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Nerding out over nature

Speed read
  • App provides a place for people to record what they find in nature and discuss discoveries with fellow enthusiasts
  • Collected data is made available to scientists to better track the world’s organisms
  • iNaturalist promotes citizen science, scientific methodology, and nature

Spring is upon us, and that means creatures will crawl out of their dens, trees will sprout new blooms, and this year’s generation of critters will enter the world. You’ll soon be able to stroll outside and take in the season’s newest arrivals. When you do, don’t forget to snap a picture of the interesting organisms you find and post it to iNaturalist, nature’s social network.

Backyard safari. The iNaturalist app brings out the explorer in all of us, by encouraging people to observe, identify, and share their experiences with nature wherever they are found. Courtesy iNaturalist/California Academy of Sciences.

Seasoned ecologists and everyday nature-lovers alike now have a space they can visit to nerd out over nature. All they have to do is record their observations on a smartphone, share it on the iNaturalist app, and wait for a fellow nature enthusiast to identify it.

“Our primary goal in operating iNaturalist is to connect people to nature, and by that we mean getting people to feel that the non-human world has personal significance and is worth protecting,” says Ken-ichi Ueda, iNaturalist’s co-founder and co-director.

<strong>Can I eat this?</strong> When users post a picture to the iNaturalist network, other citizen biologists can help them accurately identify the specimen. Courtesy Vlastimil Koutecký. <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/'>(CC BY 2.0)</a>“We have a pretty nerdy way of doing that, of course, but we really believe that recording information about nature in a social context is a tremendous way to understand the awesome depth and breadth of life on Earth.”

Not only is the app good for crowdsourcing and learning about nature, but it also helps track the distribution of organisms around the world, supplying useful data for scientists. iNaturalist even provides the records they collect to scientific data repositories like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.

“If we connect people to nature without contributing to any specific scientific outcomes or quantifiable conservation results, then we're still doing our job,” says Ueda. “But if we just contribute to science without helping people care about the natural world, we’ll be on the wrong track.”

iNaturalist started back in 2008 when Ueda and two fellow grad students were attending University of California Berkeley School of Information. A couple years after graduation, Ueda hooked up with Scott Loarie, the site’s co-director, and the two founded what is now iNaturalist, created an LLC and expanded the scope from there. In 2014, the California Academy of Sciences acquired the company and has served as its home ever since.

The iNaturalist team writes their own software, allowing them to release most of that software  under open source license. The company received funding from Microsoft Research, so their servers are hosted by Microsoft Azure. The computer vision system uses hardware donated by Nvidia.

<strong>Natural enthusiasm.</strong> iNaturalist co-founder Ken-ichi Ueda hopes the app will help connect people to nature and discover that the non-human world is worth protecting. Courtesy Sloarie2 <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en'>(CC BY-SA 4.0)</a>“I could go on about technical details, but honestly, the technology is not what makes iNaturalist interesting,” says Ueda. “Everything we do is powered by the knowledge and commitment of our amazing community of users.”

And that community of users has exploded in size. Although iNaturalist only employs about a half-dozen people, including Ueda and Loarie, it has a massive reach. About 7.6 million observations have been made by the site’s more than 575,000 members. From Malawi to Minnesota, users post photos of organisms as common as the maple tree or as strange as the sea spider.

iNaturalist’s success isn’t only indicative of society’s migration to the smartphone for connectivity and knowledge. It’s also an example of a rise in citizen science, particularly as science becomes increasingly political.

“Engaging large amounts of people in science gets people to value scientific methodology and mentality, and, in our case, it helps people value nature,” says Ueda.

“Instilling these kinds of values is critical for conservation. If people don't appreciate the scientific process, why should they trust the warnings of scientists about the radical consequences of humanity's drastic impacts on the climate? And if people don't care about other species and the ecosystems they inhabit, why would they bother to vote to protect them?”

<strong>5.1 million species of fungi</strong> exist in the world. Crowdsourcing data about the planet's biodiversity is crucial for conservation. Courtesy UnsplashUeda says collecting large amounts of data is crucial if we want to understand how the world is changing. Conventional research done by scientists can only tell us so much because it usually concentrates on one area and one organism.

“Individual field research can tell you about any organism within a small area, and satellite imagery can tell you about things like tree distribution or elephant migration in large areas,
but you can't measure changes in, say, snail distribution, without boots on the ground, and humanity's willingness to pay for that service is waning,” says Ueda.

Going forward, Ueda says they would love to recruit more users in parts of the world where they are lacking in observations. They are also looking to improve their computer vision system and better manage their community as more and more people join the site.   

Until then, environmental scientists and nature novices alike can continue to share their amazing observations with thousands of their peers on iNaturalist. This kind of collaboration, says Ueda, is vital in humanity’s quest to better understanding the world we live in.

“If we don't harness the efforts of volunteers,” warns Ueda, “we will be navigating one of the greatest global ecological shifts in history blindfolded.”

Read more about citizen science:

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