Citizen Science: The iPhone App

A new iPhone app aims to make recording and sharing observations of the natural world fast, easy, and could eventually help bring climate models into better focus.

Ken-ichi Ueda and Scott Loarie demonstrated the new iNaturalist iPhone app at Stanford's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve (Photo: Richard Morgenstein)

At Jasper Ridge, a biological preserve and study area on the Stanford campus, a dozen of the preserve’s docents gathered this week to learn about a new iPhone application that could ultimately help scientists study how ecosystems are adapting to climate change.

The new app, called iNaturalist, is the mobile version of a citizen-science website by the same name.  The iPhone app is still in testing and not yet available, but the website, iNaturalist.org, is already an active online community of citizen-scientists around the world who use the site to record and share their sightings.

One of the original iNaturalist creators, Ken-ichi Ueda, has teamed up with Scott Loarie, a post-doctoral fellow at the Carnegie Institute at Stanford. The two are hoping to leverage the site and the mobile application to engage more citizens to contribute to a growing database of field observations that could help scientists track biodiversity.

“One of things that’s most pressing in conservation is that species are going extinct about a thousand times faster than they ever have before,” said Loarie.  “So the scale of this problem is just incredible. It’s way too difficult for a handful of museums and graduate students to stay on top of.”

With the iNaturalist site, and especially with the new iPhone app, which streamlines the uploading process, Loarie hopes to get as many “eyes on the ground” as possible, documenting where species are, and where they aren’t.

You can think about species around the world like little lights blinking on and off,” Loarie explained. “Whats happening with climate change and land use change is that those lights are blinking off faster than they are blinking on, and a lot of them are happening totally under the radar screen.”

Ueda originally co-developed the iNaturalist site as a project during his Masters studies at UC Berkeley’s School of Information.

“My initial goal with the site was to get people engaged with nature, not necessarily to do the science,” said Ueda. “The scientific data is a really valuable and useful by-product, but my primary motivation is to get people outside and thinking about the plants and animals that they’re seeing.”

But now Ueda and Loarie are trying to take iNaturalist to the next level by finding ways this crowd-sourced data can be useful to scientists.

“It’s really cool if I’m walking around and I see a horned lizard because they are really cool animals,” said Ueda. “But it’s even cooler if I see one here at Jasper Ridge, because no one has seen one here for a long time, and it could be locally extinct.”

An observation like that, he said, could be valuable to scientists. One of the tasks now, he said, is to find ways to connect that data with the scientists who care about it and to establish standards of data quality so that scientists can trust it.

Ueda said the iPhone app may not be ready for the public for another month, but in the meantime, users can easily upload their digital photos from the field to the site, once they get home.   The site is connected with Google Maps, and Wikipedia and the photo-sharing site Flickr, so adding comments, information, and geographical information is easy.  The app, when it’s ready, should make logging observations even easier.

In the field on Friday, Loarie and Ueda were showing off a testing version of the app.

“I think the idea has a a lot of merit,” said Ross Bright, a docent at Jasper Ridge who was at the presentation. “Whether its workable and doable is the problem.  My own personal perspective is that most docents are not necessarily literate in the high-tech gadgetry that’s involved in the this.  There will be a learning curve.”

Ueda and Loarie hope that not only will the docents at Jasper Ridge start cataloging their observations with the new app, but also that the public at large will catch on and record their observations wherever they are.

“There are no geographic or taxonomic restrictions on the site,” said Ueda. “You don’t even really have to know what you’re looking at. You can be like, “Oh, sweet, a tree. There are trees in my yard,”  That’s good to think about.  Anyone can do it.”

  • Samsky

    Sounds like a neat synergy between the developers, a classic startup story. Could be eventually quite useful for conservation science!

  • Bean

    This is great. Looking forward to the app!!

  • http://www.atlascorps.org Courtney Katz

    It is extremely useful to have someone like Scott Loarie shedding light on the magnitude of how ecosystems are adapting to climate change, because it is important to emphasize the data involved. What a great way to bring in technology to create a real-time way to aid observers of natural beauty, habitats and ecosystems collect information on their spottings. It is often difficult to move forward science when you are gazing at natural beauty and not motivated to think about the larger picture of data collection for the future, often we are “living in the moment.” I briefly knew Scott at Duke pulling all-nighters, while crunching data….not many environmentalists are willing to do that. I worked for two years for the Environmental Protection Agency, and while I admired and was fascinated by some amazing scientists and engineers, they were burned by the details, data and policy, and became more focused on star-gazing than worrying about how disruption was affecting our future! Congrats to these individuals on continuing to focus on some key milestones!

  • Ben Best

    Bravo on a visually compelling and easy-to-use website which represents a significant early contribution towards a future bridging the gap between citizens and science! A portable app for GPS-enabled camera phones is a “natural” next step.

    Your simple approach of picture and place doesn’t require taxonomic expertise, but still builds to the storehouse of information to be used for anybody from the casual hiker to the global conservation planner. Subsequent identification by a scientist of a citizen’s post provides near realtime communication between previously disjoint communities.

    Precedence exists for naturalist apps like BirdsEye (http://www.getbirdseye.com/) and plant identification (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/10/business/10novel.html?_r=2&th=&adxnnl=1&emc=th&adxnnlx=1296411265-yEyiOzeT5+EXIA32yahHug). Your proposed app is still more generalizable to any taxa.

