How is citizen science incorporated into environmental impact assessments?

If an iNaturalist observer records a rare plant at a location, or an eBird observer reports an endangered species and indicates that there was evidence of breeding, is that something that’s incorporated into environmental impact assessments if the location is being considered for development for example? If so, what role does it have? Are there legal standards of evidence that it does or doesn’t meet? Does it have to be within a certain length of time before the assessment? What if the observer provided media evidence, but the surveyors don’t find it (they didn’t look as hard, or went at the wrong time of year or whatever)?

I know assessments might have different requirements in different places and that surveyors range from doing the best they can to intentionally doing a bad job. I guess my hope is that iNaturalist observers could contribute especially in the latter situation but I don’t know how realistic that is.

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I’ve always thought iNat observations of an area would be a useful adjunct to environmental assessments done for development purposes. Often an observer spends more time in an area than an assessor does and can give a sense of how things are through time. Assessments here seem to focus on rare or endangered organisms. I don’t think the overall value of the area to ‘Nature’ is considered much. I began iNat when a patch of wet bush was destined to be bulldozed for a development. I had already seen a number of interesting, but not rare organisms, and did not have a chance to more completely document things. I did contact a couple of city councillors to stress the value of the bush, but they didn’t seem to consider it worthwhile. I suspect two things - the value of iNat is not recognized or understood by ‘officials’. Secondly, the push to develop ‘waste’ land is more imperative than preserving the area for non-human use.

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If you report a rare plant or breeding endangered bird, it will be assessed and then decisions will be made whether to continue with their plans or take action against them. For example, areas in Bundala National Park in Sri Lanka were closed off because a scarce (though not endangered) migrant , the Glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), had been reported breeding there after 150 years! Citizen science works the same way. I don’t know anything about law regarding this, though.

But yes, Citizen scientists can send info to actual conservationists and fight the maybe-faking surveyors. That’s all I know.

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I suggest this might depend very much on where you are in the world…

As an example here in Merseyside, UK i run a Local Environmental Records Centre who’s function it is to collate information on species and habitat, standardise it and make it available for a range of purposes but including things like strategic planning and development control. So we include Citizen Science observations which are then used to advise development and local conservation.

However, there are a range of issues; other places in the UK may have records centre but that centre may not access iNaturalist observations or the local planning authority may not make use of the records centre or the developer may not make use of the records centre.

You must also be careful as by default iNaturalist observations are licenced as CC-BY-NC (and very few people check or change it) this applies to the end use so prevents a developer or any commercial user cannot make use of the observation (nor can those observations be shared to a commercial user e.g. we could not report a rare species to a developer if the observation was from iNaturalist. Similarly a planning authority could not use an observation in that way).

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I do this a fair bit when writing environmental impact assessments for sites in the western U.S. The legal standard of performance is to use “best available science” and that includes credible citizen science (there is also non-credible citizen science, as when people report the presence of a species but have no evidence to support it). Typically the most credible source for species occurrence is a database maintained by a state or federal agency, but they don’t get out as much as they would like, and a source like iNat definitely constitutes best available science in that situation. That doesn’t mean that iNat is accepted blithely; all it takes is one person and their friend to make a “research grade” observation on iNat so typically each observation must be looked at critically, but really, most observations pass that test easily. eBird is also typically accepted, though it’s usually not possible to verify those observations; it is, however, good for assembling lists of common species present in a given habitat.

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This is a really interesting point and perhaps another piece of evidence that it might be valuable to consider some different approaches to the default licenses on iNat (or they way that they are presented in onboarding) to make data more usable. I would guess that most iNat users would want their observations to be used in planning decisions.

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True, personally I wouldn’t want my media licenses lower but I don’t know what the harm would be of having the observation license lower. I just hadn’t set it lower because I wasn’t aware of disadvantages like this.

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Interesting to hear this experience. I think this is how a lot of iNat users (me included!) might envision their data being used benficially. I’m not very knowledgeable about environmental impact assessments, so I wanted to ask how this use intersects with @deedb8 's point above. If someone is a environmental consultant being paid to do assessments either as a contractor or as part of a company, would they be unable to use iNat data (with CC-BY-NC licenses) for that assessment, since they’d be using that data as a part of a for-profit activity?

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Absolutely. After hearing about some other issues in this vein, I set my observation license lower (CC-BY) to hopefully avoid a few conflicts. I’ve also heard it’s unclear just how necessary observation licenses are since you can’t copyright facts (but that’s probably a topic for a different thread!)

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Then you should contact observer, cause having licence lower means anyone can use them for commersial needs and mostly it doesn’t mean those needs you describe, so it’s up to user to decide.

