Collection projects of the first observations of species in an area

One thing I would like to be able to do with collection projects is set them to display only the earliest observations of taxa from an area. That would be a useful way to alert people to when a new, or rare, species is detected in a new area. That could be newly detected natives or a newly arrived pests.

For example, I’d like to make projects with the earliest 10 observations, by observation date, of wild (not captive/cultivated) introduced plants in the cities, towns, and districts of New Zealand, and then gather them together in an umbrella project. The new observations showing up in that project would be the new potential weeds that others on iNat should be looking out for. It would be of use to our biosecurity agencies looking for new incursions that should be controlled.

I can see a similar thing working well for the first native species of a taxon observed in an area. For example, I could make a new wild native plants of Christchurch City project which would show which observations coming through of native plants that have not been observed here before, or had infrequently been observed here before. That would be interesting, and useful.

Currently, I struggle to track down these new observations on iNat without resorting to wrangling data off-site using the API. Having this as an added option to projects could be a handy way to bring prominence to newly observed species in areas.

More broadly, I could see this working across all of iNat if we had a grid of the world (eg 10 km by 10 km squares) and had a tag visible on all observations that are one of the earliest ten observations of each taxon in each grid square. Collection projects could then choose to just display observations with that tag for grid squares overlapping the project area.

A similar “new to iNat” feature has been requested before (eg https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/label-observation-as-an-inat-first/8346) but what I’m suggesting is making it the first few observations (eg the first 10, not just the first one), and localizing this to areas, and then making this available to collection projects.

@jon_sullivan don’t forget to vote for your own request

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i sort of struggle to see the utility of what you’re describing from a detection perspective.

it seems to me like what you’re describing would be more likely to be used to stroke egos of folks who want to be first to observe a species in a given place.

if you’re really trying to detect a particular problematic species, i would think the most efficient way to do this would be to set up subscriptions for those taxa in your place(s) of interest. alternatively, you could set up projects or queries for those species that you could periodically check.

so then the problem becomes how to determine which species you should be watching for. that could be accomplished through a combination of just being aware of potential threats by offline means and by watching for newly identified species using one of the techniques described in this thread: How to find out-of-range observations - wiki - Tutorials - iNaturalist Community Forum.

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From a detection perspective:

New observations (by upload date) would appear at the top of the list, so any new observation entering the project could be reviewed for whether they are known to be present (and just under-represented in iNat ie <10 observations) or potentially new introduced species that are not on the NZ phyto list (or any of the other lists eg NZOR). This approach suggested by Jon means we don’t need to know what the potential introductions are before hand. In fact, there was a spider today, a Nephila or close relative that doesn’t look to be the usual vagrant from Australia, and given the container came from Thailand could well be a new species border incursion. Exactly the type of observation that would get picked up by a “first 10” filter!

We current have a project for NZ, but it relies on many of us recognising it’s a new organism for NZ and adding it to the project… Jon is suggesting a more intuitive way to have them filtered into a project automatically. Given that we are doing this manually now, strongly suggests there is a practical use for this feature!

And sure, it might encourage a few people to go looking for stuff that are not represented by iNat observations yet… wait… that’s not a bad thing!

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I think this needs some New Zealand context (where Jon and I are based). It may indicate it has only limited utility in most parts of the world, but it’s worth unpacking a bit so people know where we are coming from.

There are some key messages here in my view. The first is that biosecurity is a really, really big deal in NZ. Anybody who has tried to get across the border (pre-Covid) with an apple tucked away in their hand-luggage will tell you how strict we are. Two of the most popular reality TV programs target the negligent people who ignore the rules or try to talk their way out of heavy fines and confiscations. They are called ‘Border Patrol’ in NZ and ‘Border Biosecurity’ for the Australian version. That is coupled with an active government drive to increase public participation in community monitoring of pests, weeds an diseases. This is the so-called ‘Team of 5 million’ kiwi eyes, e.g. …
https://www.biosecurity-toolbox.org.nz/2020/12/14/teaming-up-with-the-five-million/

