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.
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.”