Description of need:
My name is Paul and I have been using iNaturalist for a few years now. It’s been an amazing tool to learn more about the fauna and flora around me, and thanks to this platform I have ventured out to new places, looked differently at nature around me, and engaged with new people in my quest to better understand and observe nature. I have a great appreciation for the organization behind iNaturalist and the community that it hosts.
Like many people on this website, I am someone who likes taking photos of nature, and I do not have any formal training in biology. Thanks to this community, I have slowly increased my knowledge and over the past year or so I have wanted to contribute more than just observations. However, while trying to contribute to the identifications on the website, I have found some stumbling blocks. I have read on this forum how increasing the number of identifiers and identifications is something many people seem to support, and something that might even be a bottleneck for iNaturalist, so for this reason I have tried to think of some changes that would make it easier for people like me to make the transition from observers to identifiers.
I have tried to make this idea as concrete and specific as I can. I have no doubt that other people have better ideas on the specifics, but I think that creating some sample screenshots and providing quite some details on this idea help create a more nuanced discussion and will make it more feasible that (something like) this becomes actionable. At the same time, I am also gladly proven wrong and if people believe that there are existing tools or better ideas around resources for identifying then please share your input. Any feedback is most welcome.
The main ‘needs’ that I have felt are the following:
1. Better access to identification knowledge
I have found it very hard to learn how to become a good identifier. To become an amateur identifier, I think someone needs access to locality-specific knowledge, as well as a certain level of confidence that their identification efforts are actually reliable enough for the website’s purposes. Being location-specific is instrumental: I don’t need to know how to identify all squirrels in the world; I just need to know how to differentiate between those that are very similar looking in my region, for instance. There is a wealth of knowledge already on iNat, and there are many people that generously share their knowledge through discussions in the comments, but this knowledge is very hard to find because it is so decentralized.
2. Motivating tools to encourage identification efforts
The current ‘center’ of identification efforts is found on the ‘Identify’ page. This page seems very useful for seasoned identifiers, but it is daunting and uninspiring to new users (at least, to me). It is very hard to understand how well we’re doing (say, as a local group, or even as iNat as a whole), even though identification is the one thing where you can easily track and show progress.
3. A stronger feeling of community among the (wannabe) identifiers
It helps greatly to feel that you are part of a community in order to get started in a new activity. It also encourages participation if you feel like you are part of specific, ongoing efforts. I think forum posts such as IdentiFriday and Mission: Impossible - Identify Plantae in Africa are great examples, but they are very much hidden away for non-forum users (and even for forum users), and I think that they can occur much more frequently with better structures in place.
Feature request details:
My suggestion is to create a new ‘layer’ on top of the ‘Identify’ page, which allows for a great deal of exploration and understanding of the identification efforts and the associated resources. Let’s call it iNaturalist’s Identification Center. This is NOT a replacement of the current Identify page, and that page can remain in place as-is (but the Identify link becomes a dropdown menu with more than one option underneath it).
Let me explain through this sample screenshot:
Just like other parts of the website, the ‘Identification Center’ has a standard format whose content is adjusted based on two parameters: the chosen place (search box linked to the Places in iNat), and the selected category (‘Iconic taxa’).
The screenshot above shows you the Identification Center for insects in Valle de Aburrá (a place in Colombia). The key elements in the Identification Center (and their rationale) are the following:
Progress bar: it is very encouraging to see how much progress is made, ie which part of the total observations are RG. This can also give people that organize events (such as a local event to identify as many observations in a specific category as possible) a certain goal (e.g. reach 90% or 100% completion). It will add to the feeling that your event or your group has reached a milestone. It also encourages people to mark the box that the taxon is ‘as good as it can be’ which is also a good thing.
Oldest unidentified observations: I think these fall by the wayside, due to default ordering of a number of pages on iNat. Feels good to show what those oldest pending observations are.
Identification guides: these are instrumental in teaching new identifiers how they can help ID species in their local region (be it in their city, country, local biome… whatever scale makes sense). The idea is to motivate all our experts to help draft very easy-to-understand documents in a standardized format to specifically explain how you can make positive IDs for the species in your area. My suggestion would be to really encourage a collaborative effort here. For instance, beginners can help draft documents, filling out the basic info for the most obvious species in the area, and then invite seasoned experts to comment and expand. This can be done in something like Google Slides, where collaborative editing is easy, and which doesn’t need any complex system changes in iNat (the only requirement would be to create a list where the titles/URLs of the guides can be linked to iNat taxons & places). I have made an example guide here: Identification Guide: Squirrels of Panama.
Sidenote: I think that student projects where students are tasked with creating a new, non-existing draft guide for a local taxon are more valuable activities than getting students to upload new observations to iNat, which seems to be a common classroom exercise.
If a guide is not available for the chosen taxon and place, then a ‘higher’ place’s guides can be pulled in (in the example screenshot, insect guides for the department of Antioquia or the country of Colombia could be shown, for instance). There should also be a full section with ALL guides on the website, where people can search for and learn from all these guides.
Local curators: this is a list of people that have signed up to become the official contact points for identifications of a certain place & taxon. These people commit to a) being contacted by newbees with questions, b) help organize local idenitification events with a certain regularlity, and c) monitor the forum for questions pertaining to their area. The name ‘curators’ might be confusing with existing curators so perhaps another name is better…?
Curated sub-categories: these are links within the ‘iconic taxa’ that have their own page for the chosen place. This only makes sense if there are enough resources for these taxa (at a minimum there should be an identification guide, and sufficient observations), so these will need to be activated manually for each place by the local curators. When a sub-category is opened, the exact same ‘Identification center’ page is shown, but now filtering only for the chosen taxon. An example is shown below.
Upcoming identification events: curators can (and should!) create events. Events should have a specific scope (place + taxon), and for the duration of each event at a minimum there should be a curator available to help people with their questions. This could all be done online and by simply having an online chatroom that is buzzing (could be an external platform such as Discord, or by using the iNat forum), it will feel much easier to ‘jump in’ and get started. Could of course also be used for in-person events, workshops, etc.
Getting started: quick-links to get started. Includes the actual identification (the link will take you to the existing Identify page, for the chosen taxon + place), and a link to the forum. Perhaps for each page in the Identification Center (taxon + place) there is a specific thread in the forum, which is monitored by the curators.
The two images below show two other pages within the ‘Identification Center’. The first one is for Mammals in Panama. The second one is a sub-category within this main page, which is shown when people click on the ‘Curated sub-category’ for Sciuridae.
I think that this kind of extra layer to the identification system would greatly help share knowledge around identifications, it would strengthen the community, and it would give people encouraging tools to reach new milestones. Over time, I think this could have a meaningful contribution in the quantity and quality of the identifications on iNaturalist, and it would also help people make more meaningful, lasting connections with nature (I feel that there is quite a difference in understanding and appreciation if you move from observer to identifier). Lastly, I think that no complex, structural changes are needed to the iNat platform and a lot of the required work (such as recruiting curators and writing the first series of identification guides) could be done by the community while the developers look at the technical parts.
Note: shout-out to user severinus who kindly explained me how to identify Sciurus variegatoides ssp. helveolus, which started my journey into identification on iNaturalist. And also many thanks to the 961 identifiers that have helped identify my own observations!