Thanks Bill for drawing my attention to iNaturalist which has the makings of an awesome site!
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.
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