Improve How "Unknown" Observations Are Treated and Displayed

Users have many different, valid reasons for not entering an ID when they post observations, newer users may have additional uncertainties about how to add IDs to their observations, and users may not realize that they posted observations without IDs. As a result, there is always a backlog of observations labelled “Unknown.” I think it would be a good idea to have notifications automatically sent to users that they have observations in the “Unknown” category, asking them to choose among suggested time intervals during which they can review/edit/ID such observations without them being displayed under “Explore” or “Identify.” This might prompt those who are ready to do so to enter IDs on their “Unknowns” right away, but even if they are not ready it would temporarily remove “Unknowns” from the view of others for a specified period. This would benefit both users who might feel rushed by identifiers to clean up their observations, and identifiers who don’t want to bother people who have good reasons for their observations being in “Unknown” status. The notifications could include a reminder that even if the user doesn’t know exactly what organism is in an observation, general labels like “Plant,” “Animal,” etc. are welcome starts to the ID process, and make observations easier to find by others. Observations not displayed during a chosen time period would reappear in “Explore” and “Identify” after the period expires.

This would be a good automatic way of helping new users understand that they can add coarse IDs to speed up the process of receiving community IDs and bring awareness that if they don’t they may not get much attention for a while. Selfishly, that would make for less typing when I explain this to new users in my interactions with them since they’d see the pop-up and as an added bonus might secondarily benefit the community by being a reminder that even if they don’t add coarse IDs, other people might and they shouldn’t be snarked at for, let’s say, “plants…”


Can you describe what problem(s) you’re trying to solve here? Like, you personally just find the number of “unknowns” annoying, or you don’t like seeing a lot of “unknown” observations when you trying to identify stuff? I actually don’t see them as a problem, personally. They’re the easiest observations to help out. I think the system might benefit from better onboarding that teaches people about adding coarse IDs to their own observations, and encourages everyone to help out by adding coarse IDs to other people’s observations, but I would personally find it very annoying if the site persistently bugged me about all my unknowns, many of which are unknown for the good reason that I can’t identify them, even to phylum.


perhaps this is something that could be prevented by limiting the “bugging” to new observers up to 5 times, and then at every 50th unknown for more established users or not at all once a threshold of a number of observations is passed. I spend 75% of the time on identify welcoming new users then typing a small paragraph to explain how coarse IDs are helpful in getting better attention etc. (I’m usually making a coarse ID myself when commenting like this). In many of the cases where the new user responds to my comment they are thankful because they didn’t realize that beforehand. If they had a pop-up in the first place when placing the observation, that let them know or reminded them of the utility of coarse IDs, I could personally spend that same time on making more simple: “Welcome to iNaturalist, ______!” statements and IDing many many more observations. Instead, I get tired typing so much and do far fewer as I find cutting and pasting to not be a good fit for my sincerity standards. I can’t speak for @sgene, but yes, for me, personally as someone who is trying to be a useful community member, I could spend more time looking to make IDs and less time explaining the same thing. I’m in the northeast where there are several hundred if not a thousand pages of unknowns and then tons of things needing to be marked captive/cultivated which I also offer an explanation for. Also, as I mentioned here: I was under the impression the goal was generally to get as many obs out of the unknown category (when appropriate) so they can be queried and utilized. So if that’s not the case, mixed or at least confusing messaging might need addressing.

Hope that’s useful.


The problem as I see it is that not everyone wants help with their IDs, there is currently no way to tell which observations belong to those people, and it’s not fun being at the receiving end of people’s annoyance when a coarse ID is added. As a result, I tend to avoid them. My suggestion was an attempt to find a way to let the observer decide if they want anyone contributing IDs yet or not. I get that the notifications could annoy people, too, which is why I was going to edit or withdraw this post while it was pending approval, but there is apparently no way to do that.

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I agree. Maybe that would be effective.

