Technology in Fieldwork: Friend or Foe?

When I started doing fieldwork about 12 years ago, I didn’t use technology in the field. In fact, the only technology I had access to was an old flip phone that took photos so blurry I could barely tell if they were of plants or animals when I got back to the lab. I didn’t even pre-print my Excel data sheets and fill them in as I collected data. I just drew freehand columns in a Rite-in-the-Rain notebook and then spent hours afterwards trying to decipher my messy handwriting.

But over the last decade, technology has really boomed and it has changed the lives of field biologists everywhere. Take GPS, for instance. While hand-held GPS devices were certainly around 10 years ago, they tended to be clunky and slow, with limited functions – nowhere near as streamlined as current technology. In fact, they were often more trouble than they were worth. When I used to monitor roadside populations of wildflowers throughout the summer, I would simply remember where locations were based on landmarks, nearby street addresses, etc.

But now, I do my fieldwork using Collector, an mobile data collection app which allows me to take points instantly from my smartphone. If I were monitoring roadside wildflower populations now, I could just drop a point for a population, take a photo and attach it to the point and then navigate directly back to the point on follow up visits.
While GPS advances are very cool, the advent of iNaturalist is likely responsible for the greatest change to my life as a field biologist. According to their website, iNaturalist “is a lot of different things, but at its core, [it’s] an online social network of people sharing biodiversity information to help each other learn about nature. It’s also a crowdsourced species identification system and an organism occurrence recording tool. You can use it to record your own observations, get help with identifications, collaborate with others to collect this kind of information for a common purpose, or access the observational data collected by iNaturalist users” iNaturalist.

That explanation is much more eloquent than my description of iNaturalist, which can be summed up as, “a crazy-cool identification app that must be magic!”
When I was learning how to identify plants during my Undergraduate degree, I didn’t have access to anything like iNaturalist. To figure out what something was, I would excitedly bust out my plant bible, Newcomb’s Guide to Wildflowers, and open the book to the first page. Then I would carefully examine the features of the plant I was trying to ID. I would check if the leaves were alternate or opposite, determine whether the leaf edges were serrated, and then classify the radial symmetry of the flower. This information would lead me to a page number; with great anticipation I would flip to that page and quickly scan the images and descriptions. Inevitably, one of two reactions would follow: heart-beating excitement when my eyes stopped at a sketch that looked just like the flower in front of me…or sheer disappointment when nothing matched. In the second case, the next step was to flip back to the first page and take another look at the plant in front of me to try to figure out where I went wrong. Perhaps I miscounted the petals, or maybe the leaves were whorled, rather than opposite? It sometimes took a whole lot of trial and error, but eventually I almost always arrived at the right answer. And it was those mistakes that really made me remember the identity of the plant long after.

It is with some hesitation that I admit this, but I mostly use iNaturalist to identify things now. I just snap a photo of something in nature – be it a plant, an animal or a fungus – and iNaturalist gives me its best guess at the identity. It only takes a couple of seconds and it’s incredibly accurate. (Hence, magic app!) iNaturalist is such an exciting concept. In fact, I recently was part of a class visit at a Nature Reserve which involved a scavenger hunt as part of the tour. One of the species the students needed to find was Sensitive Fern, but this species is only really found in one small area, so it was easily missed by the students. To help them out, I pulled out my phone. I pointed to a specimen on the ground beside me and took a photo. Below is what iNaturalist came up with:


We proceeded to try the app on about a dozen more species of plants (even just the bark of trees!) and it was bang on every time. The entire grade 7 class was hooked on the app after that.

I love iNaturalist and all that it stands for. It intrigues people, it helps them learn about nature, and it fosters a curiosity about the natural world around us. It even helps collect important data about rare species and Species-at-Risk that monitoring biologists may miss. However, even though iNaturalist is useful in so many ways, it left me feeling very conflicted.

I can’t deny that iNaturalist has also made me a less engaged (or maybe a lazier) field biologist. To be clear, I don’t mean I am worse at my job now, by any means. In fact, I am probably more efficient. That being said, I don’t notice the things I used to notice about plants. I snap a photo and the answer is right in front of my eyes. I don’t spend 5 minutes flipping through the pages of field guides attempting to identify an unknown specimen. Moreover, when I do use iNaturalist, I often quickly forget the identity of the species – because I haven’t spent those long minutes working for my answer.
So, as I wind down this field season and think forward, I vow to reach for the book and not the phone next spring when I spot a new species or can’t recall what something is.

That being said, I think there is certainly a place for both technology and more traditional approaches as well. For those getting started, or in time sensitive situations, perhaps iNaturalist is the way to go. But maybe for those looking to thoroughly and deeply understand nature, the old school approach may be more suitable. Either way, I will continue to promote iNaturalist like the “crazy-cool magical app” it is, in hopes that more folks learn about, and begin to care about the natural world around us.

Do you use technology to do your fieldwork? Has the role of technology changed over the past few years? I would love to hear about your experiences! Leave a comment below and tell me – is technology a friend or a foe in your fieldwork?