I personally would hope that iNat data is only used as a form of “pre-scout”, ie that it might be looked at for potential presence of species of interest, and that any actual impact assessment would be a seperately run thing that creates its own more “robust for purpose” data.

As an example, an environmental impact report was prepared for a walkway through our beach dunes, and when I heard about it I contacted the council to advise them that I had found katipo (an at risk and legally protected species here in NZ) in those dunes. I was subsequently contacted by the company that undertook that assessment, and was contracted to advise them with regards to finding katipo. If they had been looking at iNat data, they might have seen that there was katipo in the dunes, but a complication is that when they look in iNat, no katipo show in the dunes because it is obscured as a threatened species… and so location gets scattered throughout the bay.

I believe iNat data should inform the process of a more thorough survey, not replace it!

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I’m a member of a group of biologists who are working to figure out ways to get rare species data out of iNaturalist and into the databases of the government agencies that do project assessments in the US and Canada. Currently, if a user in Canada uses the inaturalist.ca portal to upload an observation of a rare species, the exact location data are available to biologists at the provincial Conservation Data Centers. In the US, no such relationship exists between iNaturalist and the state Natural Heritage Programs so each state handles it differently.

Nevada has two projects that collect observations of the species we track around the state. In order to get the true location data, we need to ask the observer to either join our project and choose to share the locations with us or ask them to share individual observations directly with one of our curators. We manually import iNat observations into our mapping program if they’re of particular conservation interest, such as a previously unknown location or unusual species interaction.

Some states don’t have the funding and personnel to manage project curation so the data simply don’t make it into their official conservation data. I would be interested to know if there are iNat users who would volunteer to help maintain projects for state conservation agencies.

Other states have amazing programmers who are working on ways to automatically import data but they still run into the problem of obscured locations.

As for the actual environmental analysis, most agencies will gather information about what might be in an area but then formal surveys need to be completed by a trained surveyor at an appropriate time of year for any species that are potentially within the project area.

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OK, this varies somewhat by jurisdiction, but my understanding is that the license that a user chooses for their observation record (as opposed to photos or other media) should apply only to copyrightable content within that record.

That would mean that if I write a detailed note or comment and set the license to CC-BY-NC, someone cannot reproduce any substantial part of that comment and use it for commercial gain. But I would be surprised if the core facts of my observation (location, date/time, etc.) surpass the threshold of originality required for copyright. So I can apply whatever license I want, but other people can use that data as they choose.

Then we come to identification data. It’s not clear to me what license supposedly applies to the identifications I give within iNat. Are these copyrightable? Absolutely there is skill involved, but not originality (it would be entirely wrong for me to dream up identifications). Jurisdictions that apply the “sweat of the brow” doctrine might be a lot more sympathetic to give the identifier rights over their identification. Of course, with iNat, the community ID is a product of the views of multiple identifiers, so it would be difficult for any one of them to claim proprietary rights.

So it seems that pretty much all of the data that feeds into iNat’s RG records of distribution for any species would appear not to be copyrightable, regardless of what default license a user chooses.

Of course, the license choice does affect how that data gets shared. For example, GBIF only syncs RG iNat observations that are licensed with CC-BY-NC or a more permissive license. So an EIA or developer working from GBIF won’t see observations with All Rights Reserved or CC-BY-SA licensing (for the observation, not the media).

Beyond that, there’s another layer of distance to consider. Let’s say @deedb8’s Local Environmental Records Centre, or another non-profit, produces a report that uses iNat data licensed as CC-BY-NC. Leaving aside some edges cases such as fundraising, we can be comfortable that the license terms have been respected in this process. Then a for-profit developer uses that report as part of its planning for a housing development. So long as the developer is not reproducing material from the report (or the underlying iNat contributions) there should be no issue in using the information it contains to inform their decisions. We would be in a bad situation if decisions on profit-making projects had to ignore data from any publication unless they licensed it.

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As others have noted, it varies, but the standard is generally best available information or science. The information has value in this context, especially in situations where there are not other data on the public record. Like any other second hand data, a user would need to do their own curation or QA/QC process. As I’ve mentioned in a couple of other topics, I’ve been plugging away on iNat at documenting the biodiversity of an abused conservation area near where I live in the hope that it will be useful information in a planning and park management context. The mayor, who’s a decent enough guy, glazes over when I tell him what I’ve found so far. A consultant or town staffer, on the other hand, would at a minimum have a record of species reported on the site and would be required to make note of it in any formal process.

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How do you deal with eBird lists, which typically have zero evidence in most cases?

