iNat development for museums or research centres - improve the value of "research grade" data

Hi, I’m working in a Natural History Museum and we recently started to use iNat in the framework of our Citizen Science activities. We experimented it for our bioblitz this year and for a couple of simple projects. I found it well done and very user-friendly. Nevertheless, in my opinion some aspects might be improved/implemented for a “professional use”.

My basic question is: is it foreseeable to develop a specific version (features) of the platform dedicated to fulfill the needs of more skilled users, e.g. operators of a scientific museum or a research centre?

At the moment virtually anyone can start in any moment a new iNat project, taking advantage from the facilities provided, from the lively community help, and from the id help given by the AI features. This is really outstanding, interesting and stimulating. But why do not allow institutions to play a role in the larger community, with a different level of engagement/importance?
We know very well that some taxa are hardly identifiable from a photo, and some species (especially those very similar to their domestic forms) can be correctly identifiable only by a bunch of experts. In some cases a value in a ranking scale will be more realistic than a “yes or not” based on the pictures provided. But why don’t allow people to contribute anyway? In this cases iNat could work as a collector of information, and the verification process could be mainly done by specialists. That will slow down the id process for these (limited number of) taxa, but in the end the percentage of misidentification will be dropped down to (almost) zero.

A similar problem can be encountered in the case of experts that, during a bioblitz, identify specimens on the field that have been not photographed, for different reasons (e.g. a passing-by bird). Loosing those high quality data is really a pity. In both cases specialist recognized by a research centre or museum should be allowed to set the research grade for an observation (either for species difficult to id from a photo or with no photo, but directly observed by the specialist). Another case is that of institutional databases of occurrencies with no photos, but whose observations were verified by specialists. These data - according to the current roles - couldn’t never reach the research grade, cause there are no pictures associated with the entries.

This is just to provide some examples. My dream is to use an open source – iNat based – solution developed for all those cases where professionals (or experienced citizen citizen scientists trained by professionals) are producing good data to be shared and included in the global iNat database, with specific metadata attached.

The other side of the coin is that observations that today are misidentified in iNat, but flagged with the “research grade” label, could be revised and downgraded or simply flagged with a different flag (impossible to be determined from the photo, or something like that).

I’ll be looking forward for reactions. Available to provide further details.

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Hi Andrea, welcome to the forum! It sounds like you have a few different feature requests in here. Each feature request should address a single issue, with a descriptive title such as “Limit identifications to specialists only”, “Export observations based on my identifications”, or “Create Research Grade system for medialess observations by vetted observers”.

I believe this can be achieved within the current system by using a traditional project and exporting the “project curator ID”. It can also be achieved by querying iNaturalist observations and using an external program or database for managing your own identifications outside of the system. The community identification is a big part of iNaturalist and I don’t foresee the site staff changing this to favor specialists only.

An open feature request that partly addresses this desire is: Search and filter identifications , in which you could more easily sort identifications and export the observations based on your “specialist’s” ID.

The data aren’t “lost” by any definition. Observations without media are, by default, added to range maps, they can be searched for, viewed, and exported.

I’m not sure what you mean by this part. Some more details might be helpful. Misidentified observations are automatically removed from Research Grade status when the community taxon no longer has a greater than 2/3 agreement on the ID. That is, if 2 people say it’s SpeciesA, it is Research Grade, but if a 3rd person comes and says actually it’s SpeciesB, the observation is no longer Research Grade and it returns to the Needs ID category.

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@andreasforzi A lot of the functionality and features you are describing are already available in collection management software used by museums etc, and the same desires could be expressed about “opening up” such software and making it more like iNat. I think both approaches are important, and that we have two really good options for which ever use case we are needing.

Museum collections management is largely about documenting and managing the physical specimen held, whereas iNat is about documenting the observation moment, ie the encounter. Bioblitzes can be interesting in that they can involve both situations… the encounters, as in bird sightings, as well as the collected specimens, such as invertebrates from pitfall traps and malaise.

If it helps, think of iNat as being a shared global field notebook, and databases such as GBIF etc are sifting through that notebook and extracting data that meets certain criteria.

I had a similar “collections use” scenario recently when I looked to using iNat to help a local arboreta in managing it’s collection. We struck immediate problems, in that the taxa that it uses to identify material is more directly sourced from literature, and in a few significant situations, did not match with the iNat taxonomy. This went both ways, with situations where iNat was “more up to date” and some where the arboreta were following the more current literature. Personally, I saw advantage to “surrendering control” of the taxonomy, but I am very much biased toward iNat!

There are fields that can be used in iNat to “link” records between two such systems. The museum collection software will have “accession numbers” that can be cross-referenced, and then iNat can be used for the mapping and range stuff. Or iNat observation numbers can be utilised in the museum software to cross-reference the other way. When we do bioblitzes, and I have collected material from pitfall traps or leaves/flowers collected by participants, I try to make them voucherable material. I pin the moths, store in alcohol the spiders and springtails, and press the leaves and flowers, and then label them with the appropriate details required by the museum that I will ultimate lodge them with. I also include the iNat observation number so that the observation can be referenced for further information. Often there will be conversations about the specimen that are quite useful! This one, for instance, of a specimen that eventually was supplied to MPI for dna testing: https://inaturalist.nz/observations/8551468

I believe there are a lot of advantages to both approaches… the control and precision attainable by a collection management suite, and the fluidity and adaptability of an open system such as iNat. I think it is crucial that we not try to make them the same as each other, or we lose “diversity in our tools”!

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Hi Andreas, and welcome to the forum. @bouteloua and @kiwfergus answered most of the specific questions here. Let me just answer the main one.

iNat’s main goal is to help people engage with nature, with a secondary goal being to generate high quality data that can be used for research. We tend to favor features that help build a community and engage more people of all expertise levels, and we maintain a more open and, for lack of a better word, egalitarian approach so that everyone can feel involved and amateurs can learn from experts (and vice versa, which is really cool).

Experts and institutions can already become involved, and quite a few have. The Natural History Museum of LA County comes to mind, here’s a blog post I wrote about their use of iNat in their research. We have discussed as a team the possibility of creating institutional accounts, but a) philosophically we want iNat to be a community of individuals communicating with each other (we allow organizations to make accounts for project and place creation, but IDs and observations should be made by individual users with their own accounts) and b) vetting and managing a global network of institutional accounts is beyond the scope of our current abilities.

It looks like you’ve only recently started using iNat (welcome aboard!) and I would recommend checking out the various tools on iNat and our Help materials (although they don’t cover everything). If you have a specific question about functionality, and a specific goal in mind, start a new thread on the Forum after searching to see if it’s already been covered. I’m going to close this discussion as much of it has been discussed elsewhere.

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