Citizen Science is a Safe Way to Weather the Pandemic


Have the calls for social distancing in response to COVID-19 left you with cabin fever? Got squirrely kids? Here’s an activity that is timely, safe and fun. The goal is to see how many species of plants, animals and fungi you and your neighbors can record in your neighborhood.


It happens that the COVID-19 struck just as Spring is bursting out in many parts of North America. Outside is a healthy place to be, provided you’re alone … or six feet apart from others. There’s opportunity here. This activity uses the iNaturalist (iNat) app which employs Artificial Intelligence and crowdsourced experience to identify all manner of living organisms.


You may have used iNat to record fungi for the North American Mycoflora Project. iNat does even better for many plants and animals. Using iNat outdoors is a great way to help friends and family get their minds off the pandemic and tune into something that is bigger than humanity: the diversity of life that humans are one small part of. Putting names on organisms opens us to the realization that every distinct life form has a unique set of attributes and ecological requirements which the name allows us to probe.


A neighborhood project in Athens, Georgia


To start a neighborhood project, one person needs to create a “collection project,” set a start date, and “create a place” that defines the boundaries of your neighborhood. Actually, you might need to find an experienced iNat user first, since in order to create a new place one “must post at least 50 verifiable observations via your account” (iNat doesn’t want a clutter of rarely used places). A collection project is essentially a filter that includes all observations posted within the boundaries of time and place. The person in charge of a project, called the Admin, can also remove silly or inappropriate postings.


Once a project is set up, invite your neighbors to participate. Have them create personal accounts and join the neighborhood project. Then participants go outside and take pictures of any plants, animals or fungi that strike their fancy, and upload photos to their iNat account. You can upload outside if you have a good cell signal and have downloaded the iNat app (iOS or android) on your cell phone. I usually take multiple photos of several things in the field, then select, crop and upload them when I get back home, using wifi.


Some fungi encountered


Any photos with location data within the project boundaries that you upload to your account will be automatically added to the project. The easiest and most reliable way to do that is to take photos with a smart phone camera with GPS turned on. However, any camera will work. You can manually place your images on a map as you upload them to your account in the iNat web site. (You can also move an observation’s location manually if you don’t want your home location becoming public.)


 Using iNat on a smartphone (outside or at home) lets you use a really fun feature: iNat’s artificial intelligence. To use the AI, press the icon “Observe”, either take a photo or select one from your camera, press “Next”, repeat with several more photos if you have them, and press “What did you see?” In response, iNat gives you multiple options and you select the best fit (usually the first). If you’re way off base often other naturalists will suggest a better name. Recently I have been having fun challenging iNat by posting photos of distinctive-looking leaves just coming up, without flowers. I keep following the distinctive leaves until the plant flowers, then it is usually easy to get a solid identification – and see how smart iNat was before there were flowers!


Using iNat’s AI to get species identifications


iNat is pretty good at putting names on common things if the photos are clear. But there’s an art to taking good nature photos with a smart phone. Take several photos for each organism of aspects likely to be important for identification; take at least a general shot and a close-up. You can get special apps ($3) and lenses ($20) to do amazing close-up photography, which is usually helpful for small critters like insects. Most photo apps these days also let you crop and otherwise tweak your photos before posting to iNat.


This activity is best for adults and older kids. iNaturalist has a gamified app for younger kids called Seek. Both apps and instructions are covered in this article: Exploring Nature When You're Stuck at Home.


The good news is that anyone, young or old, can be safe and have fun outdoors doing a virtual social activity with other curious naturalists. What’s more, there’s scientific value in having many eyes in many places at many times recording natural history. In aggregate the recorded data add to our knowledge of the distribution and phenology of organisms and, over time, their responses to climate change. Such “crowdsourcing” is part of a growing citizen science movement.


Bill Sheehan
Author: Bill Sheehan
Bill Sheehan is a recovering entomologist living in Athens, Georgia. He is president of the North American Mycoflora Project.

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