Smithsonian advances the art of the app

When it comes to putting agency data into a form that smart phones can use, the Smithsonian Institution's challenge is more akin to the one facing universities than the typical government agency. Instead of data on procurement contracts, weather or farming, the Smithsonian has paintings, sculptures, dinosaur skeletons and aircraft to share.

“The depth of our content is very challenging to present through the small screen,” said Nancy Proctor, director of mobile strategy and initiatives at the Smithsonian, during a presentation last month. But with more than 1 billion smart phones in use worldwide, the Smithsonian can't ignore that audience, she added.

Indeed, the museum has risen to the challenge by creating apps for the iPad, iPhone and other devices. Sometimes the potential for broad public use doesn't become apparent until the app has been developed for a niche audience, Proctor said. A case in point: The Leafsnap app, which allows users to snap a picture of a tree leaf with a smart-phone camera and compare it to images in a database to help them identify the tree.

The Smithsonian co-developed the app for scientists, in collaboration with Columbia University and the University of Maryland.

The app quickly spread beyond its intended base and became popular with the public, Proctor said.

“When you go for Goal A, sometimes you get Goal B,” she said. “Leafsnap is not just about adding to the database for research or a bar code scanner. It is really getting you to look at trees, at the bark and the berries. It fulfills a learning experience."

Users are enthusiastic. "This is just plain fantastic," writes Devin Coldewey in a review at

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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