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Fixing the ‘vanishing placeholder’ issue might also help with this. I’ve noticed people getting annoyed when their placeholder gets deleted, especially considering sometimes the plaeholder is not intended to be one (if the app doesn’t ‘find’ the right name in the database it goes in as a placeholder which is deleted if someone adds a real ID)


I’m not really sure what to do here. I had wanted to withdraw this Feature Request while it was pending approval. I agree that the notifications it suggests may be at least as annoying as the current situation, so I’m not voting for the Feature Request myself as written, and I don’t want to edit it now after others have responded to it. So if the moderators want to do something to substitute topics about kueda’s suggestion of “better onboarding that teaches people about adding coarse IDs to their own observations, and encourages everyone to help out by adding coarse IDs to other people’s observations” and charlie’s suggestion of “Fixing the ‘vanishing placeholder’ issue,” that’s fine with me.

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I don’t think it’s a big deal. People can vote on it, if you think it’s a bad idea now, you can say why which will reduce its votes. Maybe Tony can close it.

I’m with you 100% here, and this is exactly why I don’t think an automated reminder would be super effective. In my opinion, the recipients of your comments appreciate your input because it is sincere and hand-written (or at least hand copied-and-pasted). If the system is the one providing the reminder, that feels less sincere, e.g. “This can’t be that important if they assigned this task to a robot.” Remember Clippy, or Jimmy Wales’ heartfelt midwinter pleas.

Honestly, if anything on iNat really wears on you like this, just don’t do it! I think welcoming new users is valuable, but it is really time consuming. IMO, it’s totally fine to just add identifications and follow up with an explanation if someone asks for one.

That is annoying, and also largely indicative of a failure on our part to communicate what iNat is about, i.e. people who don’t want IDs don’t seem to realize they’re on the wrong website, because all new observations need IDs on iNat, and if they don’t want external input they should just enter data in a spreadsheet or scream their findings into the void or something. It does suck to be on the receiving end of someone’s occasionally irate confusion (those of us on staff kind of get a lot of it), but while a measured response is always ideal, I think it’s also ok to just point people toward


The particular change I would find helpful for unknowns/uploads is something @charlie has mentioned more than once - some sort of draft mode and/or delay before posting.

On a few occasions I have done personal big days - it takes too much time in the field to enter names as I go, and even when sitting at home, it’s quite tedious to enter the names via mobile device when there’s the much faster option to upload them without names and go through them via the ‘identify’ interface on the website with filters set so only my unknown observations are showing up.

Uploading several hundred observations takes a while, and I try to get them in batches as they upload. Mostly I have names on the observations within 5 minutes of uploading, but even so, sometimes people add identifications in that time.

For me personally, coarse identifications aren’t a big deal, but they do seem like a bit of a waste of time/attention of the community when I will typically be adding much more refined IDs shortly, and there are plenty of other observations that could use the attention.

Another scenario that occasionally happens is someone will add a fairly specific ID that I know is wrong (this seems to happen relatively less often when there is already an ID there). Of course I disagree with it, but most often the original ID remains, so unless I reject community ID, the observation will show up as the common taxa between the two IDs. It’s also nothing more than a minor annoyance (and from a community stand point, less of an issue than the allocation of attention to observations that won’t really need it) but it would be easily avoided by having some ability to have a draft status or small delay (10-15 minutes?) before having unknown observations show up in the community Needs ID pool.




agreed except with my ‘big days’ on my slow home internet connection, i won’t be fully uploaded even in 15 minutes. I am trying to remember which site it was that had a draft mode after uploading, i want to say flickr, but it worked really well. I review all of my observations anyway to look at photos and range maps, add fields and annotations, etc.


It doesn’t “really wear on” me. Since we don’t know each other and tone can’t be read through written word all the time, I’ll just state for the record that I’m not actually complaining. My instincts and the way my brain work cause me to typically try to find solutions for problems or improvements for things that might be working okay but could work better as a habit. That’s what I was doing here by adding on to paloma’s original post; offering my relevant experience and suggestions if they are useful. I’m not annoyed but I do see potential for things to work better, improve productivity, engagement and a usable, searchable pool of data, and to clear up some confusing messaging around “unknowns.” My intention was not to complain but to be honest about what energy it takes to do these tasks, and some of the perceived challenges, in the thought that perhaps my experience is also that of others and that we all may benefit from reflecting on it.

