UF/IFAS scientists assess data quality of iNaturalist’s termite records

By: Lourdes Rodriguez

DAVIE, Fla. – Data sources are invaluable to scientific research. While there are countless numbers of data resources designed and dedicated to specific areas of research, these are tools scientists rely on to record and access global knowledge, and later use for analysis and comparison as new data is recorded. 

Nowadays, data resources available to scientists seeking knowledge of biodiversity in a specific geographic area, include field records gathered by voluntary individuals who engage as citizen scientists in various projects. They engage by recording observations of animals, insects, birds, and plants with popular nature apps like iNaturalist

When compared to expert databases and professional collections established and curated by scientists, how reliable is iNaturalist’s data quality in this platform? Do the records and validation methods of iNaturalist meet the standards that scientists can rely on to utilize as part of their research? How does the detail and data volume of iNaturalist compare to other established resources currently relied upon? Are there benefits to science and communities-at-large of using the iNaturalist platform?

These were some of the questions that geomatics Associate Professor Hartwig Henry Hochmair, at University of Florida (UF), tackled as part of an interdisciplinary research project, funded by the UF Biodiversity Institute and the UF Informatics Institute, which focused on termite records. Hochmair worked with a team of scientists at Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, an arm of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. 

In May, the results of the study, ‘Evaluating the data quality of iNaturalist termite records’, was published in PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed and open-access scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science (PLOS).

“The takeaway is that the iNaturalist app allows lay women and men to contribute to science in some way, especially at a time when the world’s movement and access to parks and research facilities is limited,” said Hochmair, additionally referring to the stay-at-home and social distancing orders required by COVID-19. “This is especially true when it comes to everyone’s contribution to field collection and record verification.” 

The platform’s shortcomings and limitations, supported by the study’s findings, are primarily lack of data capture in species termite diversity, and slow progress in the validation process of collection records. 

“Our study shows that only 785 out of 6,078 records, or 12.1 percent of the termite records in iNaturalist worldwide, are classified as ‘research grade,’ meaning they were reviewed by at least two fellow iNaturalist users,” said Hochmair.

Additionally, the findings indicate that expert datasets and professional collections are valuable for biodiversity research because of the volume of records, geographic distributions, and diversity of species included. Meanwhile, despite its details and verification limitations, supplementing iNaturalist data can be beneficial because it can establish a more complete picture of termite biodiversity as observed by geographic location via citizens than either of these data sources on their own, according to the assessment.

“The iNaturalist records can serve as supplemental data that can enhance the research despite its current limitations,” added Hochmair.

The published study compared termite records among the University of Florida Termite Collection (UFTC) at Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), and iNaturalist data. 

The iNaturalist app works by giving individuals the ability to record and share observations through smartphone devices promoting a connection and awareness of flora and fauna. The app permits users to take and upload photos of a variety of biodiversity after which it tries to identify the species through image recognition. Its role in science has been in developing data to better understand and protect nature, as well as promote conservation. Validation, of each observation made, is voluntary and consequently not guaranteed on all records. 

The UFTC, established in 1985 by UF/IFAS Professor of Entomology Rudolf Scheffrahn, is an online repository curated at the research center in Davie that hosts more than 45,000 termite samples from around the world with official species names from collections that are preserved. The collection’s database records describe genus and species, geographic information of the sample’s location at time of collection, collection date, and type of structure the termite originally infested. It contains records from around the world, although the geographic focus is on North and South America with collection dates between 1915 and 2020. 

The GBIF, an international network and research database, is currently reported as the largest occurrence data portal combining data from many sources of different countries, scientific institutions, and citizen science platforms like iNaturalist.  

The study compared the level of information available from iNaturalist that would satisfy data requirements for a scientist’s ability to establish ecological niche modeling. This is vital information to scientists when studying the role and position a species has in its environment, how it meets its needs for food and shelter, where it survives, and how it reproduces. The third objective of the study looked at what percentage of the data in iNaturalist could be classified as ‘research quality’ and the validation of the taxon of a termite.

The study provided a comprehensive look at the historical development of each of the datasets over time, while indicating the growing role that citizen science data collection can provide in mapping termite distributions in the future. 

Meanwhile, Hochmair offered a final takeaway as an indirect outcome of the third objective. 

Hochmair added that the current and future social distancing behaviors needed to continue managing the spread of COVID-19 could encourage increased participation from citizens and experts alike to further record and validate iNaturalist data.

As social distancing behaviors are expected to continue and the coronavirus continues to keep individuals locked up at home, citizens, who have the expertise to do so, including professionals and academics, are therefore encouraged to use this time and contribute to iNaturalist quality enhancement by verification of termite records. 

In addition to Hochmair and Scheffrahn, the study’s authors include Mathieu Basille, assistant professor of landscape ecology, Matthew Boone, a biologist at the Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center