I know that iNat allows observations to be obscured if they include protected/endangered species. I’m curious, though, what are some other reasons why you’ve obscured locations? What’s the etiquette around it?
I have some concerns about sharing certain observations because of the risks it might pose to the area or species involved. They’re not endangered, but sometimes they’re non-invasive species people might still want to hurt or destroy. For example, I’ve got some ant nest/tracks pictures I haven’t posted because of this.
In fact, I’m wondering about obscuring locations because of two specific things. One is a spot where I’d like to make some observations, but it’s very obviously dry, flammable, badly maintained land. Wildfires are a major issue here, including arson. I’m worried about posting that location. It would be bad for wildlife if someone did that AND it would be bad for people since there are houses nearby.
The other location I’m wondering about has some tracks and pellets. I think they might belong to rabbits. I’ve heard about people in the area who will happily hunt or set traps outside of designated hunting areas, so that’s a concern for me. I don’t want the animals to be disturbed and I don’t want to step on a trap one day.
I’ve seen some posts about how obscuring observations can make them useless, but I’d still like to be able to post them to get help in identifying species I’m not familiar with and to keep track of what I’ve seen.
I’d really like to hear people’s own opinions and experiences. Thank you!
This is a widely discussed topic with many differences of opinion but since I’ve recently looked into it a bit I can provide at least some information.
Obscuring a species is advisable when posting an organisms’s location publicly could cause harm to the organism or surrounding habitat. There are many species that auto obscure due to their state status, federal status, or other reasons. It’s also not a terrible thing to obscure a species that people might try to go see if it’s in private property.
That is about the end of where “everyone” agrees (which is totally OK). The key here is you are free to obscure any of your observations for any reason. Me personally, I probably err on the side of caution more than others as most of my observations are plants. If I’m at a site with several sensitive species at that site, I might obscure all observations during that outing just to play it safe.
The downside with obscuring as the data can’t be used with any fine-scale precision as the “location” will be within a 400 km^2 square.
I think both of your reasons are legitimate ones, and there are many other reasons that people choose to obscure. iNat doesn’t ask for reasons though, and you aren’t required to give one. You can use obscuration however you wish.
That said, I think it’s worth pointing out that obscuration does reduce the scientific value of observations in some cases, so this is potentially something to take into account. But how you make that decision is up to you. You may also get users asking you for location information of obscured observations and consider how you might respond. You can also designate users as trusted and allow them to see specific location data, so if you have a specific use for that data in mind, that might allow obscuration to the general public, but use of the data by someone specific.
Personally, the aspect about targeted arson doesn’t strike me as a major concern. I haven’t heard of arsonists using iNat to target locations (though who knows…), and it seems to me like they’d have lots of opportunities to find locations for arson outside of iNat. I think considering whether hunters, or more likely poachers/collectors, would target an area because of iNat is very reasonable. If rabbits are common in your area, then maybe it isn’t a major concern. However, if they are rare or hard to access, obscuration might help prevent hunting.
I don’t think rabbits are very rare, but it would probably be an issue if people decided to hunt in the area. Not only in terms of legality but also in terms of how it might affect other people who go there. I definitely wouldn’t appreciate having to deal with traps or snares, for example. I’ve seen people walking dogs nearby or letting kids explore so it would probably be dangerous to them as well. Not to mention that people deciding to ruin that spot would be a shame, it seems somewhat frail as it is.
I’d definitely be ok with sharing the location with trusted people, whether that’s legitimate iNat users, anyone wanting to study that area, etc. Maybe I could make a note saying that, so they know they can request it? My main concern really are casual observers who might ruin the area for everyone else. (I also have no idea if there are any actually rare or endangered species, I’ve only had a cursory look around so far.)
The other major reason is personal privacy of course: not wanting to give away exactly where your home is by the plentiful observations in your garden or a friend/relation’s etc. This is the main reason a lot of people use it.
When people use ‘private’ rather than ‘obscured’ (and only if they are quite a new user) I tend to leave a note advising them that this makes ID very difficult, and ‘obscured’ is a sensible alternative if privacy is a concern (I always affirm however that it is their right to use the privacy settings however they wish)
I haven’t seen much evidence that iNat is used extensively for these purposes. That being said, if there are issues with illegal hunting in your area it is understandable. I highly doubt that the illegal hunters are using the site to find opportune areas, but the data is out in public for everyone to see.
I obscure the locations of sensitive species that people might want to go collect, such as orchids, and also certain owl and raptor observations that might attract a lot of attention/disturbance from birders. I add all of my Montana observations to the Montana Natural Heritage Program project, which lets them see exact locations that are obscured to everyone else. So my obscured locations will be useful for conservation because they are visible to the people who can use them for habitat modelling, etc. You can always see if there are conservation projects in your area that would be able to see the obscured data if you added them to the right project, for conservation purposes.
