The challenge and the organization
“There are millions of species in the world that are only known from a handful of dusty museum specimens,” says Scott Loarie, co-director of iNaturalist.org, an online community for sharing observations of plant and animal species. Tracking endangered species is a long process – many species are assessed only every 10 years, due to the difficulty of collecting data on species and their locations. That time frame is much too slow. It means that species could be well on their way to extinction before data is collected, given how fast their habitats are changing due to climate change and land development.
iNaturalist, part of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, uses the power of crowdsourcing, maps, and photo sharing to encourage environmental stewardship. The hope is that conservationists can use this data to help save a species before it becomes extinct.
But iNaturalist isn’t just an online resource for scientists: Anyone can post a picture of a snail they see in their backyard, or a plant they spot while on vacation, and add it to the iNaturalist site. Scientists, naturalists, and plain-old nature watchers can identify the species in the picture. The observations are plotted on maps, allowing visitors and nature-watchers to see what’s been spotted in their neighborhoods or places they’re visiting.
Loarie calls iNaturalist a form of “citizen science” – but it’s intended to do more than just track biodiversity. “We want to inspire people to reconnect with the natural world,” Loarie says. “We also want to collect a bunch of data. But we couldn’t do the science we’re doing without people’s participation.”
When iNaturalist launched in 2008, originally at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, user-friendliness was a key consideration. If the site was going to encourage everyone from scientists to schoolkids to post their observations and see where other citizen scientists spotted certain species, then maps needed to be easy understand and customize. In addition, developers needed to easily integrate data such as average temperature and terrain onto maps to offer a more in-depth look at movements of species.
How they did it
iNaturalist uses the Google Maps API to help site visitors see where observations have been made, and click on points to see what other nature watchers have observed in their local areas. If visitors are interested in a particular species, like the monarch butterfly, they can view a global map of all observations, and mouse over a list of map points to see where and when the butterfly was spotted.
An iNaturalist map showing locations of snail observations in the Oakland, California, area. Photos and descriptions are uploaded by “citizen scientists.”
iNaturalist’s Android and iOS apps use a mobile device’s GPS capabilities to provide latitude and longitude data so that Google Maps can indicate the precise location of the find when the photo is taken. On the developer side, Loarie and his colleagues can add in Landsat satellite data, MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) data on climate and temperature, and other data sets on population.
– Scott Loarie, co-director, iNaturalist.org
As of early 2017, iNaturalist has captured 3.8 million observations from over 350,000 contributors, spanning more than 100,000 species. In 2016, the data captured by iNaturalist comprises over 50 percent of all non-bird biodiversity information recorded within 81 countries.
While iNaturalist has succeeded in its goal of getting hundreds of thousands of people to connect with the natural world, it’s also helping scientists discover crucial findings about species. Last year, after a naturalist took a photo of a snail on a Vietnam island and posted it to iNaturalist, snail experts recognized it as a species that hadn’t been seen for more than 100 years. Also last year, a 10-year-old girl posted a picture of a bird near her Los Angeles home and asked for help identifying it. Members of the American Birding Association tagged it as a rare sighting of a social flycatcher bird, not usually seen in that area.
Observation by observation, and picture by picture, the iNaturalist team plans to use its biodiversity data to model trends in the distribution and abundance of species – that is, where they’re moving and whether their numbers are growing or shrinking. “The extinction timeframe for many species is an order of magnitude faster than it used to be,” Loarie says. “We need to have a system that speeds up the process of assessing species.” iNaturalist, he says, allows everyday citizens with mobile devices to play a critical role in conservation and learn more about the natural world around them.