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Hi Rupert, my comments regarding CC-BY-NC and observations refer to recent review by the UK’s National Biodiversity Network who’s legal teams found that the licence applies to the record as a whole (the intellectual property of the recorder/their original content) and as the non-commercial use applies to the end user we have been advised that we cannot supply ‘NC’ records for a commercial purpose (e.g. commercial development for consultancy). Funded research is less clear but in some circumstances may also constitute commercial use (https://docs.nbnatlas.org/guidance-on-the-definition-of-non-commercial-use/).

Don’t get me wrong as a LERC our purpose is to highlight local biodiversity issues and try to ensure that biodiversity is considered within the forward planning and DC process. The above makes it much more difficult. It is non-the-less an issue we face with this particular licence.

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Thanks for the excellent summary. This is what I’ve heard from other folks as well (that it’s very difficult to determine what content in an observation a license might apply to since most of it is just facts, which generally aren’t eligible for copyright).

Another more practical point is that it seems very unlikely that someone would try to enforce a claim of copyright on the data in an observation (both because they might be unlikely to win and because most iNat users are putting up observations at least in part so that they can be used by scientists, etc.)

All that aside, however, if governing bodies or other groups are deciding that they can’t make use of those observation data because of the CC-BY-NC license, that’s still an issue in my mind because it’s restricting the usefulness of the data. The rather involved discussion thread about CC-BY-NC being the default license for media has already been linked above, but situations like this make me wonder whether considering a different, more permissive default license for observations only (not for media) might make iNat data more useful for cases like environmental impact statements and others. I don’t think most people are intending to monetize the data in their observations, so a more permissive license there might be less of an issue. But probably a question for a lawyer…

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I think the separation here is that in the UK at least we’re treating an observation as a whole and so an original piece of information the property rights of which belong to the original recorder. As their intellectual property they can licence it how they see fit and where they chose to licence for non-commercial use only then those data cannot be used for a commercial purpose which the majority of private development and ecological consultancy then falls under.

However, as you’ve said it’s perhaps less about how the licence ‘should’ be interpreted and how it is and currently the legal advice in the UK, from both the National Network (NBN) and statutory conservation agency (JNCC) is that CC-BY-NC observations should not be used for a commercial purpose and not-for-profit provision of information services is included because the licence applies to the end use, which is still commercial gain (e.g. a consultant making a profit in their work).

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Chiming in as someone who works on environmental assessments (Ontario) and includes iNat data.
In most cases, the available information about any particular site is extremely limited, and the budget for field visits is pretty limited. So any iNat data available is very valuable and will be used, pretty much regardless of date or any other considerations. I’ve never seen a situation though where iNat observations alone would result in anything more than extremely cheap/minimal changes to a project, so I don’t know how things would go around anything actually contentious. I expect it would just mean that the sightings would need to be confirmed in the field by consultants (or confirmed not to be present). But that doesn’t mean it’s not important, it is fairly often the case that e.g. a project will require the construction of an access road through a natural area, and don’t much care about the exact route, and there can be plenty of leeway to avoid significant features.

More realistically though, at least in Ontario, very few sightings will have any actual legal implications (mostly only legally protected endangered species). Developers/governments will protect what they can cheaply for goodwill/PR purposes, but aren’t gonna leave a forest alone just because there’s a few rare plants in it if they don’t have to.

What if the observer provided media evidence, but the surveyors don’t find it (they didn’t look as hard, or went at the wrong time of year or whatever)?

This would really depend on if the regulator/permitter is satisfied that the survey was adequate to prove something isn’t present any more

This legal interpretation seems completely obviously false to me. It is perfectly legal and usual to use an observation published in a book or scientific paper, even though these would likely retain full copyright. Why would using a less restrictive license then make things harder to use?

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Hi @reuvenm the situation i am referring to is where observations (“citizen science” data) are shared with or made use of by a commercial ecological consultant/developer to design a project. That end use is commercial. The CC-BY-NC licence prohibits commercial use. Therefore any use by the developer or consultant would breach that licence.

Where a public or conservation (NGO) body is using the same data to inform commercial work the end use is also still commercial and so breaches the licence.

As i said this is currently the stance taken in the UK based on advice sought by the network and JNCC and i believe the ODI (with reference to end use being the critical factor).

I don’t think a less restrictive licence would be a problem and i would personally love to see iNaturalist assign a default CC-BY to observations (not necessarily images) which would permit use of observations to advise and inform commercial end use (development) for the benefit of biodiversity.

Just to add i am fully aware the position is contentious and as previous i would like to see it firmly rebuffed however most discussions seem to end with something along the lines of ‘it’ll need to be tested in court’ and a public sector not for profit it’s not personally something we can take on! :smile:

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