A New Space to Grow: Using iNaturalist to connect with the local environment & global community

By Katy Podbielski

As we increasingly rely on technology for communication, transportation, and entertainment, we simultaneously surrender our decisions as data to be collected by whoever is paying attention.

What if we took that data-collecting power into our own hands, and organized observations in a way that could help living organisms and the future of life on planet Earth?

On Wednesday afternoon CCNH naturalist Constance Taylor held a workshop at the Oakland Public Library introducing people to iNaturalist, a free app and website. The idea for iNaturalist was formed in 2008 by three master’s students at UC Berkeley who sought to make environmental knowledge accessible to anyone. The project has since expanded and effectively reached its goal: partnered with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and California Academy of Sciences, iNaturalist exists today as a citizen-powered database of over two million existing lifeforms observed by humans around the world.

Head to the website on a computer or download the app on a smart phone, make an account, and you’ve instantly joined a community of world-class scientists, budding naturalists, and people who can’t distinguish a butterfly from a moth. The program doesn’t expect users to have all the knowledge of what we observe; it beautifully provides a space for people with different levels of experience to share observations and work together to identify, acknowledge, and appreciate the natural world around us.

Say you’re walking home from work, or hiking away from the city, and see an unfamiliar plant. This plant is amazing for existing, and now we can do more than just appreciate its beauty. Take a few photos of that plant and share them on iNaturalist. Although your knowledge of this particular creature is limited, the clues captured in your photos may ring familiarity to others. The stem, leaves, texture, color, height, scent: all of these characteristics are unique to each and every living thing on earth, from humans to birds, from trees to dirt. Maybe you’ve never thought about it that deeply— and that’s okay! The point of citizen science and iNaturalist is to provide a space where we can connect, learn, and grow, together. A space where we bridge the gap between knowledge, and action. Our modern relationship to the environment shall no longer be coy and mysterious: by observing and recording life at different scales, we can collectively develop a clear understanding and true respect for the natural cycles of life on Earth.

I’m about to throw another new concept at you: bioblitz. Bioblitzes are meet-ups of people using the iNaturalist app in a particular location to thoroughly observe, record, and appreciate a natural habitat. Sometimes bioblitzes are done by teams of scientists; other times, they’re organized by friends and neighborhoods. They're a great way to familiarize yourself with the natural environment, and to also connect with people in your community.

Interested in iNaturalist? Interested in bioblitzes? Just want to get outside? The California Center for Natural History will be hosting two additional iNaturalist training sessions, and Saturday morning bioblitzes at Lake Merritt through the month of July.

Fun fact: Lake Merritt was the first government-dedicated National Wildlife Refuge in the United States. Regularly participating in bioblitzes or using iNaturalist to record wildlife over time can better enable us to understand our present relationship with the environment, and provide us with foundations for a more balanced relationship in the future.

Check out our events page for more details, and hope to see you this Saturday!