iRecord and iNaturalist

iNaturalist is a global online system for collecting wildlife observations, which allows members of the public to upload records with photos of the wildlife they have found, and receive help with identifications. It is widely used around the world but, in contrast to iRecord, iNaturalist is not tailored to biological recording in the UK, and does not link very easily to the recording schemes and records centres (for example, iNaturalist does not use the British and Irish grid reference systems and species dictionaries).

In 2018 we carried out a small-scale trial to import records from iNaturalist into iRecord specifically for the UK's participation in the global City Nature Challenge bioblitz events, and in 2019 we extended the trial to bring in all iNaturalist records from the UK. As planned, the trial imports stopped last autumn, while we reviewed the feedback we had received.

That feedback has been very mixed, with some individuals and recording scheme verifiers being keen to see the iNaturalist records being made available via iRecord, and some raising substantial concerns over this. Difficulties encountered included:

  • The link from iNaturalist to iRecord was a one-way import, and consequently there was no way to communicate feedback or verification decisions and redeterminations back to iNaturalist users from within iRecord
  • Some iNaturalist users have been very deliberately choosing to use iNaturalist for some purposes and iRecord for others, with the same records being added to both systems in some cases, and were unhappy to see the iNaturalist version of their records appearing in iRecord; this has also led to extensive duplication for some sets of records, which displeases recorders and is not a good use of verifier time
  • A small proportion of iNaturalist records were shown to contain erroneous date and location information; in at least one case this appeared to result from the date/location information having been automatically harvested by iNaturalist from the photo metadata, rather than applying to the record itself. As far as we know this affects a very small proportion of the iNaturalist records, but it is not easy to tell from the records themselves whether such difficulties apply, making it difficult for verifiers to have trust in the records as a whole
  • iNaturalist handles the blurring of location information in a different way to iRecord, and this has caused difficulties for some verifiers
  • The use of pseudonyms as recorder names by many iNaturalist users is not accepted by some recording schemes
  • The data flow from iNaturalist to iRecord and on to NBN Atlas is complicated and difficult to explain; in brief, records from iNaturalist only get to iRecord if they have reached iNaturalist's "research grade", and if they have species names that match the UK Species Inventory (UKSI), and if they have an appropriate Creative Commons record licence; and once on iRecord, they only get to NBN Atlas if they are verified, and if they fall within the remit of a national recording scheme that shares its data with NBN Atlas. This makes it very hard for an iNaturalist user to know with any confidence what will happen to their record.
  • Inevitably there are identification errors in the iNaturalist observations, especially for some of the less well-known species groups, and not all iRecord verifiers wished to spend time on finding and correcting these.

Another consideration is that the iNaturalist data is largely an open dataset and is already available to people to download from iNaturalist itself, or via the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). This means that by bringing the records into iRecord there is a high probability that the iRecord 'version' of the iNaturalist data will be a duplicate of data available via other routes, and in some cases will be an 'edited duplicate' (e.g. following a redetermination) that is difficult to reconcile with the iNaturalist original.

And of course iRecord's resources for technical development are limited, and there are a lot of jobs on the list to maintain and enhance iRecord itself. A focus on developing new systems to link to iNaturalist would inevitably lead to delay in work on other aspects of iRecord.

We also received favourable responses to the iNaturalist trial import, with some recording schemes and recorders welcoming the ability to include iNaturalist records within the records they handle via iRecord, and to have the records linked via iRecord to the UKSI and to UK grid references etc. However, the balance of feedback received was unfavourable to continuing the trial, and we are not intending to switch the iNaturalist import back on during 2020.

We will continue to review the situation and look for opportunites to make closer links with iNaturalist if we can. Where recording schemes do wish to engage with the iNaturalist data we will look for ways to support them to do that. And we welcome further feedback via the iRecord forums or direct to irecord@ceh.ac.uk