Are we helping answer questions that haven't been asked?

Since I manage National Geographic's Great Nature Project, I've made a point of keeping an eye on other similar projects and communities. (If you want to see all of the other projects I've come across, it's the best use I've found for Pinterest. :-) One of the ones I find most interesting is Australia's BowerBird. Every Friday, Bower Bird's manager Ken Walker (a curator of entomology) sends out the BowerBird Bugle. It's low-tech (download a pdf) but always interesting and I think he's doing a great job encouraging and advocating for the growing community.

Two weeks ago Ken told a story the drives home the value of being able to identify and name things in order to a) know whether or not you have a problem and b) how to solve it. He uses termites as an example and I'll let you read it yourself here (pdf).

Last week he said, " I am always popping into the 3 million insect collection to match a photo with a pinned specimen and adding a name to an image. Someone had to collect the museum specimen, label it and probably someone else identified it – and we may have had the specimen in the collection for 50 or 100 years. As I said last week, the biggest problem for taxonomy and collections is that we answer questions before the questions have been asked." (emphasis mine)

Is this the best way to describe what we're doing, too?

The observations added to iNaturalist really are analogous to natural history collections. Sometimes they are collected with a specific purpose and question in mind, but often they are a result of being in the right place at the right time. And beyond any original question, the standardized, shared data associated with records of biodiversity allow for people to answer previously unimaginable questions at previously unimaginable scales.

We don't know right now exactly how our observations might be used in the future, but we want to make sure they are as useful as possible. What do you think?

Posted on November 06, 2015 05:27 PM by carrieseltzer carrieseltzer


Wow, there are so many of these. I wish it were all linked to iNaturalist via portals or something, but if they all share the data with GBIF it ends up the same place anyhow.
here's my inaturalist manifesto. Maybe I should distill it and post a smaller version on iNat too.

Posted by charlie over 8 years ago

Some but not all share with GBIF. GBIF is definitely playing an essential role in bringing all of these different data together. Some go to GBIF via country portals (like the Atlas of Living Australia and iSpot--I think). Thanks for sharing your blog. I also really like the description of slow water :-)

Posted by carrieseltzer over 8 years ago

Thanks! I haven't done much with that blog lately though. I have entirely too many projects going on at once. For all the time i spend on iNaturalist you'd think I do nothing else but that just isn't the case...

Posted by charlie over 8 years ago

Great post, Carrie. I worked in a herbarium for a few years, and I have seen this several times. With those old specimens collected (and some folks just collected herbarium specimens as a symbol of class) by botanists of the past, we've addressed many questions on species distributions and species that aren't found in certain locations anymore... And yes, many specimens (like observations on iNat) will wait and wait and wait for someone to come through the cabinets to glance at them. :)

The original question of "what's out there?" opens up lots of new questions and potential answers, just like you said. :)

Posted by sambiology over 8 years ago

I think the clarity for me is that we need to be talking about it this way when we're talking about the utility of museum collections and big citizen science like iNaturalist. I don't think I'd ever heard it framed quite like that. :-)

Posted by carrieseltzer over 8 years ago

When I was big into making herbarium specimens, I would take pictures to accompany the physical specimen -- so I would attach my collection number to the photographs... ( I wish wish wish I would have done this with my first few hundred collections, but eh, that's how it goes. :)

I do view iNat as a digital herbarium/collection, and of course, I love it. :)

Posted by sambiology over 8 years ago

i really wish I had a way to add all the stuff I saw before I found inat. I have thousands of points and plant names for the santa monica mountains I gathered while working for NPS but I don't know if they want it added and that does not have photos anyhow. There are photos, but I don't have them. Maybe they already shared the data, I don't know.

Posted by charlie over 8 years ago

We're making up for lost time now, Charlie! :-D

Posted by sambiology over 8 years ago


Posted by charlie over 8 years ago

Thank you for posting your collected projects, Carrie. I teach a science methods course in teacher education and have been assigning my students to use iNaturalist to not only adapt its usefulness for teaching elementary students, but also to experience the wide-spread sharing of data that you described. Great question: "What's out there?"

Posted by smithtk over 8 years ago

Thanks, @smithtk! Love your Geo-educator shirt in your profile :-)

Posted by carrieseltzer over 8 years ago

Here's another incipient inat clone:

and also

Any chance you'd post that somewhere other than pinterest? That dumb site won't let me see it without an account and I don't really feel like creating yet another account on yet another website. And if you do it through facebook it asks for your work history and birthday and a bunch of other stuff (if you couldn't tell before i don't like that sort of thing :/ )

Maybe there's no other easy way to do it, it's just that pinterest annoys me! I suppose I could cave in and get one but I already have like every other social media thing

Posted by charlie over 8 years ago

Ugh, I didn't realize pinterest was so exclusive! Thank you for mentioning that, @charlie. I'll try to recreate the list in another form as well.

Posted by carrieseltzer over 8 years ago

No urgency of course! It's just a bummer about Pinterest, they hide stuff.

Posted by charlie over 8 years ago

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