Behind the power of iNaturalist

In past bio-blurbs we introduced project participants to individuals who are assisting in the Australasian Fishes project. In this edition, we introduce, not a person, but a key element in the success of the project, the software used to collect the research data, iNaturalist.
Imagine that NASA contacted you for advice. They said they were launching a space probe, designed to travel beyond the Solar System, and wanted to include data which illustrated all natural life on Earth. Assuming that once you were over the initial surprise that NASA had your contact details, you might ponder the options available before giving them advice. Perhaps many of you would suggest launching a complete, digitised, set of David Attenborough’s wildlife documentaries, which would provide a beautiful and amazing cross section of our planet’s natural environment. On the other hand, you might suggest storing aboard the spacecraft, a digitised set of all National Geographic (NatGeo) issues, since its founding in 1888, as a way to provide a photo collection of some of the best wildlife images on our planet. Both would provide any interested extra-terrestrial with a broad view of the diversity of natural wildlife found on Earth, however, we know that both views would be limited. In spite of the fact that both David Attenborough’s work and the entire NatGeo collection have given mankind an excellent perspective of the planet over the years, we know there are still a lot of images of our rich natural life, laying on the cutting room floor at both institutions. Each entity recording the natural environment exists not only to provide documentary evidence of life on the planet, but must also entertain and enthral their respective audiences. The view they give us is heavily edited, designed to interest as well as document. Although graphic and attractive, both sources have gone through the filter of numerous editors, who have shaped the final product we are viewing.
I would suggest you should nominate the iNaturalist database. iNaturalist is the software used by Australasian Fishes, and would provide as a truer representation of what our planet has to offer in terms of flora and fauna diversity and uniqueness. A copy of the iNaturalist database, destined to travel beyond the Void, if downloaded today, would contain 19.7 million observations of life on Earth, covering more than 210,000 different species. The alien viewers would learn that over 1,4 million Earthlings have contributed to this project, submitting millions of images with quality ranging from amateur to NatGeo cover, in richness and colour.
The view provided would be an unvarnished, scientific database of what life looks like at a particular point in time, across the entire planet, collected by people with passion for their subjects and without the need to meet any commercial objectives. It is quite a collection as iNaturalist is the leading citizen science software in the world and worthy of the space flight.
That’s quite an accomplishment for an 11 year old piece of software, but as participants in Australasian Fishes know, this is not a regular piece of software. iNaturalist was first developed in 2008, placing it’s founding between the birth of Facebook (2004) and the release UBER (2009). It started life as a group Master’s Degree project at the University of California’s Berkley School of Information. Three Berkley students, Nate Agrin, Jessica Kline and Ken-ichi Ueda worked together to create the earliest version of this citizen science software. Once it was produced, both Agrin and Ueda continued working on the platform, collaborating, and seeking help from others along the way. By 2014, the project merged with the California Academy of Sciences, and since 2017, it has been a joint initiative between the Academy and the National Geographic Society.
iNaturalist needs no real introduction as all of us in the project are aware of the features of the software and how its design and utility has been a strong catalyst for growth of the Australasian Fishes (AF) project. You are using the software to read this article. It serves the project, free of charge, as a very serious and robust platform for crowdsourcing information on individual organisms (like a fish) at a particular time and place. Once recorded the observation becomes part of a global network of data on Nature, incorporated in to other online databases such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Biodiversity_Information_Facility). We have seen this process in Australasian Fishes, and the software has been a catalyst for project growth and engagement.
