Where are iNaturalist observations under represented per capita?

Like most citizen-science data, iNaturalist observations tend to come from the places with the most people. But have you ever wondered where iNaturalist observations are under represented relative to human population? Here's a little analysis of that for the United States. The map below shows the number of iNaturalist observation from the past year by metropolitan area (blue areas) as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau (gray areas are non-metropolitan areas excluded from this analysis). As expected, lots of observations come from places like San Francisco, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago where there also happen to be lots of people.

The next graph shows 2016 population summarized by the same metropolitan areas. Here we see many of those same areas where we have a lot of iNaturalist observations like San Francisco and Dallas light up. But we also see several populous metropolitan areas in the midwest and southeast like St. Louis and Atlanta that weren't as dark on the map of iNaturalist observations.

These are places where iNaturalist observations are under represented relative to population. Its easier to see these if we take the log difference of the number of the two graphs. Here, the blue areas have a lot of iNaturalist observations relative to the population. In contrast, the red areas have relatively few iNaturalist observations relative to the number of people living in the areas.

This final map shows the same data as the previous map but filters out just those metropolitan areas with a population greater than one million people. In blue, and ranked by 'most well represented' in descending order I've numbered the top 12 areas with the most iNaturalist observations relative to population. Austin comes in first place. In red, I've ranked the 'most under represented' areas again numbered from one to 12 in descending order. Louisville, KY comes in as the most under represented metropolitan area in the United States in terms of number of iNaturalist observations per capita.

This table shows that same data from the above graph alongside this 'relative discrepancy' index I used to color the maps. Its negative when areas are under represented and positive when they are well represented. Major metropolitan areas in California, Texas, and the piedmont area jump out where iNat observations per capita are relatively well represented. But similarly, several major metropolitan areas in the midwest and southeast jump out as places where iNaturalist observations are under represented per capita. Here regions in Kentucky, Missouri and Indiana (Louiville, St. Louis, Kansas City, Indianapolis) as well as Michigan (Grand Rapids, Detroit), Georgia (Atlanta), and Florida (Tampa) lead the pack.

Obviously, lots of things could be driving the number of iNaturalist observations in a region other than just population. Demographic or cultural differences may be important. In some places, contributions from a few hard-core users may be causing some regions to be better represented than expected. But population is probably a pretty good first order predictor for the number of iNaturalist observations that should be generated from an area. So why is this map so patchy? One good explanation is the network effect which means that the value of a service increases with the number of people using it. Its easy to see why a social network like iNaturalist would be subject to this effect. Social networks are a lot more interesting to use in places where there's already a vibrant community and data to explore. Another interesting thing about the network effect is that because once an effort kicks off in a place the positive feedbacks can make it grow quickly, sometimes from seemingly random beginnings. A good example was Google's social network Orkut which perhaps randomly caught on in Brazil and India and because of the network effect grew rapidly in those places. This kept Facebook at bay in those countries long after it became the dominant social network elsewhere in the world.

A lot of the patchiness in the maps presented here can almost surely be attributed to the network effect causing iNat to catch on from seemingly random seeds. A good example is iNat's strength in the Austin area (the 'most well represented' area in the US). This is anecdotal, but my hunch is that early, 'random' adoption of iNaturalist by Cullen Hanks (@cullen), formerly with Texas Parks and Wildlife, combined with his charisma, expert outreach skills, and the network effect is a large part of why iNaturalist is so strong in the Austin area. Cullen personally 'recruited' many of iNat's most important community members like Greg Lasley (@greglasley). I'm sure others can point to many other examples of this kind of local leadership and community building accounting for the patterns on the maps.

I'll end with question. Suppose we wanted to try to actively turn some of these red areas blue. How would the iNat larger community go about making this happen? We know that adoption by a few 'champions' can rapidly build community in a region. But how would we find, reach out to, and 'recruit' these champions? There's a lot of chicken-and-the-egg and lead-a-horse-to-water issues that make kicking off local community growth difficult to do from the outside. I have to say, here at iNat-headquarters our track record of this has been pretty poor, which is why we've tended to focus on building and maintaining the platform and watching the network grow passively rather than actively doing outreach. But maybe there's something that we could be doing better? Curious to hear your thoughts on how one could imagine getting iNaturalist to reach its potential in Louisville, Jacksonville, Grand Rapids and beyond!

