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iNaturalist.org is an online community for people interested in the natural world. It serves three purposes: providing software tools for recording information about nature, sharing that and other sources of natural history information, and facilitating communication between naturalists. iNaturalist.org defines ‘naturalist’ broadly as anyone with an interest in nature, including hikers, fishermen, ecologists, bird watchers, hunters, park rangers, beach combers, etc.
But iNaturalist.org is more than just a fun addendum to outdoors recreation. By digitizing, collating, and distributing the observational data and natural history expertise of all kinds of naturalists, iNaturalist.org can serve several social, environmental, and scientific purposes. It also presents novel research opportunities in public participation in science, community-oriented geographic information systems (GIS), and biodiversity informatics.
Recent advances in satellite remote sensing and sensor web technology stand to greatly expand our capacity for monitoring changing conditions in the environment. However, these systems can be difficult and/or expensive to deploy and maintain, and remain restricted in their observational capacity by the limits of engineering. Recreational naturalists, on the other hand, represent a largely untapped source of monitoring capability, one that can record contextual and ephemeral data on both environmental and human factors. Since naturalists are constantly observing, iNaturalist serves as a persistent and nearly real-time source of data over a spatial scale limited only by the range of active users.
As common devices like cell phones and cameras become more location aware, they will be able to feed more biodiversity data into resources like iNaturalist where they can be shared immediately with enthusiasts and researchers. This continuous and near real-time data feed presents a unique opportunity to study species distribution in unprecedented ways. From inferring the impact of environmental changes on local species to global trends in population diversity, iNaturalist has the opportunity to not only reveal information about local environments to its users but to also act as a rich resource for biodiversity researchers and thus have a lasting impact on the planet.
Nate comes from a background in biochemistry and informatics. He received his undergraduate degree from Clark University in biochemistry before receiving a masters degree from U.C. Berkeley’s School of Information. Nate currently lives in the Bay Area and is a User Interface Engineer at Splunk, Inc.
Ken-ichi Ueda is a naturalist, programmer, amateur designer, and informaticist at large. He holds a bachelors in biology from Williams College, and a master’s degree at the UC Berkeley School of Information. His favorite programming language is, obviously, Python.