Participants would be encouraged by the growth in iNaturalist powered projects as illustrated by the amazing growth of observations in our project. We have over 50,000 observations of 2,194 different species. This growth is driven by our project’s 1,500+ observers submitting their images and geolocating their fish photos. The software makes creating research grade observations easy and fun because of the unique design of the platform. It is far more than just a database of life on the planet. There is also another dimension to its growth and that is “spin-off” projects or other initiatives which are using iNaturalist for their own research. Since established, iNaturalist has been the backbone of numerous citizen science initiatives such Bio Blitz’s, school projects, wildlife surveys and special interest groups. An example would be the City Nature Challenge (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_Nature_Challenge) which annually focuses on urban, biodiversity. There are projects for subjects like roadkill, animal tracks and fish catches, as well as the type of data collected by Australasian Fishes. The software can handle all such varied uses, creating a diverse but comprehensive picture of natural life on this planet. Frequent users of Australasian Fishes will know of the growth in projects founded by project participants. To illustrate, you have read in the Journal section, for example, about Shelly Ocean Swimmers (https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/australasian-fishes/journal/16962-member-profile-lucy-smiechura) which began as an ocean swimming group, but using the power of iNaturalist, its members have grown to be avid citizen scientists, recording almost 4,000 observations the diverse marine life in their area for all. There are other projects, which are dedicated to singular locations such as Shiprock in Sutherland Shire (https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/shiprock) collects images of the diversity of marine life at one local area. There are also projects dedicated to individual classes of flora and fauna, such as Sea Slugs of the World (https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/seaslugs-of-the-world) which was set up by Sascha Schultz in 2017, to carry on the earlier work of the Sea slug Forum. So, from a very local focus to the global collection of data, iNaturalist has been the successful engine of this scientific endeavour. I would guess many participants in AF belong to more than one iNaturalist projects.
What has made iNaturalist so successful is its fusion of two elements of citizen science: the citizen and the science. To support the science the software is well designed with artificial intelligence supported scientific tools including automated species identification (providing either genus or family, if the AI cannot decide on a species), easy to use geolocation software, easy data downloading, taxa guides, video tutorials, a comprehensive app, and even Teacher’s Guides on how to use the software for education. It is what you’d expect from advanced scientific software.
It is the “citizen” component which has driven its current success. Aside from its scientific grunt, the true power of the iNaturalist, however, is its integration of social medial tools for the purpose of advancing knowledge. Everyone knows the power of social media. Its power to capture (or addict?) the attention and time of people has occupied much space in the media, which has focused on the downside of social media. Research has shown it does have negative impacts such as its addictive qualities, anxiety issues resulting from fear of missing out, sleep deprivation and the decrease in communication skills for those who seem to reside in the cyber-verse for much of their waking hours. iNaturalist, however, illustrates how the addictive tools of social media can be used for positive outcomes. The social media components of the program works to connect people who share common interests, motivating and inspiring people who wish to learn and creating a virtual community of like-minded citizens, all focusing on achieving a scientific outcome or objective. There are several ways to communicate in the project, allowing group and private discussions on observations. There are leader boards recognising the contribution of project leaders in numbers of observations and identifications, a strong motivation which work to put you in contact with experts, at the touch of a button.
In summary, the iNaturalist data base would make an excellent record of life on Earth, because of people like you and the software upon which we operate. Our database is gaining notoriety in the scientific community and through your assistance and the iNaturalist platform we are helping to create to facilitate future research on the natural environment.
This journal post was written by Australasian Fishes member, Harry Rosenthal.
Thank you as always Harry! :).
Posted by markmcg markmcg, May 07, 2019 10:25

