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http://inaturalist.org is a website that allows users to collect and catalog sightings of different forms of life, via both a website and an app for smartphones. It has been active for a dozen years, and currently has one million members.

The site functions in a fairly intuitive way: after you have created an account, you can upload pictures and sounds, either from a computer, or from the app. You can then either select what you think it is, at various levels of taxonomy, or artificial intelligence will try to identify what is in the picture, or another user of the site can suggest an identity. When two-thirds of users agree, the picture is certified as "research grade", although that sounds more official than it is. Observations can run the gamut from a cell phone picture of a dandelion to a professional grade photograph of a bald eagle. Some of the observers and identifiers on the site are professional scientists, others are amateur naturalists and birders, and some are just curious people uploading whatever crosses their path. The site seems to accept that its users are coming in at different levels of expertise and interest.

For me, the site's gamification of the natural world has led me to notice and learn things I would have overlooked. It was inaturalist that made me realize that what I had been calling "green lady bugs" were actually something else entirely. I have always had an interest in nature, but inaturalist has helped me realize how many things I didn't know about. Hover flies are not bees. Brown algae and red algae are not plants, and are as separate from each other as an ostrich is from a mushroom. Lichen, a type of cruft that barely even qualified as alive in my imagination, is an elegant and diverse group of organisms. In the process of collecting points on a website, I started noticing and appreciating things about the natural world around me that escaped my notice before.

Despite a few technical problems with the interface, the hit-or-miss nature of the artificial intelligence, and a little vagueness about the site's mission (is this meant to be for scientific research, or is this just to share interesting sights?), inaturalist.org is one of the best uses of the internet I have seen for a while. While much of the internet is currently based on the ever escalating braying of contention, this website encourages people to stop, look and observe the world around them. I would highly recommend using it to just about everyone. Even if you think you don't have anything interesting to observe, joining it will quickly show you just how much is going on around you.

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