**This blog entry orginally appeared on the website oceanspaces.org.**/p>
“That came from over there? With the old bicycles and other trash from Oakland?” remarked one enthusiastic and surprised BioBlitz participant on the shores of Lake Merritt. The mission of a BioBlitz is to document every living thing in a designated area – in this case, the first wildlife refuge in America. In the urban setting of Oakland, a surprising diversity of birds, insects, plants, and mud critters were photographed and recorded using iNaturalist, an online platform that promotes paying attention to the nature around you. 236 species recorded by 67 people in a total of 1267 observations, to be exact.
photo by Amy Freitag
BioBlitzes are only one illustrative example of how iNaturalist can be used, and the Lake Merritt BioBlitz is a ‘project’ within iNaturalist. Participants can record observations of any organism through the website or smartphone app. Observations need a good spatially-tagged photograph (which smartphones do automatically), then offer the observer a chance to record any other relevant information, such as possible species identification, weather or other environmental conditions, or the organism’s behavior.
The platform hosts about 1500 projects thus far, and anyone who wants to can sign up as an observer or register a project. Groups can even plug iNaturalist into their own website – complete with program look and feel – and use the platform to direct and focus volunteer effort towards priority data. In sum, these 1500+ nested projects form a large data set describing the distribution and abundance of almost every organism visible to the naked eye.
Participants can sign up for iNaturalist as individuals or create projects on the website and can record new observations, verify existing observations, or both. Either way, all observations are entered in the overall iNaturalist database. Individual projects can probe the data for answers to specific questions they are interested in (for example, how is the lizard population of Texas changing?) while they or other researchers can explore the entire database for more wide-scale questions. In some cases, projects that faded over time can still contribute to this national database even after the project’s owner stops participating. Overall, iNaturalist serves like a satellite network over the spaces participants live to look at trends over time.
One important aspect of the nested nature of iNaturalist is that the whole program can deliver the economy of scale needed to keep projects running and support small projects in the early years with data analysis and volunteer recruitment. Participants can crossover from one project to another easily through two pathways: reporting an observation to multiple projects simultaneously or through finding and joining new projects through the social networking attributes of the website.
Meeting the Mission by Balancing Goals
iNaturalist design walks the fine line between being user-friendly and getting useful data, but achieving the ‘fun’ aspect is always step one. Large numbers of users strengthen the scientific data and capacity to verify species identifications. Aspects of iNaturalist that contribute to the fun include ease of use, instant feedback for participants, and gamification (like ranked lists for top numbers of observations). Fun creates rigorous science, which subsequently can be used in a variety of ways by the large user community, including education to management applications as well as fodder for scientific papers (which is the primary goal).
Data Types Good for a Citizen Science Approach
Users are good at photographing and reporting across a wide variety of taxa. In some cases, like at the Lake Merritt BioBlitz event, project leaders can provide equipment needed for more complicated observations, like plankton or small mud-living worms best visible under a microscope. Since the platform focuses on photography, the methods dictate what types of observations are common in iNaturalist. Species that require some specialized documentation, such as the anatomy of insect mouthparts or the color of mushroom spores, will never be classified down to species based on a whole-organism photograph. Individual projects might list instructions for capturing those special attributes and still make use of iNaturalist, but extra attention and quality control is necessary.
The social networking functions of iNaturalist provide a space for interactions between experts and participants. If, for example, you snap a photo of an interesting looking insect, upload it, and label it ‘cool bug’, within a couple of days someone is likely to find the observation and identify it. If it’s not clear, a conversation sometimes ensues about what the insect was sitting on, what temperature it was that day, or other information that might help. In the end, iNaturalist brings to smaller or newer citizen science programs what some of the larger national programs have to offer – built in expertise to help participants learn more about what they’re recording.
While iNaturalist is not consciously aimed at a management audience, it serves as a useful early-warning system and management tool for out-of-range, rare, or invasive species that are hard to observe without extensive effort. iNaturalist provides some ‘birds-eye view’ connections to management using their complete data set, but since different strategies might work better or worse for individual projects, connecting to management is a nested approach. Therefore, project leaders also use their data to reach out to managers directly.
