iNaturalist for Citizen Scientists

iNaturalist Observation Page

In the spring of 2014, the California Academy of Sciences (CAS) acquired a crowdsourcing network called iNaturalist.  iNaturalist.org is a social network and mobile application for sharing biodiversity observations.  The idea is to connect people to nature through technology. From its launch in 2008 until CAS took over, the app had been accessed by more than 1.4 million visitors around the world, with a new observation recorded every 45 seconds. When I last checked the count was up to 2,138,868 observations. These observations, which include over 600,000 natural history sightings representing over 50,000 distinct species, are verified and referenced by researchers from around the world.

The Website

The website inaturalist.org has several ways to interact and a lot of information to share.  When you first go to the website, you will see some background and the option to sign up or just to explore without signing up.  The explore option gives you access to everything except the ability to post your findings or interact with others.  After signing up, instead of going to the normal home page, clicking on the iNaturalist logo will take you to your personal home page dashboard. There you have access to your profile and a few other things.  Now, let’s take a look at the main menu items:

menu

Observations lets you search the website for anything that may interest you.  Naturally, I checked out morel mushrooms and found a great list of observations complete with dates and locations.  While the system does let you narrow your search geographically, don’t expect to identify your next morel patch right next door. I searched for morel mushrooms in Oregon and found one observation from last April near Corvallis.  This section also lets you see observations that need identifying information.  If you are logged in you can also see a list of your personal observations – handy for you birders working on a life list.

Species lets you select from a list of taxonomic groups or search for specific items of of interest.  There is an encyclopedia-style entry about each taxonomic group.  If you search for a genus or species, you will see a series of photos with more information if you put your cursor on an image.

Projects lets you search for projects of interest or click the word ‘Projects’ to see a list of available projects.  Some examples:

  • The Great Nature Project from National Geographic wants to see what you discover today, whether in your own backyard, a local park, or anywhere that nature thrives. Photos added to this project are aggregated for visitors to browse on greatnatureproject.org, along with photos that come in from other sources.
  • All Texas Nature from Texas Parks and Wildlife is a repository for citizen science observations through the Texas Parks and Wildlife mobile app, Texas Nature Trackers.
  • Fungi of the North American Continent has a lofty goal:  to catalog the many fungi of the continent of North America. From Alaska to the southern tip of Mexico and all areas in between.
  • Birds of the World wants you to help the growth of knowledge of these amazing creatures!

Places offers the opportunity to identify which species are found where.  You can search for a place, or if you are logged in, you can create a place.  Each place has a species list created by people that have identified organisms at that place.  I found 2233 species listed for Oregon.  The list includes a photo with a link to more information including info (with a map showing all observations), all photos and details on each individual observation.

Guides are lists of organisms or observations set up for a particular purpose or project.  Some of the titles are:

  • Plants of Oliver Nature Park
  • Insects validated new to N.Z.
  • Pinnacles National Park Amphibians
  • Trees and Shrubs of Gooseberry Falls State Park
  • Intertidal Zone – Rockpool Life

This section defaults to a grid format, but if you select the card format, the page reveals a photo, description and map associated with each organism in the guide.  Click on the name of the organism brings up a page with more photos and information and links to even more information.  There is also a button that will generate a printable version of the guide in one of several formats you can choose.  In combination this makes the guide section a great way to develop useful information about organisms found in a specific area like a park or National Forest.

People offers a photo list of people that have been active on the website.  You can click on the person’s name to learn more about what they are up to and follow them if you wish.  You can also search for specific people.  This, and making serious observations, will get you involved in the social aspects of the website.  If you want to find me there, search for jhaugen.  I haven’t done anything beyond setting up a profile and exploring the website, but you are welcome to follow me, if you want to see how that aspect works.

The iNaturalist App

iNaturalist map page

iNaturalist map page as seen in the app.

The iNaturalist app is available for both iOS and Android phones and tablets.  I don’t do Android, so I’ll tell you about the iOS version and perhaps it will be about the same. When you first open the app, you get the option to login or skip the process.  If you choose ‘skip’ you go to the Observations page where you are allowed to make your first observation by clicking on the camera icon and shooting a photo of your find.

A globe icon denoting “Explore” opens a map that shows you where you are, if you allow it.  That’s the folded map icon at the top. The grid icon provides a grid view that in my case was empty at first.   The three-line icon at the top opens a list of observations in the area shown on your map. It found none in my area so I closed the “Restricted to current map area” option and got a long list of observations – seemingly random.  When I clicked back on the grid icon, I got a grid view of the same list.

To get away from the randomness, there is a search box, so I searched for morel and was given a list to choose from so I chose “Genus Morchella.”  The result was a grid view of a lot of morel observations.  I didn’t see any on the map view so I zoomed out until I saw some observations, indicated by a red marker, well south of my home.  Tapping the marker opened up the observation and I found that some morels were found near Burney, California at 9:40 am on May 30, 2014.  I zoomed in on the marker and got a pretty good idea where these morels were seen.  Unfortunately there is no GeoCache-like system that would lead me right to the morel patch.

iNaturalist observation detail page.

iNaturalist observation detail page.

The system does include a way to share any observations you wish via the standard options.  I emailed this one to myself and got this link to the observation page on the website.  As you’ll see if you follow the link, it is the detail page for this morel observation.  You’ll also note that the latitude and longitude of the observation is provided, so you could enter it into your GPS and go directly to the morel patch.  It’s a round-about way to do it, but you can GPS your way to a specific observation location if you wish.

I did all the above, without signing into the app, so next I signed in by tapping the head icon at the bottom.  I immediately and correctly found that “Looks like you have no observations.”  Once logged in, I could go back to the Explore page and do all the things I mentioned above.

At this stage I decided to experiment by taking a picture.  Upon taking the picture and storing it in my phone, iNaturalist asked to have access to my photos, which I allowed.  This opened up a “Details” page showing my photo (there can be several photos) and providing me with places to enter all kinds of information about my observation including:

  • What I saw
  • Ask for help identifying it (yes/no)
  • A text box for entering all of my notes about the sighting.
  • When (automatically filled)
  • Latitude and Longitude (automatically filled)
  • A setting for Geo Privacy in case I don’t want others to see those coordinates
  • Captive or cultivated organism (Yes/no)
  • Projects, wherein I could choose a project with which to record this observation – if I had signed up with one of them.

When done,  I could have tapped “Share” at the bottom of the page to send it off to my official observations list.  Since it was a photo of the keyboard upon which I am typing,  I decided to just cancel out.

Conclusion

If you are simultaneously into nature and social media, this might be just the thing for you.  If you’re not,  you can still use it to record details of any finds you wish.   If you are with an organization that wants to use citizen scientists, or even in-house scientists, to help with field observations, this app and website are perfect.  It’s just a matter of setting up a project and enlisting your citizens to go to work for you.

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