A pygmy grasshopper endemic to Madagascar,Notocerus formidabilis, identified thanks to iNaturalist.Credit: Éric Mathieu

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In spring in the Southern hemisphere, the natural world is on full throttle: “Flowers are blooming, insects are emerging, birds are singing, and reptiles are coming out of their winter hibernation,” wrote Pete Crowcroft, known as @possumpete on the citizen science app, iNaturalist.

Yet, despite this annual bursting forth of life, a 2023 preprint puts the continent’s contribution to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility at a dismal 2.69%, with huge disparities between African countries.

Looking at the statistics on iNaturalist, South African National Biodiversity Institute’s Tony Rebelo says: “Nearly two-thirds of Africa’s observations come from South Africa. We have 20 times more observations, eight times more observers and three times as many species recorded as the second African country in the respective lists.”

Since its formation in 2008 as part of a graduate project at the University of California, the iNaturalist platform has evolved into one of the world’s most popular biodiversity observation platforms. Anyone, anywhere in the world, with a smartphone can download the app and start posting images and descriptions of their observations, and a large community of identifiers helps to confirm the species’ observation and label it as “research grade”.

Rebelo says iNaturalist is now used on a massive scale: “During the 2023 City Nature Challenge almost 67,000 people made nearly two million observations over four days – that is, five observations each second. Another 22,000 specialists identified 60 thousand species of animals, plants, and fungi. Few citizen science platforms are as powerful and efficient.”

Research tool for biodiversity monitoring and management

“Most of the work I am involved in now has an iNaturalist component. It is one of the ways that the huge potential of citizen science can be effectively harnessed,” says Dave Richardson, an ecologist at Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Invasion Biology.

Examples of such research abound. Stellenbosch University ecologist Luke Potgieter recently developed a monitoring protocol to map priority areas for detecting new and expanding infections of the wood-boring polyphagous shot hole borer (PSHB) in Cape Town and Stellenbosch. Using data from the Reproductive hosts at risk of PSHB in South Africa project on iNaturalist, he combined it with city-level spatial datasets. For that project, more than 4,100 citizen scientists in South Africa have made 35,144 observations of at-risk trees.

But it is not only about the collection of more data. Much of the biodiversity data from the South are kept in collections in the North. A pygmy grasshopper endemic to Madagascar was only recently known from two dull brown specimens in the Museum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris. In 2021, Éric Mathieu, a friend of the Marojejy National Park in Madagascar known as @marojejy on iNaturalist, uploaded three images of a brightly coloured grasshopper. First it was thought that it was a new species, only for it to be revealed as Notocerus formidabilis. The museum specimens have lost the spectacular bright coloration of the live insects. Without iNaturalist, its true colours may have remained unknown to science.

Embracing 21st century technology

Andra Waagmeester, data scientist at Micelio in Belgium and a Wikimentor, believes the dearth of biodiversity data from Africa can be solved by combining the iNaturalist and Wikipedia communities: “They are independent communities, but there is substantial overlap between them. By overlaying the two data sets and leveraging the semantic web, we have the means to deal with the challenge.”

The need for biodiversity-related knowledge from Africa was first acknowledged by the Wiki-community during the 2018 Wikimania conference in Cape Town. The Wiki Biodiversity Project has since grown into an active global community that leverages crowd-sourced knowledge from platforms like iNaturalist.

“We have succeeded in setting the workflow. We can now harvest knowledge from resources in iNaturalist and build what we call ‘Wikipedia stubs’, which are starting points to build mature Wikipedia articles in local languages,” Waagmeester explains.

“The main obstacle is increasing the usage of both Wikipedia and iNaturalist in the Sub-Saharan community, but that is ‘just’ a matter of community engagement. The infrastructure already exists,” he adds.

Mohammed Kamal-Deen Fuseini Dnshitobu, a Wikimedian from Ghana, agrees: “We have always wished to increase Africa’s overall contribution to biodiversity data. Knowledge about medicinal plants in Africa is abundant and commonplace for Africans, but it remains missing from mainstream medicine and open science.”

Since 2022, he has been working with Waagmeester and Agnes Ajuma Abah and Benedict Udeh from Nigeria, to record biodiversity data in Dagbani and Igbo, two languages spoken in the sub-Saharan region. This is part of a sub-project in Wiki Mentor Africa.

Fuseini believes the easiest way to increase Africa’s contribution to global data on biodiversity is for iNaturalist observers to simply change the settings to their images to a compatible license (e.g., Creative Commons licenses CC BY, CC BY-SA, and public domain licenses such as CC0). Since active links are maintained between iNaturalist, Wikidata and Wikipedia, it allows for iNaturalist to be searched for images in the public domain for reuse in Wikipedia.