In January 2020, iNaturalist trainers including Community and Support Coordinator, Tony Iwane, and Stakeholder Engagement Strategist, Carrie Seltzer, conducted a workshop at The Habitat Penang Hill to share the capabilities of this AI-powered citizen science platform in Southeast Asia. Participants included NGOs, academics, and nature enthusiasts. The Habitat Foundation funded some of the additional participants comprising GreenSmiths, Shorebirds Project of Peninsular Malaysia and researchers from the School of Biological Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia.
Jointly supported by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, iNaturalist is mostly used as an app for identifying species, but it has so much more potential. Unknown to many users, it is also available on web format and is primarily an online social network. That puts iNaturalist under the same category as Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn, but with the specific function of supporting the sharing of biodiversity to get people excited about and invested in nature.
Anyone with access to a smartphone or computer can use it to filter and retrieve data, record their observations with optional journal entries, get help with species identifications, or work with others to gather this type of information.
The workshop started with the sharing of iNaturalist success stories around the world—how it has empowered communities to lobby government for the protection of habitats and played a significant role in documenting extremely rare and even, new species. It also addressed some of the challenges facing iNaturalist including, increasing the number of users, preventing careless entries, whether or not to turn on geoprivacy and the current limitations of using it outside of North America.
Although it caters to the general public, iNaturalist also has functionalities allowing for more niche usage, with scientists tapping into shared research-grade data on organism occurrence. The data is available for free, cutting down on the personnel and time otherwise needed, which is hugely important with many species teetering on the brink of extinction.
There were opportunities for participants to explore the myriad of species at The Habitat Penang Hill using the app. Others stayed on to learn how they could integrate it into their projects, including the upcoming City Nature Challenge 2020 in April which provides an opportunity to put urban biodiversity into the spotlight.
This initiative arises from concerns about the steep declines in tree-cover and biodiversity in urban landscapes as a by-product of urbanization. In addition to addressing the loss of green spaces, which make cities liveable, the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) has highlighted the urgent need to preserve spaces in cities for plant and animal species. With this in mind, The Habitat Foundation has identified a cluster of strategic projects with the potential to synergise efforts in the population centres of Penang and the Klang Valley. These will focus on rewilding urban areas, linking urban forest refuges, and instituting new norms and policies with key government authorities and civil society organisations.