All verified ‘research grade’ (see below) data are uploaded to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). The iNaturalist data set has been downloaded over 1500 times from GBIF and overall, GBIF data contributes to over 20 peer-reviewed journal articles each month. iNaturalist data is also uploaded to the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), which uses the data to look at species interactions.
Since scientific applications are the main goal of iNaturalist, they’ve consciously planned the program to provide scientific credibility. In fact, one of the main benefits of using iNaturalist as a technological platform is some of the inherent credibility it brings through being an established platform with an understandable, known plan for verifying data.
Verification of data quality
iNaturalist has an internal verification system to certify observations as ‘research grade’ – and about 40% of data receives that certification. One pathway to this certification is to have designated experts, or ‘curators’, within a project verify the observation. Another is through consensus of other participants – if consensus can be reached among at least 10 other observers, the record is verified. Only research grade data is used in data analysis for scientific questions asked of the database.
Raw data transparency and access
All data is publicly available through the iNaturalist website and smartphone apps, searchable by taxonomy or geography. While this is how most members of the general public access the data, all verified ‘research grade’ data are also available through the public biodiversity data portals GBIF and EOL. From these databases, scientists can employ a variety of their own analytical methods and compare to professional observations in the same areas.
Clarity of communications
iNaturalist developers pride themselves in creating an easy-to-use platform with a straightforward and interactive process of uploading and verifying data. Because the website also functions as a social networking site, observers, curators, and developers can chat about individual examples when necessary and the participatory process used to verify data leaves people comfortable with resulting conclusions that depend on those identifications.
Willingness and capability to adapt methods
Since iNaturalist can be subdivided into individual projects, there is space to try new things or to tailor data collection for particular uses. Projects can go above and beyond the basic data collection and still be supported by the underlying platform, providing a use for the data even when the experiment doesn’t necessarily work out.
App development and any other improvements to iNaturalist made at the request of member projects (and often paid for by those projects) are then available to all member projects as a shared technological library. This is another example of how iNaturalist can leverage their economy of scale to help smaller programs who might not have the funding or expertise to develop needed technologies themselves.
iNaturalist is open-source software and free for anyone to use. Yet, the cost of doing good citizen science is not free. In this case, the volunteered time from experts is most critical to successful program function, but as the developers will state, financial resources are needed for further technological development. Only when resources are available can iNaturalist improve and grow to meet user needs. Here’s a short list of critical resources, ideally for each project within iNaturalist:
- money for technological development
- partners with good outreach skills, especially for volunteer recruitment
- experts or ‘curators’ in each specialized taxa explored for scientific application
Looking Toward the Future
The iNaturalist team have a long list of future plans for the program, largely to expand the kinds of scientific questions the data set can answer and therefore be useful to more types of citizen science programs. Current functions serve the needs of about 50% of the projects iNaturalist developers have encountered and the ability to add absence data would cover a substantial portion of the rest.
Eyeing more complicated development, the app interface, especially on Android, could be more intuitive; as of now, the iPhone app has more functionality. In particular, with each observation, more context would be helpful. If reporting a roadkill sighting, for example, road conditions and speed limit are helpful pieces of metadata in order to interpret the results meaningfully. Further down the line, projects should be able to request structured observation data such as transects or quadrat methodologies. These improvements will come with available time for development.
A larger challenge and desire is to use observations to get presence/absence data (as opposed to just presence). Specifically, participants need to be able and willing to report if they went looking for something and couldn’t find it. This could look like an effort-based reporting, like ‘I went out for 2 hours and found these things, but not these things’.
Fundamentally, the applications of iNaturalist as both a platform for other citizen science group and as a stand-alone program encouraging people to walk around in nature and truly observe are growing. Now part of the California Academy of Sciences, iNaturalist is also growing in capacity and gaining international recognition as a way for CalAcademy to reach around the world.