December 2012 // Volume 50 // Number 6 // Tools of the Trade // 6TOT2
A Smartphone Application for Landscape Plants: A Case Study and Guide to Developing a Decision-Making Application
Smart phone applications are rapidly gaining popularity, and Extension programs are eager to use this teaching tool. But developing an application can be time intensive and costly. Students in environmental horticulture at the University of Florida teamed with the Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ program to develop an application with an extensive plant database. The students and information technology expert from the Florida-Friendly program documented their methodology and developed helpful guidelines for anyone considering an application. With the guidelines, Extension agents can evaluate the adaptability of their program to a database=linked application and determine the feasibility of creating a decision-making application.
The use of mobile digital technology is rapidly gaining popularity in education programs. Websites, databases, and applications on smart phones and tablets allow retrieval of information when and where it is needed. Students are finding many uses for mobile technology in fieldwork, design studios, and laboratories, where access to databases can be very helpful. Existing applications for Extension typically include tour guides with a place-based learning focus, such as campus tree tours (LaBelle, 2011).
Graduate students taking landscape design courses in the Environmental Horticulture department at the University of Florida recently teamed up with the Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ (FFL) Extension program to create a smart phone application with a database of over 400 Florida-Friendly landscape plants. The goal of the FFL application project was to create an accurate system based on the art and science of landscaping to guide decision-making when choosing plants for the landscape. The application can be used by anyone planning to purchase plant material or create landscape designs. Studies have shown that consumers often buy landscape plants on impulse, and the portability of smartphones could make the application a powerful tool to help homeowners make better plant purchases at point-of-sale (Allbritton & Mott, 2007, Hodges, Marco, & Hall, 2010, Satterthwaite & Haydu, 2004).
Plant information retrieved from the application includes scientific and common name, type of plant, and status as native or non-native. Information on growing requirements is also available, including light range, soil moisture, pH range, and USDA hardiness zone. Other information includes the rate of growth, hardiness, salt and drought tolerance, and pest and disease tolerance. The final category of characteristics includes visual features such as size, shape, texture, and color. This category sets the application apart for other plant identification applications because it includes design-related information to help the student, designer, or homeowner make design-related decisions.
To start the application development process we reviewed the IT (instructional technology) requirements of the Environmental Horticulture department and the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences program. After review of the IT requirements, the following programs were selected. For the front-end (the interface with the user), JQuery Mobile was selected to provide support for multiple mobile environments: iPhone, iPad, Android, and Microsoft. For the back-end (connection with server), ASP.net using Model-View-Controller (MVC) 3 framework was used because ASP.net works best with the IFAS IT Web server environment, and MVC is a standard in back-end Web development. For the database (information storage), Microsoft 2008 SQL Server was used. This was selected because it is recommended by IFAS IT as being supported, secure, and regularly backed-up.
Creating the Application: Documenting the Process
Students documented the process they used to create the database and developed guidelines for creating a data-based application intended for decision-making. Knowledge of landscape design principles, consumer behavior and needs, and plant characteristics was the foundation for development of the system. The guidelines are presented in this article as a guide for educators who are considering developing applications for their courses or Extension programs.
Information for the application was collected from several sources, including an existing Florida-Friendly plant information database that was used as the point-of-beginning to develop the extensive database used in the application. The concepts of a logic model and a Delphi study were used to organize and assess the information. The logic model was used to generate a series of questions to evaluate if an application was do-able and appropriate for a plant database and the anticipated users. The concept of a Delphi study (assessment of information by a panel of experts) was used in two different ways. First, a quasi-Delphi format was used when building the database by confirming plant facts for each plant in at least five different well-regarded plant identification books. The use of expert books served as a substitute for the panel of experts. Second, a panel of horticulture experts was recruited to test the validity of the format as a tool to solve the problem. Faculty, Extension agents, staff, and Master Gardeners with expertise in plant material, landscape design, and consumer behavior as it relates to plant purchasing reviewed the format and offered suggestions for improvement. The guidelines were written as a series of steps, based on the logic model concept, used to develop the application.
Guidelines for Creating a Decision-Making, Data-Based Mobile Application
The steps of the guidelines are presented, first, to decide if an application or other decision-making tool is appropriate for the task and second, to facilitate the application development process.
Project Considerations and User Needs
Steps 1 and 2 guide the evaluation of the relationship between the problem, the information, the user, and technology. It is designed to help the reader decide if a database/decision-making format is an appropriate problem-solving method for the type of project, the information, and the characteristics and needs of the user.
|Project Considerations and User Needs|
Step 1- Project Considerations
Will a database/decision-making format meet project goals?
Step 2- User Needs
What type of format is compatible with user characteristics?
Evaluation of link between project considerations and user needs
System Features and Information Type
Steps 3 and 4 are intended to help evaluate the technology and type of information to decide if the information is compatible with the technology and if the marriage of the technology and information will help solve the problem.
|Technology Features and Information Type|
Step 3- Technology features
What is needed to meet the user needs?
Step 4- Information type and user skills
Does the information lend itself to a decision-making system and the proposed technology?
Evaluation of link between the technology and the information used to build the system
Database and Application Construction
The steps in Table 3 present guidelines for determining the most appropriate format for constructing the database and guidelines for user interface design for construction of the application.
|Database and Application Construction|
Step 5- Database Construction
What type of database will work best?
Step 6- Application Construction
What is the best user interface design?
Evaluation of link between database and user interface construction
Creating the smart phone application database provided an opportunity for the students to identify a problem and develop a technical solution using their expertise and knowledge about plants and landscape design. The project required the students to evaluate the relationship between the problem, the information, the user, and the technology using logic model and Delphi study concepts. Creating checklists for a series of steps helped the students develop a useful and user-friendly application for anyone who specifies and purchases plants for use in the landscape.
Allbritton, G., & Mott, M. (Eds.). (2007). FNGLA certified horticulture professional manual. 8th ed. Orlando: The Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association Inc.
Hodges, A., Marco P., & Hall, C. (2010). Trade flows and marketing practices within the U.S. nursery industry. Southern Cooperative Series Bulletin 411. University of Florida Food and Resource Economics Department.
LaBelle, C. (2011). Place-based learning and mobile technology. Journal of Extension [On-Line], 49(6) Article 6IAW1. Available at http://www.joe.org/joe/2011december/iw1.php
Satterthwaite, L., & Haydu. J.J. (2004). Consumer purchasing habits of Florida environmental horticulture products. Electronic Data Information Source (EDIS) Publication #FE473. University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL. Retrieved from: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fe473