Publicado por loarie loarie, 07 de julho de 2017, 06:00 PM


This is a very interesting post, and I was happy to see an Alabama metropolitan area (Birmingham) hitting way above its size class with iNaturalist observations. I like to think https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/biodiversity-of-alabama played a part in this.

Publicado por friel mais de 4 anos antes (Sinalizar)

This is a great write-up, Scott.

I totally agree with the 'network effect.' In Dallas/Fort Worth, there is an existing vibrant community of not just observers but also identifiers. When a new person makes an observation in the DFW area, there's a higher chance that it will be ID'ed by one of the existing DFW iNatters -- that welcomes the new person and encourages him/her to go and observe more.

With the new app features, this is particularly powerful in those well observed areas -- more local data to compare suggested ID's.

Also, I would hope that this inspires us to visit more of those areas that are not well documented.

Publicado por sambiology mais de 4 anos antes (Sinalizar)

@pfau_tarleton More data to expand your MS post.

Publicado por kimberlietx mais de 4 anos antes (Sinalizar)

Very interesting data Scott,

I wonder if there is a landcover effect within the MSAs--where some of these are either highly developed or less-interesting from a biodiversity perspective. It would be neat to compare map the data against some sort of composition metric (eg. Fig3 in this paper http://goo.gl/b2nHig).

Publicado por ctracey mais de 4 anos antes (Sinalizar)

This is an interesting analysis. I would be interested to see how it has changed from last year. Our project on the Kaibab National Forest has added a lot of observations to the area. I wonder how much that has changes since last year.



Publicado por mapduck mais de 4 anos antes (Sinalizar)

I had noticed the "hole" in observations centered on the Mississippi area a few months ago, and that it existed regardless of which taxa you map out. Yesterday, I saw a post on iNat Google groups from a person somewhere in the upper mid-west asking how to get people to suggest IDs. One problem is that she was documenting things that were hard to ID, but she may also have been in an under represented area.

I can't think of anything that folks outside of the under represented areas can do besides adopt an under represented area and provide some social-networking encouragement by suggesting IDs and leaving a motivational comment. I'm sure it can be lonely if you're an observer in those areas. Is there a way to tell map the distribution of unconfirmed observations to see if they correlate with under represented areas?

For those interested in "adopting a region", you can set it up like this and bookmark the link (this is showing all the unidentified insects in the Mississippi/Alabama region--the bounding box can be easily changed):

Publicado por pfau_tarleton mais de 4 anos antes (Sinalizar)

I'm one of Cullen's recruits in the Austin area. Nowhere near as prolific as some, but I have high hopes for the future!

I love @pfau_tarleton's suggestion of "adopting" a region. I do a somewhat similar thing with my recruits. I am a very vocal and evangelical iNat supporter and have managed to get a handful of people to create accounts and make observations. One of the ways I entice people to join is I tell them I will follow them and guide them through using the site. These maps are a great resource--I think I'll start digging around in the blank pockets when I do IDs.

In terms of what iNat can do to recruit users in underrepresented areas: What about reaching out to universities and natural history museums? UT Austin has a strong population of iNat users, many of whom are graduate students, faculty, or museum staff. I can see iNaturalist being an interesting component of Bio 101 courses and natural history museum outreach programs. How can iNaturalist create partnerships with institutions where nature enthusiasts congregate?

My Texas Master Naturalist chapter has an after school program for 5-6th graders, where the kids are learning the same kind of things the master naturalists are. We are going to include iNaturalist in this program in the upcoming year, since it's such a great resource for documenting and identifying. Could iNaturalist become a component of biology curricula in primary and secondary education? If so, how do you reach educators willing to adopt iNat as a classroom tool?

Publicado por nanofishology mais de 4 anos antes (Sinalizar)

The southern "hole", Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama have Master Naturalist programs--I wonder if they incorporate iNat or could be encouraged to?

Publicado por pfau_tarleton mais de 4 anos antes (Sinalizar)

One problem I've encountered with trying to get others on iNaturalist is that they somehow already perceive that it is difficult to use. I'm not sure why this is, because it really is quite simple - upload photo directly, give it a name if you know it, if you don't choose a broader taxa. Voila! Maybe some PR-y type stuff can be done to show potential users how simple it is? Perhaps there are people in under-represented areas who are simply intimidated by the site, or even maybe intimidated because they aren't sure of their IDing skills.

