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Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

What happens when you combine crowdsourcing and biodiversity?

Citizen Science is the way forward. Here are some initiatives that will help you become a part of this growing trend.

We all know how crowdsourcing works. Information, data and contributions come together to accomplish a common goal. But what happens when you combine crowdsourcing with wildlife and biodiversity?

Here’s an example. When Ashutosh Shinde, a wildlife enthusiast and photographer from Mumbai, posted a picture of a mantid on iNaturalist, an online social network of people sharing biodiversity information and a crowdsourced species identification system, he got responses from an urban wildlife biologist in Dallas, US, and an ecologist based in Canterbury, New Zealand. The mantid in the picture was identified as a creobroter, a flower mantis.

iNaturalist is simple to use. You record your observations through its mobile app. It could be anything: an unknown plant or a creature. You then discuss your observations with naturalists spread around the globe.

“At its core, iNaturalist is a community of people sharing observations from nature to teach one another and create high-quality observations for science. Go outside, find a living thing and use the iNaturalist app to take a picture to record your observation. iNaturalist will give you automatic suggestions using image-recognition algorithms (image recognition is iPhone-only at the moment—still in development for Android) and by sharing your observation with the iNaturalist community, you’ll get feedback from the community and your observation may be vetted as ‘research grade’, for use by scientists," says Scott Loarie, one of the co-directors at iNaturalist, on email.

It’s a facet of citizen science, which has grown in recent years. Take portals and databases like eBird, Zooiniverse, or ConservationFIT, which uses the footprint identification technique (FIT) to monitor endangered species.

“Citizen science is the way forward. There are thousands of people who have better knowledge of their surroundings than a dedicated scientist. The key is to collect, preserve and use this knowledge for a good cause. It’s like cloud computing—we distribute the work to many people and, yes, an expert will compile all this information to ensure there are no errors," says Jose Louies, who started Indiansnakes.org, a digital snakes database, seven years ago.

iNaturalist started as the master’s final project of Nate Agrin, Jessica Kline and Ken-ichi Ueda at the University of California, Berkeley School of Information, in 2008. Ken-ichi and Loarie, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford, set up the company in 2011. Three years ago, iNaturalist was acquired by the California Academy of Sciences. The iNaturalist community now has about 450,000 users, with members being added almost every day. “We have about 1,000 people contributing from India," says Loarie.

While iNaturalist’s primary aim is to connect people with nature, it has reached further, with scientists and organizations such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and the US National Park Service using its data.

Indiansnakes.org is at present mapping India’s big four venomous snakes—the Indian cobra, saw-scaled viper, Russell’s viper and common krait. This is the first step in the work being done by the Indian team of the Global Snakebite Initiative, an Australian non-profit working to reduce snakebite casualties around the world. And it’s based entirely on technology and crowdsourcing, with more than 500 volunteers mapping the snakes using a specially designed app that records the date, time and exact GPS location.

The ConservationFIT website suggests the scale that is possible if citizens pitch in: Approximately eight billion people visit protected areas around the world annually, and if even a small number of them upload images of footprints, it could perhaps provide an unprecedented amount of data.

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