Comments

Thumb

What a great journal entry! Making sure some other folks check this out too:
@carrieseltzer @tiwane @kimberlietx @annikaml @tadamcochran @gcwarbler @greglasley @connlindajo @nanofishology

A great read. :) Sharing this!

Posted by sambiology 4 months ago (Flag)
Thumb

How lovely! I'm so glad that you've found it to be an effective tool for building a community of enthusiasts around Australasian Fishes. You're doing a great job— keep it up :-)

Posted by carrieseltzer 4 months ago (Flag)
Thumb

Great read! And so true: "iNaturalist, however, illustrates how the addictive tools of social media can be used for positive outcomes. The social media components of the program works to connect people who share common interests, motivating and inspiring people who wish to learn and creating a virtual community of like-minded citizens, all focusing on achieving a scientific outcome or objective."

Posted by annikaml 4 months ago (Flag)
Thumb

Thanks for sharing this article! It was informative and inspiring.
I was amazed by the City Nature Challenge 2019 results. In my small and isolated world, I assumed the event was more of a California/Texas/US/Mexico interest, but the worldwide results changed my thinking.
I am gratified that iNat is being recognized for the valuable tool that it is.
I am even prouder to be a part of the iNatualist community.
(By the way, in landlocked Central Texas, I vicariously enjoy the underwater beauty of the world through the observations of @maractwin.)
Thanks again, ljc.

Posted by connlindajo 4 months ago (Flag)
Thumb

Thanks Harry, great info as always., really interesting. Look forward to when NASA start sending their observations back from Mars, I'm sure they'll post them on the iNaturalist website. All the best Ken

Posted by ken_flan 4 months ago (Flag)
Thumb

The comments above say it better than I could. Well done @harryrosenthal for a great post. 🙂

Posted by markmcg 4 months ago (Flag)
Thumb

Thanks for your kind words everyone. I learned a great deal by researching this piece and I am glad you share my impression that we are part of a global community. Harry

Posted by harryrosenthal 4 months ago (Flag)
Thumb

Very nice! Glad I could contribute 24 photos from 2007 to this project :D

Posted by nanofishology 4 months ago (Flag)
Thumb

Thanks for your contributions to Australasian Fishes @nanofishology. I see that your fishy observations are from New Zealand. You need to make your next trip to Australia and photograph fishes here. 🙂

Posted by markmcg 4 months ago (Flag)
Thumb

I need to visit BOTH now that I'm A Naturalist with a Capital N! Everything I captured in NZ was purely me not having any idea I'd ever use the photos, and my absolutely terrible photo management practices (or total lack thereof) means I threw out most of my photos--I KNOW I have a photo of the New Zealand pigeon, but I can't find it anywhere. It's GONE! The only photos I still have were the ones I uploaded to PhotoBucket so I could post to LiveJournal while I was on my trip, and these were the seriously resized and cropped photos. *sigh*

And now, you need to pry me off the bugs ;)

Somebody needs to come up with iNaturalist Travel Grants. I visited Malawi for 10 days back in 2017, and I'm STILL the top observer by observation count, and #2 by species count.
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?place_id=7113&view=observers

Everywhere I go, there's a one-person bioblitz, including in the Catacombs of Paris (https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?nelat=48.831399329272756&nelng=2.336131213232875&place_id=any&subview=grid&swlat=48.830428219753&swlng=2.33250486664474&user_id=nanofishology)

Posted by nanofishology 4 months ago (Flag)
Thumb

@nanofishology Excellent set of Malawi images! Love the Paris Catacombs observations. After seeing those images, I now feel that you definitely need to come to Australia. 🙂

Posted by markmcg 4 months ago (Flag)
Thumb

@markmcg I agree! Sadly, my income doesn't (maybe it will when I'm not unemployed anymore 😉)

Posted by nanofishology 4 months ago (Flag)
Thumb

@nanofishology I wish you well. Make it a long term goal. :)

Posted by markmcg 4 months ago (Flag)
Thumb

What an amazing journal post. Thank you. Inspires and makes me proud to be a contributer (be it ever so tiny) to the big picture recording life on Earth. This has to be the most important database on the planet, surely?

Posted by jacqui-nz 4 months ago (Flag)
Thumb

I can't put it better than Jacqui:- simply amazing.
(Proud me is also guiltridden me,but Harry you can take small comfort from this last line:) )

Posted by davemmdave 3 months ago (Flag)
Thumb

Hi Dave, my mailbox is still empty, but no pressure.

Posted by harryrosenthal 3 months ago (Flag)

Add a Comment

Sign In or Sign Up to add comments

Is this inappropriate, spam, or offensive? Add a Flag