Likewise, since I don’t know you (although I am grateful for your creation of iNaturalist!!!) I can’t interpret the tone of your messages but really don’t want to be perceived as a whiner here when that is not my intention at all. Rather, I am an overthinker with good intentions and don’t want to detract but rather add what I can when I can to the conversation. Nothing needs changing and I will gladly continue my IDing and welcoming to the extent that I enjoy it without annoyance.

Please use whatever of my comments are useful and discard the rest.


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Have you encountered this often? Just curious, I feel like I maybe have come across it once or twice.

I wouldn’t say often, but more than once or twice. At least one very angry person, one person who needed to discuss me and my coarse IDs on the iNaturalist group, some people responding that they are dealing with an expert they know so please butt out, some “Duh”-type comments. As someone whose profile says “Amateur” I’m not surprised that someone whose profile says “Admin” or “Developer” would get less of the negative feedback.


I find the amount of Unknown observations really frustrating. Last winter I went through all of the Unknown observations from Canada and got it down to just a few of stuff I had no idea what to do with (random slime). 90% of the observations were plants. I checked back a couple days ago, and there are now over 100 pages of Unknown observations for Canada again (I think a greater proportion are fungi now, but still mostly plants).

Most Unknown observations are from new users with only a few observations. Probably mostly from school projects, but I think from other people exploring as well. Given the huge backlog of Unknown observations, and the fact that most identifiers filter for specific taxa, these observations are unlikely to be interacted with and the user won’t be drawn in to be more active. I feel like at some point people figure out that adding an ID increases the chances of getting help, if they stick around long enough.

I think there are issues on both the website and the app that contribute to the amount of Unknown observations:

Website: New users not knowing how the identification system works (this also causes a bunch of other issues like agreeing etc.). When you sign up for the website, you aren’t pushed through any walkthrough or tutorial, so people just do whatever makes sense to them.
App: When I reinstall the app (Android), as I make my first observation, it says this under the ID text field: “Name what you saw if you can, but it’s OK if you can’t. Others may help you identify it!” I disagree with this; Unknown observations are less likely to be seen, and 99% of observations can be identified to Animals, Plants, or Fungi. Why not strongly encourage that? Assuming most observations are submitted with the app, I think this is a big problem.


I think it helps if you consider that an observation is a valid thing already, even before we see it. When we add an ID we are adding value, or detail, to that observation. By applying DQAs we are improving and adding value to the observation. There might be some that question the value we add because they see value differently to ourselves. As long as you are doing so in good faith, following the guidelines or at least the spirit of and reply politely, let them rant and complain… It is they who are on the wrong side of the guidelines! For example, to tell you to butt out because they have an expert looking at it is against the guidelines, although I would add that simply advising you of that is a different situation, as they might be thinking they are saving you some time. You are perfectly entitled to make IDs as you see fit, and they can opt out if they want full control of the id…


I was just responding to Tony’s direct question to me when I gave the examples of people’s responses.

I’ve learnt from hard experience to not post coarse level IDs on new ‘unknown’ observations. A polite welcome (assuming it was a new user) and comment instead.

When trawling the ‘unknowns’ I sort them in ascending date order, so oldest first. But this is where becomes annoying - the number of not actually ‘unkown’ observations that populate the ‘unknown’ group.



I agree, a Draft DQA (or separate checkbox) might best get at the use case that seems to cause the most consternation – folks who upload huge batches, want to get them onto the web site first, but then have a chance to use the web tools to complete their intended data set before making them visible for community input. It’s just a workflow thing as I see it. Seems reasonable, and I think still fits under the topic of this Feature Request as an alternate solution.

I do think that any Draft mode should come with an automated, regular (weekly?), single notification, something like “Reminder, you have draft observations pending” and provide the link to view them all in Identify mode.

[Edit to add:] also, date/time posted should be updated to the date taken out draft mode, and once out of draft mode, it can never go back.

Definitely agree here too, and think that should also be part of the solution to this topic. If it involves some kind of automated pop-up reminder, that should only be for non-“draft” observations coming in as “Unknown,” and no more than say 5 times per user, so it doesn’t become a continuing annoyance if someone wants to ignore it. (Or maybe just a “don’t show this again” option.)