Another is that some areas are just under-represented because of a ton of factors. I am not far from Montgomery County in central NY (it's red on this map). I also use eBird, and it seriously lacks data there too. The problem here is not iNat at ALL. It's sort of a logistics and people issue. Nobody I know who collects any sort of nature data lives near the county. It's almost all farm land, and a major highway cuts through it length-wise, the one trail I know of there is paved and very wide (which doesn't interest us birders), and the state forests lack trails (which also doesn't interest us birders, since no trail = huge number of ticks). So, there are accessibility issues.

The people problem stems sort of from a lack of time. Even retired birders (I keep saying birders since I know plenty, but very few naturalists) have limited time for birding. With limited time one chooses places of known higher biodiversity already. Those tend to be closer to home. They also tend to be historical hotspots. Even when a birder finally decides to travel quite a bit they are going to choose hotspots already known for high biodiversity. None of these spots exists in the under-represented county I'm talking about.

The adopting an under-represented region may work, but us birders have tried to get that to happen repeatedly with under-birded areas and it just doesn't last. It's a ton of work for whomever does it and they tend not to stick with that spot. People would rather try to find nature rarities in their usual spots instead. So, I'm not sure what the fix is, but it's not so much to do with the site as it does human nature and logistics.

Publicado por beepboop mais de 4 anos antes (Sinalizar)

Maybe we need to reach out to those metro areas for participation in the City Nature Challenge? Once we find the organizations willing to take on the planning, they almost become the de facto "champions" in those areas. But then we just need them to sustain their championing for the rest of the year. What do you think, @lhiggins & @rebeccafay?

Publicado por kestrel mais de 4 anos antes (Sinalizar)

I live in one of those under represented areas in Texas -- Jasper County is grey in your charts. Sometimes I feel like the lone ranger out here, but I'm still going thanks to encouragement from people like Greg Lasley. He not only began IDing when I put things up, but when he was exploring near me, he invited me to tag along. That kind of help makes a huge difference.

I think if you reran the graphs using income instead of population, you would find the poorest regions most under represented. Just a thought.

Publicado por lauramorganclark mais de 4 anos antes (Sinalizar)

Interesting. This is from one of those semi-clickbait-y travel sites, so adjust your credibility accordingly, but Annie Wang at TravelNerd used the following criteria to develop a list of "Top 10 Urban Destinations for Nature-Lovers":
-- Does the city set aside space for parks?
-- Are there national parks nearby?
-- Is the weather nice enough to spend time outside?

At the bottom, she provided a table of the top 20 cities with five columns of the data she compiled. There's decent overlap between her list of cities for nature-lovers and iNat's well-represented cities, and only 1 city shows up on her list (albeit at #18 of 20) that is at the bottom of @loarie 's list: Jacksonville, FL.

This shouldn't take away from efforts to build local champions and communities, but I think reinforces what @beepboop was getting at -- there are reasons beyond just iNat and iNat outreach why an area might be under-represented in the database. Local conditions and history of setting aside space for nature, and for people to enjoy nature, matter.

Publicado por muir mais de 4 anos antes (Sinalizar)

I contribute a bit here on INat everywhere we go I will post observations
In December and January we did a cross country road trip to Virginia I'm still posting
Observations from that trip. I find it amazing no one on here will ID our post or even
Throw a guess at it

Publicado por ck2az mais de 4 anos antes (Sinalizar)

@ck2az, I looked at your Virginia observations and they all seem like pretty tough things to ID. That probably contributes to lack of suggestions. Plus, plant folks are fewer in number than animal folks.

Publicado por pfau_tarleton mais de 4 anos antes (Sinalizar)

Fascinating! When I started the Personal Bioblitz out of New Jersey 4 years ago, we had maybe 500-1000 observations or less for the state. That is now maybe 10-20x times that, and mostly driven by student and other participants in the bioblitz. Still, those NJ observations are not evenly distributed over the state, but highly aggregated for example on Rutgers New Brunswick Campus.

Publicado por vilseskog mais de 4 anos antes (Sinalizar)

I'm glad the Sacramento area is doing well. I'm hoping to be over 1500 observations by the end of the year. I almost wish I was in an area that needed help. Lol.

Publicado por vermfly mais de 4 anos antes (Sinalizar)

There are a lot of great comments here, and most agree that the "network effect" is very significant. I'm strongly an adherent to the view expressed by nanofishology that local certification & training efforts, fish & wildlife programs, museums and universities are valuable stimulants of amateur naturalist activity, citizen science and crowdsourcing on the whole. I feel there's an important outreach opportunity awaiting iNaturalist in this area, and I'm hoping there'll be a chance to discuss this further.