I’ve obscured the location of endangered species (though the locations were already known, so not sure it did any good). Also a surprisingly diverse but very accessible location I don’t want everyone to visit. I’ve also obscured observations at a relative’s rural house. (I think. Or did I just use a slightly offset location with a really big “accuracy” circle?) Some people obscure their own home (or provide an offset location). I personally would say minimize obscuring because it does reduce the usefulness of data, but obscure when you think it’s important.
But don’t overthink it. A lot of the observations that we rightly consider important are of no interest to those who would do harm.
And please, please don’t use “private.” Or if you feel must use it, leave a note telling us what continent or part of a continent you’re on.
I obscure observations on private land (or protected preserves) unless I am sure that the landowner welcomes visitors. This is mainly to prevent others from invading someone’s privacy. (Anyone who’s had a rare bird sighting in their yard knows the problem.)
I also (rarely) obscure rare species if I disagree with iNaturalist’s (lack of) status designation, but then I will also flag the taxon to try to get it changed.
Finally, I obscure observations of animal nests or dens to prevent potential disturbance.
i am not understanding how arsonists would use iNat to find places to light fires. That veing said if you feel like obscuring, you should obscure, its fully within the rules of the site and fine. obscured data definitely isn’t useless. though i wish on the range maps and such it were easier to see what was obscured or turn off obscured observations especially when zoomed further back (where the map turns to grid)
I also obscure on private land unless the landowner wants otherwise. These days with iNat in heavy use in my part of the world, there are unobscured observations all over private land so it no longer sends the message that iNat observations mean the land is open to the public. However, given there are many reasons someone might want the data obscured, i start with that on private land (including my land). However most of my observations occur on public land, along roadsides, etc, and are usually not obscured unless a collection/harassment risk
I obscure sensitive plants (e.g. subject to poaching, on sensitive plant lists given to me by rangers) and observations on private land, including my own home/yard. Having a bit of second thoughts about that last one. By now I have so many obscured observations that it marks the spot with a very obvious rectangle that looks like this:
That’s like putting a huge flag on the map that says “I’m here!” Probably way too easy by now to extrapolate at least which neighborhood I’m living in. I’m wondering if the better approach for privacy concerns might be to put all observations into a single spot somewhere nearby (e.g. middle of an intersection, or parking lot for a nearby store) and use a large accuracy circle to include my house. That would probably collapse that rectangle to just a single dot on the map and make it a lot less obvious.
I generally do this - specific location that isn’t my house, but less than 0.5 km away so the data is more usable than obscuring and doesn’t make a huge rectangle… I know a distance that does include my yard, so it’s easy.
Honestly, in the US if people want to find your address, it’s not very hard, but using this probably gives a small level of protection against casual attempts to find address.
This is a good point. If you’re considering choosing to obscure an observation because the species would be threatened by sharing precise location data (e.g. some cacti, rare birds, etc.) and it’s not currently auto-obscured then it would be great if you can flag the species and briefly explain the issue so an iNat curator can try to address it.
iNat’s taxon geoprivacy settings are a work in progress, and we need input from iNat users to improve them. iNaturalist initially obscured the locations of all species with an IUCN equivalent status of “Near Threatened” or “worse”. That’s probably a good place to start but there are lots of reasons why the decision should be more nuanced than that.
There are plenty of species that might be threatened by poaching, etc. that don’t yet have an IUCN designation. These are the ones where it would be helpful for iNat curators to auto-obscure the taxon. And there are plenty of threatened species where knowing precise locations is likely to benefit them (e.g. threatened tree species such as green ash trees that are at risk from invasive insects.)
The rectangles are set by the site, any observation you take in the rectangle could be anywhere in that rectangle, so no, people can’t infer where you live based on that map other than it’s within that big rectangle. In the past the site did used to work how you’re describing but it doesn’t any more. Of course there are always risks of other various security issues, but at least in that one regard you should be good.
I obscure for privacy. I’ve had problems with stalkers and being followed, so it just seems like the wisest route. It bums me out because I never really wanted them to be obscured. Just shook out with that being the best option. It wouldn’t prevent a really persistent stalker because there’s faults in how it works, but it’s a layer of protection for observers, so I use it.
I know many users see obscured observations as having essentially no value but I think that’s incredibly false. The only useless observations I’ve ever seen have been spam, because the site is not for just one purpose. It’s a lot of things to a lot of people, so it all has value.
Use obscuring how you’d like. If it has benefits for you, then it shouldn’t matter what anybody else thinks about it. It’s there for a reason. Y’know?