In NZ we have to take this stuff seriously because our economy is largely dependent on agricultural exports, and after that our tourism industry because of our stunning landscapes (a struggling industry currently - obviously). Reports of new incursions of pests and pathogens can result in embargos from trading partners and an entire natonal industry can go under rapidly. To counter that we have very strict border laws, and also have legislation that requires any individual who thinks they have spotted a ‘new organism’ to report it to the responsible ministry. If they don’t they are breaking the law, which theoretically hundreds of iNatters do every time they pick a random northern hemisphere name off the CV suggestion list. Post-border there is a never-ending battle to protect our pristine natural ecosystems against the devasation caused by eotic weeds and pests, and every week on average one more is added to the list. 30% of our land area is set-aside and managed for conservation value but that means 70% is not, and the boundaries are distinct. I live in Christchurch, the so-called (European) Garden City, where any urbanite familiar with the UK would think they were in deepest Surrey, then you drive 10kms and you’re in an East Anglian style farmland landscape, and then not much further there is a dramatic transition into mountains and the beech and podocarp forests, and you are in a landcape substantially unchanged for millenia - and you certainly know it. I’m sure we aren’t the only lucky place on earth to have all this, but we treasure it, and we work hard to protect it.

There seems to be a perception on iNat that the only people interested are the observers getting more ‘in tune’ with nature, and researchers who are told they come second and they need to treat the data with the critical caution they are theoretically trained to apply. That’s fair enough. But they are not the only users or contributers. We have a bunch of citizens who want to help with monitoring, and we have a bunch of professionals in government biosecurity and conservations agencies who don’t always have the scientific training to separate the grain from the chaff. RG data from iNat ends up in GBIF and gets interpreted incorrectly. We need better tools for this group of contributers and users to help them make informed contributions and decisions. Jon is asking for one such engagement and assesment tool in order to make the most of our own particalar ‘Team of 20,000 observers on iNat’. I expect we have one of the highest per capita engagements anywhere in the world and that is for a broad spectrum of reasons. It would be really good to support some of that broader spectrum.

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There is also the synergy aspect, in that we use MPI/PHEL theridiidae lucid keys to ID NZ theridiidae, and most of the time we can get them to species. Without that key we would be lucky to get 1% of them beyond family!

And to put the NZ situation in terms that Americans might relate to, Hawaii or Galapagos come to mind…

a couple of things here.

first, not every observation is created and identified (correctly) at the same time. so if you’re trying to detect, it will often be faster to look for new identifications than it is to look for new observations.

second, because of what i noted above, there’s not always an easy way to determine which observations were added to such a project recently, even if you’re sorting by observation create date. that means that to find observations that are newly added to the project, you’d almost have to mark everything there as reviewed and then constantly check for unreviewed items (because you don’t have a way to sort by date of a particular relevant identification or by date added to a project).

with any detection approach, you’d probably have to wade through some hay to find a needle, but the kind of approach described here gives you a ton of hay to wade through i think.

i’m not questioning the need for detection. i just struggle to understand why the kind of workflow that would be implied by this proposal would be the most effective for detection.

Thanks for your comments, @pisum. @kiwifergus and @cooperj have already addressed some of this, but just for emphasis, this is not about users stoking egos. I got to thinking about this after talking to one of our keen amateur botanists who’s always on the look out for new weeds. We have a keen and active group of iNat NZ users looking for new emergent weeds in our cities and towns, and there are hundreds of these species. About 15 new species of vascular plants go wild in NZ every year on average—multiply that by all of the towns and cities that these species need to spread to and there’s lots and lots of new arrivals worth detecting and bringing to the prompt attention of our biosecurity agencies for potential control.

It’s currently hard to use the iNat website to support this community. The only way I know is curated traditional projects, which takes time and is rarely up-to-date because it’s tedious to curate. I’m trying to think of a way that collection projects could be used to surface these new potential new arrivals as soon as they get observed, and that a team of project curators could then look at more carefully.

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as soon as identified: https://jumear.github.io/stirfry/iNatAPIv1_identifications_recent_taxa.html?place_id=129542&per_page=50. (not without caveats, but relatively efficient, i think.)

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Thanks @pisum That’s very helpful. I’d not noticed the get /identifications/recent_taxa part of the API. That will be useful.

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