    It also will be extremely useful for conservation management to not only identify where a species is found, but where it is not. As with the example given of a species found in a place previously thought to be locally extinct. This is an added challenge and reward for the would-be data collectors, similar to how birders are most on the hunt for as yet personally unseen birds to add to their “life list”. For predicting effects of climate change into the future distributions of animals, we need to use this information to document current shifts and project distributions into the future based on environmental forecasts.

    Two-way linkages to larger data portals like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (data.gbif.org) and Encyclopedia of Life (eol.org) I hear are in the works. It is refreshing to see technical entrepreneurial ingenuity freshly applied to the biodiversity crisis. Global real world solutions to climate change are society’s greatest challenge. Top-down tactics between governments are slow and encumbered. This bottom-up grass roots approach will hopefully inform and awaken the process.

    I’m a huge fan. Rock on!

  • Kathleen Bibbens

    As a retired educator, I anticipate this will be a most valuable tool in the promotion of curiosity in the scientific field. Imagine the classroom electricity when a student brings in a picture of something discovered on a family camping trip, on a trip to the beach, or on a hike in Costa Rica. Think of the endless higher thinking skills a teacher could stimulate through purposeful questions and directed discussion. In addition, the specimen becomes a springboard for cross curriculum assignments: geography, history, writing. The possibilities are limitless.
    Congratulations to you for such a fabulous and useful tool. I am looking forward to tracking your progress.

  • McGillicuddy

    What can be done so this does not become a resource for hunters, poachers, and collectors?

    • http://inaturalist.org Ken-ichi

      McGillicuddy: excellent point. We’re still so small that it hasn’t become an issue, but you’re right, it certainly could be. The way that we’d like to approach this is to allow people to adjust the display accuracy of each observation, so it won’t show up on the map bellow a certain zoom level, and where the coordinates normally show it would just say “somewhere in San Mateo County, CA, USA” or something. I think these kinds of restrictions would automatically get applied to special status species (IUCN threatened, state and federal endangered, etc). We haven’t gotten to the point of building this stuff yet, but it’s on the horizon.

      • McGillicuddy

        this is exactly what I was hoping for. spatial resolution of the data for scientific purposes, prob a 1km accuracy if that is all that might be needed. but those who want to extract biodiversity (even non-protected species) would likely need more. But in some cases knowing that apes are in this forest, or certain herps are in this stream might be enough to assist their endeavors. All I can say, is please consider this issue seriously, I trust that you will :) . I do really like the idea as a whole, just thinking of pitfalls.

    • Anonymous

      Congrats Ken-ichi!!!
      McGillicuddy, I’m both a hunter and a biologist that works on endangered species. I think that iNaturalist could be a great tool for both of those functions. Most hunters that I’ve met have no interest in being grouped with poachers or collectors – they abide by bag limits, and many, like me, focus on the non-native and sometime invasive species here: pigs, turkeys and pheasants. Restrictions on certain species’ locations are necessary but new information on their range or use of non-typical habitat is crucial to the understanding of life histories and essential to the eventual (I hope!) recovery of that species.

  • http://none Michael

    Is there an android version in the works ?(I am an android developer)

    • http://inaturalist.org Ken-ichi

      Yes, we’re planning on building an Android version. We’ve been developing using the Appcelerator Titanium framework, which also supports Android, so we should be able to re-use a lot of the iPhone code.

      • Craig Miller

        Glad to hear that–it was one of my questions, too. Any idea how far behind the iPhone version it will be?

        • http://inaturalist.org Ken-ichi

          Hard to say (this is my first time developing for either platform!). I’m hoping it won’t take more than a month after the first cut of the iPhone version. If you’re interested in helping I’ll be releasing it under an open source license once it’s presentable.

  • Paul

    the iNaturalist website allows amateurs interested in nature to learn about the world around them at the same time that they are contributing to serious biodiversity research. It is brilliant forum for people to share their pictures and backyard observations, receive advice and encouragement from experts in the field, and learn about every aspect of nature. This website and smartphone application will be a real stimulus for more people to abandon the TV set and appreciate the beauty of the world outside.

  • http://www.duke.edu/~ksv2 Kyle Van Houtan

    at NOAA, I’m using iNat to help generate citizen science so we can better understand a nasty tumor-forming disease in sea turtles. The iPhone and Android apps will really help us make progress. Thanks guys!

  • BriannaScott

    This is such a great addition as an app but also as a bridge between the everyday and high-level science. Congrats to all involved!

  • http://www.transitandtrails.org Ryan Branciforte

    Love this project! Great job Ken-ichi and Scott. Mobile devices will become more and more ubiquitous and folks will catch on and likely have fun in the process. It will be great to integrate this data into other platforms as well so that folks that are out recreating can get a better sense of what is around them as well as contribute to the local scientific knowledge of an area. One example is http://www.transitandtrails.org, a project I helped to start. We have an iPhone app and I could envision folks taking the bus to go for a hike, mark some interesting species they see on their hike and then head home. Pretty exciting stuff, keep up the great work!.

  • http://inaturalist.org Ken-ichi

    Thanks, Ryan, and everyone else. Just wanted to let everyone know that the first version of the iNaturalist iPhone app is now available in the App Store. Birds are flying, flowers are popping, and the rain is holding off, so it’s time to explore!