Vision has become very good at identifying organisms in many cases - it is truly impressive! But I have noticed (particularly since the latest large-scale Vision update) that certain plants with limited range have begun “popping up” in unexpected locations. This has always happened occasionally, but the problem seems much worse now, and I suspect that Vision is paying less attention to locations than it did in the prior update. I think it is important to get a handle on this issue since iNaturalist learns from itself and bad information can proliferate, with both people and Vision learning things incorrectly and then reapplying that information.
An example of artificial range creep - Oxalis drummondii
The species where I have seen this artificial range creep most dramatically is Oxalis drummondii, a species that is range-limited to Texas (maaaaybe Arizona) and Northeastern Mexico. It happens to look very similar to Oxalis violacea, which has a much larger range (most of Eastern North America), with the biggest visual differences being leaflet shape and flowering season. Oxalis drummondii has no presence in the horticultural trade and is not spreading from its native range, so it should never show up outside of its native range.
I had been curating this species’s IDs, but I recently stopped fixing the bad IDs to see what would happen, and also because I have a baby now and very limited free time for fixing IDs. Sure enough, now there are observations all over Eastern North America, a few along the Pacific Coast of North America, and also in Europe! I don’t recall this species ever getting mis-ID’d so far outside of its native range before the latest update of Vision.
Take a look at the artificial range creep here:
compared to the United States range map:
How bad is it?
Perusing through 22 of the observations of O. drummondii outside of its range (all incorrectly ID’d), and looking at the Vision suggestions, I found O drummondii was listed in the following positions by Vision:
1st: 3 times
2nd: 10 times
3rd: 3 times
4th: 2 times
6th: 1 time
not listed: 3 times (but ID shows up as a Vision suggestion, so it was listed in the past)
Vision also suggests genus Oxalis first for most of these, but users are frequently overlooking that suggestion and choosing one of the species IDs, often not the first recommendation.
Most of the observations had “Needs ID” status, but two were “Research Grade” (including one in Europe - yikes!) and three were “Casual” (incorrectly ID’d).
The fact that some are reaching research grade is bad news for iNaturalist as a data source, and also as a learning tool (proliferation of bad information). The fact that the observations are proliferating without someone manual correcting them shows to me that an adjustment needs to be made. The fact that users are choosing suggestions that are not the top suggestion implies that future improvements to Vision’s accuracy will not be enough to fix this problem.
What type of fix is possible?
Could Vision make fewer suggestions, not always the default of genus + 8 species suggestions? Could Vision once again put more weight on “Seen nearby”? Could range maps be taken into account in Vision suggestions? I don’t know what the best fix would be.