Publicado por jbryant mais de 4 anos antes (Sinalizar)

Cool maps @loarie and lots of great thoughts here. I agree that the City Nature Challenge is an excellent way to cultivate and support new local leaders, especially in the underrepresented places. I am super impressed by how motivated a "coalition of the willing" was by friendly competition. I saw a huge difference between that and the NPS Centennial BioBlitzes where there was theoretically friendly competition as well, but it wasn't so clear and no one embraced it in the same way as in the CNC.

Within the DC metro area (which stretches far out into Virginia) for the City Nature Challenge, I knew that we had huge county-sized gaps that actually have tons of naturalist-y organizations with plenty of members, but they just aren't on iNat yet and we didn't quite get that far in our outreach.

I'd love to see a social network analysis of inaturalist, especially over time. The "institutionalization" of iNaturalist in various places seems to be enormously important to its widespread regional adoption, e.g. New Zealand Bio-Recording Network Trust (@meurkc and @jon_sullivan), CONABIO in Mexico (@carlos2), CalAcademy in the SF Bay area (the iNat team and crucially also @kestrel and @rebeccafay), LA Natural History Museum (@lhiggins @smartrf and @gregpauly), Vermont Center for Ecosystem Studies (@kpmcfarland), Texas Parks & Wildlife (aforementioned @cullen's "founder effect")...I'm sure there are plenty of other examples. I wonder what the best examples of growth in the absence of a local champion institution are? I think we struggled a bit with this in DC for the CNC because we didn't have a powerful local institution with a local mandate. Maybe Italy? Or are there champion institutions there too?

I think iNat's next big challenge is this meta-organization issue of how to support individuals and organizations around the world that are increasingly invested in inaturalist's success. How does iNat organize itself to leverage the collective interests and expertise, above and beyond sharing observations and crowdsourcing identifications. How can it best do that to prioritize feature improvements, get sustainable funding, communicate strategically with bigger media outlets, support research interests (especially "science of citizen science" type research), develop and share training materials, support BioBlitzes, exchange data with other platforms, etc.

Publicado por carrieseltzer mais de 4 anos antes (Sinalizar)

Great thoughts Carrie, and throughout all these comments.

Publicado por muir mais de 4 anos antes (Sinalizar)

I heartily concur with the comments by @carrieseltzer, especially with respect to the impact of "a powerful local institution with a local mandate" being a valuable means of stimulating use of iNaturalist in those under represented MSAs. Another imperative is to get the "grey areas" on the maps - the areas lacking MSAs - better documented with observations. Some of these have a local candidate institution that could be a lead in iNat dissemination and training; others may require leadership from further afield. There are several strategies that could accomplish that.

Publicado por jbryant mais de 4 anos antes (Sinalizar)

A few thoughts.
1) Cullen recruited me, and I kind of took to it, and made my podunk city show up blue on your map up there. The essential role played by Cullen's recruitment project can not be understated. I could not have come to this on my own.
Cullen also recruited about 10 other people in my naturalist group at that time, and only one of them has ever contributed much of anything. If you just randomly scan through user profiles you find this to be generally true -- majority of people recruited will do a little bit but then lose interest.
What i mean to suggest is that the element of personality cannot be overlooked. If you're a fiend for detail, if you're a keen observer of the world, and prefer taking nature photos to watching football, then it's going to click. Otherwise no.
2) I've been joined out here in my far-flung territories by an extremely talented transplant (amzapp), for which i am unimaginably grateful. But we two struggle to get our stuff ID'd by the knowledgeable. Experts are overtaxed just keeping up with observations in their own territory, let alone out thisaway. I guess i don't see the point in recruiting a whole bunch more observers, it will merely add to the backlog of uncurated, sloppily identified observations. I wish the priority would be to assign skilled identifiers to the underrepresented regions.
Some of you have already suggested exactly THAT (pfau, nanofisholgy…). I thank you for seeing the issue, and responding!

Publicado por ellen5 mais de 4 anos antes (Sinalizar)

It would be cool if we could keep track of this as time goes on! A feature like the search except to compare cities at any time would be really cool.

Publicado por joemdo cerca de 4 anos antes (Sinalizar)

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