About a month ago, a Twitter buddy turned me on on to iNaturalist, a citizen science website that crowd-sources images and data about wildlife and flora from all over the world. iNaturalist was started in 2008 by a group of U.C. Berkeley grad students (Go Bears!) as their Masters final project (my fellow information geeks), and the site is currently maintained by one of those students and a Stanford climate change researcher (What?! Cal and Stanford peeps collaborating?!). The site describes itself as a “place where you can record what you see in nature, meet other nature lovers, and learn about the natural world.” Hikers, bird watchers, and other outdoors enthusiasts can use iNaturalist to learn about flora and wildlife in a particular area, and (most importantly, IMO) can contribute their own photos and observations to iNaturalist to help document flora and wildlife in a particular region over time.
I’ve become quite hooked on iNaturalist, and am trying to incorporate it into our hikes and outings.
Using the iNaturalist Website
Browsing most parts of iNaturalist can be done without an account, however contributing observations, helping to identify species, commenting, and other interactive features do require you to sign up for a free account.
Navigating the Site
There are five main entry points to browse the website. Observations provides an updated stream of observations (pinned to a map) displayed in reverse chronological order. Species provides a categorized view of observations organized into parent-level biological Kingdom classifications that drill down to the species level (taxa in science geek speak). Projects are collaborative observation groups (much like Flickr Groups or Facebook Groups) that focus on a particular species, region, or institution. Places allow you to focus on all of the species that can be found in a particular locality, such as a country, state, county, city, designated open space, etc. People lets you find other iNaturalist users.
Contributing Observations and Confirmations
Observations are the meat and potatoes of iNaturalist — without them, there is no real meal. Yes, you could just choose to use iNaturalist as a field guide species look-up app, taking advantage of those rich Species profiles (with their cool Wikipedia mashup descriptions). But, what sets iNaturalist apart from other similar field guide apps is the steady stream of user-contributed (crowd-sourced) species Observations from all over the world. So, don’t just be an armchair naturalist…do your part as a citizen scientist by contributing your own wildlife and flora photos from out in the field!
Contributing Observations to the website is a piece of cake. You can upload photos directly to the website (this is the slowest method), or connect your iNaturalist profile to your Flickr or Picasa account (the fastest method) and pull in photos that you’ve already uploaded to one of these two photo sharing sites. [A tip...I tag my Flickr photos with "iNaturalist" to more quickly and easily filter when adding to the website.] Once you’ve picked a photo to contribute, use the robust “Lookup” button to search the species taxonomy for the right classification (aka “mule deer”, or just “deer”). If you aren’t sure, you can go with something as generic as “plants”, and then check the “ID Please!” box to ask the extensive user base for identification help. Add the date observed, plot your Observation on the included Google Map, add a pertinent optional Description (aka “Viewed this mule deer eating alongside the ABCD hiking trail.”), and add any optional Tags relevant to you.
Contributing to Projects
I highly encourage you to get involved with Projects and contribute to Projects! Browse the index to find localities, species, or events that suit your interests. We joined all of the regions in which we regularly hike — for example, the “Anza Borrego Desert Wildlife” Project. From the detail view of any Observation you submit, click on the “Add to project” button to also contribute that particular Observation to a Project that you’ve already joined.
If you don’t find one for your specific niche, create one. We did! Greene Adventures created the “Biodiversity in Orange County” Project as a place to crowd-source and chronicle the wildlife and flora that can be found in Orange County, California. Imagine how robust this collection could be if our local parks agencies, schools and colleges, and outdoors enthusiasts contributed field Observations? A big shout-out to Walk Simply, who joined iNaturalist and our new Project, after a brief Twitter conversation earlier this week!
Using the iNaturalist Mobile Apps
The iPhone app is a super handy tool for capturing and contributing Observations on the trail and out in the field. Even if you don’t have a data connection (frequently the case, when we’re hiking), you can still capture photos, GPS positioning, and other important metadata, and then contribute those to the website by syncing your Observations when you’re back in data signal range.
One key bit of functionality that I find missing from the iPhone app is the ability to see Observations (mine, as well as others) in a particular area.
When I scroll the map to places to which I have contributed Observations, these don’t show up on my mobile map. I’d love to be able to use the app as a mobile GPS-enabled field guide when hiking open spaces and trails (assuming I get a data signal) — much like what Historypin does for historical spots. While I can look up species info for mobile identification purposes, I’d really like to see user-contributed Observations for that locality.
Using the iNaturalist Widgets
iNaturalist also offers what seem like some pretty nifty widgets that can be embedded into a blog, website, or presentation. You can see an example in our blog footer — the most recent Observations contributed by Greene Adventures.
But, try as I might, I can’t get these embedded widgets to display within the body of an actual blog post. You can see what I mean below — blog readers should be able to see a steam of our most recent Observations, as well as a stream of the most recent Observations contributed to the “Biodiversity in Orange County” Project. Oh well…I’ll troubleshoot the issue.
I am still getting to the know the site…there is just so much cool outdoors nerdy information and functionality. But, as I play more and discover more, I will certainly share and post more.
Give it a try! And connect with Greene Adventures!