iNaturalist: the power of citizen science

Citizen science is an increasingly popular way of collecting useful scientific data- in this blog post, I will discuss the benefits of this powerful and inclusive. In particular, I will focus on iNaturalist– an online wildlife reporting platform- and how we hope to use it to monitor marine mammals in Scotland.

Citizen science: two-way dialogue

As whale researchers, we are privileged to work in a field that we all truly love. We witness the magic of whales in their natural habitat whilst hopefully making a positive difference to their lives. We work hard to get involved in this work and take pride in our achievements.

However, research is not the sole property of ‘career scientists’. Anybody can contribute to research and the scientific community should welcome their contributions with open arms. In fact, this citizen science can vastly improve research efforts. Together, members of the public can gather far more data than a single group of scientists. There is often a perception that this data is ‘low quality’, but this can usually be attributed to researchers not clearly outlining the data they wish to collect.

Moreover, this should not be one-way communication. If citizens are willing to volunteer their time to collect and report data, the scientific community should share their results. The findings of citizen science should be truly open-access. The public are interested in science and it is up to scientists to engage with others in an interesting, fun and dynamic way. If people appear bored, then we need to improve and not ignore these important channels of communication. The more we share, the more we progress- this is the point of science.

iNaturalist: striking the balance

Therefore, when designing a platform for a citizen science, we need to consider two factors:

  1. Ease of reporting. Citizen scientists should be able to quickly and simply send data to project organisers.
  2. Open access. After collating and analysing data, the project must be able to share its findings with contributors and other members of the public in a readily-accessible format.

In our digital world, there is one simple solution: the internet. Most (but not all) people have access to the internet, so an online reporting system and sharing platform is often the most suitable choice. My favourite example of this is iNaturalist: a free, global wildlife reporting platform, accessible to anyone with internet.

With recent changes to its overall layout, the iNaturalist website is ideal in its simplicity. After creating an account (which takes about 20 seconds), you can report any wildlife you see, anywhere in the world. On the iNaturalist website, simply click ‘upload’ (top right-hand corner), add whatever information you have, and click ‘submit’. If you include a photo in your sighting, an iNaturalist expert can the verify your sighting, checking that the identified species matches the photograph. This ensures that sightings are accurate and reliable.

Sightings can also be added on the mobile app (available from most app stores, including Apple and Google Play). The app can even use your device’s GPS (not data!) to determine the location of your sighting.

iNaturalist is also easy to use for the curious observer. Click on ‘explore’ and you can search for sightings by species, location and date. Here is a map of humpback whale sightings in the Atlantic Ocean:

iNaturalist takes this a step further by allowing the creation of ‘projects’ (under the ‘community’ section on the top menu).  Anybody can create a project to track sightings of a particular species group or area. All sightings which match the requirements of the project are automatically added. Here are a few fantastic examples:

 City Nature Challenge 2018

Now with more than 17,000 observers and 400,000 observations, the City Nature Challenge is the largest iNaturalist project. Essentially, cities compete to report the greatest number of wildlife sightings- a fantastic way to incentivise people to spend time with nature. San Francisco is the current leader, with 42,000 observations. Free and open-access.

Fin-finder

Originally only for fin whales, this project now allow whale watchers in Southern California to contribute sightings of all marine mammals to their database. Nearly 3,000 sightings of marine mammals have so far been reported. Free and open-access.

Great Glen Way Scotland and Beyond

Originally intended for a specific walking trail, this project now applies to the whole of Scotland. From orca to orchids, it’s a great way to see what’s going on across the region. Free and open-access.

Forth Marine Mammal Project

In Scotland, Whale Wise has been helping out with the Forth Marine Mammal Project– a fantastic group of locals who are monitoring whales, dolphins and seals in the Firth of Forth through citizen science. With the arrival of winter humpback whales a few years ago, the project has plenty of public interest.

In order to improve monitoring efforts, we have set up an iNaturalist project that captures all sightings of marine mammals in the Forth which have been submitted to iNaturalist. The hope is to encourage contributors to use iNaturalist so that we can more effectively track the number of observers and the number of animals in the area. This also provides a standardised reporting form: each observer provides the same types of information, allowing us to process and analyse all sightings together. In turn, observers can see all sightings on a map of the area and export observations.

With the arrival of humpbacks during the last few years, the already-busy Firth of Forth will be an increasingly attractive spot for marine tourism. Whilst this is fantastic for the opportunities it would provide for people to connect with nature, it is also important to minimise its impacts and respect the animals we all enjoy to watch. Understanding these populations is crucial to this cause, and iNaturalist is a perfect way to involve the public in the process.

If you have any questions about citizen science or iNaturalist, please feel free to message us on Facebook or Instagram (@whalewise), or email us at info@whalewise.org.

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