Tech Tip Tuesday: Improving Observation Quality

“Rain, rain, go away” is not a song I anticipated singing the week before Thanksgiving, yet here we are. I guess at this point, I shouldn’t be surprised. I can’t speak to how this weather compares to historic Vermont early-winters, but I know that winters are no longer normal. They say that anyone born during the past few decades has never experienced a true Vermont winter and I believe it. Even within the past few years this season has felt increasingly erratic. Just over the last two weeks I’ve seen single digits, mid-forties, pouring rain, and snow that clogged I-89 for miles. Although there is still some uncertainty surrounding the magnitude of climate change’s effects on Vermont, there’s little question in my mind that it’s disrupting winter’s “business as usual”.

Despite the indecisive weather, there’s still plenty to see! The new ground cover has increased my awareness of the diversity of life that I share the land with. Every morning a new row of deer tracks crisscross my yard and the delicate skips of mice are often seen tracing their way to and from my wood pile. I now know not only which animals are present, but also what areas they frequent most regularly. Although the November rain makes it tempting to stay indoors, I do encourage you to venture outdoors when the showers cease.

This Week on Tech Tip Tuesday

In the meantime, this dreary weather makes the perfect backdrop for indoor activities, such as iNaturalist housekeeping. Today I will go over a couple of basic tips for improving the quality of your iNaturalist observations. Quality is important when it comes to iNaturalist observations. Although the app’s goal is to collect data for scientists and others, only the research grade observations get stored where scientists can access them. This data storage program is the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). Once an observation achieves research grade status, it gets sent to GBIF where it is stored with data from other programs. GBIF then provides open access to this data, making it available to anyone who needs it.

In order to help your observations achieve research grade and provide scientists with an accurate data point, I’ve outlined a couple tips to keep in mind when creating new observations and reviewing previously recorded ones.

Tip # 1: Make sure that your photo has a focus. I’m sure that you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t love a good landscape shot. However, your gorgeous photo of a forested hillside can prove tricky for iNaturalist. When your photo contains multiple species, both iNaturalist and other users can struggle to figure out which species you wanted identified. If you post a photo of a clump of trees and don’t specify which species you’re interested in, other users will struggle to help you make an identification. The easiest way to clearly indicate your focal species is by zooming in on it in your photo. If this is not possible, then provide an explanation in your observation’s comments section to help guide others towards the species of interest.

Tip #2: Make sure that your observation contains photos of only one species. While there are plenty of websites that encourage you to group photos of many different things, iNaturalist is not one of them. iNaturalist bases its identifications off of the first picture you upload. Therefore, if your first photo is of a grey squirrel and your second is of a mallard, the grey squirrel will get identified and cataloged while the mallard will remain hidden and unaccounted for. In order to ensure that the species you see are accurately represented, make sure that a new observation is made for each individual species. It is ok to reuse the same image and tag a different species. For more information on this, see TTT #2.

Tip #3: Try your best to provide an identification for your observation. Even if all you know is that you’re looking at a plant, animal, or fungi, write that down! If you identify something as unknown, others who might otherwise be able to assist may have a hard time finding it. “Unknown” observations are more likely to get lost in limbo waiting for someone to identify them. If you want help identifying your observation, labeling it as a “plant” will allow others to find it more easily.

Tip #4: Make sure that you mark captive animals and cultivated plants accordingly. There are few who scowl at a good pet picture. Personally, I’m usually a sucker for the artfully arranged garden as well. However, animals and plants that are raised and/or controlled by humans aren’t usually considered iNaturalist’s targeted biodiversity demographic. Discerning which animals and plants are considered captive and cultivated can be tricky at times. Thankfully, iNaturalist explains what they mean by “captive” or “cultivated”. If you do snap a photo of a captive animal or cultivated plant, make sure to select the “Captive/Cultivated” box below the date and location when adding your observation.

Tip #5: Make sure that your observation’s date is the date you observed it, not the date you uploaded it. Most of the time, iNaturalist will use the date that your phone stamped on the photo. However, if you’re using a photo that you took on a different device or that function is turned off on your fancy camera, you will have to input the date manually. Whenever you’re creating a new observation, check to make sure that the date is set to the day that you saw the animal/plant/fungi. If the date is wrong it will either make your photo “casual” grade or, if not caught, will provide inaccurate data to those who may use it in the future.

Tip #6: Make sure that your observations’ locations are correct. An easy way to do this is by going to your calendar (located in your profile icon’s drop down menu in the top right corner of your screen) for a specific day and click on the observations present. Once on the observations page, you can select “map” view and it will show you your observations’ locations for that day. If you notice any outliers, go directly to the questionable observation’s page for further evaluation. You can edit the location if needed to restore its accuracy.

TTT Task of the Week

For those who like to use these extra-wintery days for hunkering down and tackling indoor projects, this week’s task is for you! Revisit older observations you’ve made and check that all of the information in them is accurate and follows the tips outlined above. If you have hundreds or thousands of observations and understandably don’t want to go through all of them, then focus on ones that have yet to receive identifications. Use the observation map to double check that your observations show up in the correct location. I know that these housekeeping tasks can be tedious, however performing them from time to time ensures that your observations are contributing high quality data so that scientists like those with the Vermont Atlas of Life can use them to further conservation projects in Vermont.

If you would rather spend your time outside wandering the slushy landscape, then iNat your way around while practicing these tips.

Thank you for helping us map Vermont’s biodiversity and happy observing!

Posted on 19 November, 2019 19:54 by emilyanderson2 emilyanderson2


Thanks for all the great and kind guidance, Emily. For all us amateurs, it is much appreciated. Becoming a citizen scientist is a fun and worthwhile endeavor and knowing what really contributes and why will move us all forward.

Posted by ce-ct over 4 years ago

Thank you for your feedback! I'm so glad to hear that it's helpful!

Posted by emilyanderson2 over 4 years ago

Excellent tips!

Posted by susanelliott over 4 years ago

I learn something new from every column. This week's calendar tip is amazing! Thanks so much for writing and sharing this thoughtful column!

Posted by cgbb2004 over 4 years ago

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