has to finish high school, and suffer through his biology classes.

“I love taxonomy,” he says, “ but we’re doing all this DNA stuff [in school]. It’s not very sexy.”

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