What is it?
It is essentially a Google Map where people can add pins every time they see an interesting critter: a plant, fungus, animal, etc. What is recorded is geographical coordinates and time when it was posted.
Moreover, people can link from the pins to pictures of the sighted critters if they upload them on Flickr (nice way to interlink existing social networking sites instead of reinventing the wheel). And they can put additional information, e.g., description of the habitat where they saw the creature. They can try to identify it and others can chime in agreeing or disagreeing on the ID. One can also view maps in various ways - by time, by broader groups (e.g., insects, birds...), or by the degree of agreement people have about the ID.
The site has, apparently, just started, thus the number of people and the number of sightings is still relatively small and limited to mainly a couple of geographic locations (mostly California and Washington state).
But, imagine a couple of years from now, with millions of people pinning millions of sightings, providing additional information and then having the community agree on the ID? How about ecologists putting in all their field survey data (at least after publication if not before)? How about everyone who participates in the Christmas bird hunt? What an incredible database that will be! Something that one can search with machines, build and test models, and use the results to test ideas about, for instance, effects of weather events (hurricanes, fires, floods, El Nino, etc.) or broader weather changes (e.g., Global Warming).
In order for this database to become useful, I hope that the developers, as soon as possible, make sure it is possible for all the info to be machine searchable. And also to provide, perhaps, various fields that will lure people to put in more information. Right now, there is a date when the pin is posted, but the date of actual sighting is much more important. Exact latitude and longitude. Perhaps altitude. Perhaps depth for aquatic organisms. Exact time of day of the sighting. Description of the habitat. Number of individuals. Measurements of different kinds (one often cannot infer from pictures if the critter is 3cm or 30cm long, for instance). Behavioral observations. And of course the ID.
Such a database would be biased of course. People will tend to record when they see something unusual, or cool, or charismatic megafauna, rather than grass or field of corn or a bunch of squirrels in a tree. Also, more critters will be found in urban areas, on farms, in parks and by the roadsides than in places where one needs climbing (or diving) gear, or an hour of work with a machete in order to get to the habitat. But ecological models using the database could be made to account for these biases anyway.
In any case, I urge you to bookmark this site, and to use it. And let's see how it shapes up over time.
There is a Google Group too, where the developers seem to be quite responsive: I've posted a couple of queries and received replies within minutes today.
I do hope that they work on their interface, making it easy to enter information and extract it from elsewhere: one idea is to use existing Flickr tags (geodata, time/date) to fill in the fields. The biggest barrier to success is when users are put off because data entry is too laborious or doesn't work as they would like.
Hi! Ken-ichi here, one of the iNat developers. Thanks for all the kind words and the great commentary. We're working on better data entry interfaces (improving the existing one and importing data directly from Flickr), and we've just been joined by a new developer who will be working on generating machine-readable feeds of the data. We've eschewed expanding on the core data fields of "what / where / when" for the sake of simplicity, but things like sex and scale would certainly be useful. Do you know of any existing data models for biological observations we might look to for this? We very loosely based our schema on the DarwinCore, and there's ABCD, but those are the only ones I know of.
Anyway, thanks again for the post.
Reinventing the wheel?
Perhaps a little mashup work with flickr is in order...
I think I'll try that on the iPhone. Might be nifty if someone developed a web-app that allowed iPhone users to tag and upload with an assist from the GPS feature.
If only they had something like this around the time I was in primary school. I wonder if any sci/bio teachers are planning on using this type of tool in their class?
There is a similar, earlier effort like this over at Faunapolis.
Take a look at Scratchpads as well.