Citizen Science on the Greenway using the iNaturalist App

By Danielle Knott, NCL Coordinator

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are encouraging the community to be smart and safe while engaging with nature. By offering this guide, we are encouraging readers to embrace the healing power of nature and participate in the collaborative aspect of community science while also practicing social distancing. You can safely document biodiversity from wherever you are, even from the safety of your own homes. We urge all participants to carefully follow public health guidelines provided by the local government when making observations. Individual safety and public health are Brooklyn Greenway Initiative’s top priority.


The full vision for the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway is a “green ribbon” of landscaped areas along the waterfront that connects parks and natural areas, making it an ideal place for studying nature in an urban environment. Making observations of nature is an important way of contributing to community and scientific knowledge about nature in our city. 

You don’t have to have a science degree to be an important part of the scientific community. In fact, you don’t need anything more than a smartphone, some basic observation skills, and a little curiosity to become a citizen scientist. Thanks to apps like eBird from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and iNaturalist from California Academy of Sciences, it’s easier than ever to turn your observations of the natural world into research grade, scientific data. 

In this guide to community science, you’ll learn how to observe the natural world around you, upload your observations, and how to be a citizen science from the Greenway — or anywhere!


Participating in Community Science

The term “citizen science” refers to “the collection and analysis of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public, typically as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists.” Generally speaking, citizen science projects are conducted by experts, with the majority of data collection and/or analysis crowdsourced out to the general public. Engaging the public then becomes a super useful tool for scientists conducting large scale studies that require extensive amounts of data! While any individual can be a citizen scientist, it’s the element of community that makes “community science.”   

iNaturalist, one of the most popular community science apps in the world, is a joint initiative of California Academy of Science and the National Geographic Society. It is an online social network of people sharing biodiversity information to help each other learn about nature, and offers tools for users to collaborate with each other in order to properly identify observations made across the globe. By creating an account and downloading the free app onto your phone, tablet, or accessing it on the desktop, you’re able to interact with the 1.2 million other citizen scientists. 

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At BGI’s Naval Cemetery Landscape, the staff has been using iNaturalist to better understand the ecology of the Landscape. By documenting the native species that have been restored to the site, we are able to track the growth and establishment of the plants from year to year. We also upload our observations of invasive species, which has been a helpful tool for understanding the spread of nonnatives in the Landscape and influenced our horticultural maintenance practices. The Naval Cemetery Landscape’s (NCL) wildflower meadow contains plant species that provide essential habitat for native bees, and also acts as a way-station for migratory Monarch Butterflies. All of these observations are now part of a larger network and become data for understanding the greater ecology of Brooklyn’s urban waterfront green spaces and the animals, insects, and birds that benefit from them.

Simply by joining a citizen scientist project and making observations, you are participating in global research! You become a part of the community science network as soon as you make and upload your first observation. It’s simple, fun, and can be addictive once you get the hang of it! Below is a tutorial for getting started in iNaturalist, and some suggestions on how to use the app within your community. 


Make Observations From Anywhere!

Parks and Natural Areas along the Greenway

The Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway connects so many of Brooklyn’s amazing green spaces and natural areas. In response to the current health crisis, please use caution while biking/walking the Greenway and plan to go outside during non-peak hours (early morning is best!) to avoid crowding. If you go to a public place to make an iNaturalist observation, you can simply take photos and do the rest of the uploading at home. This way you won’t be as distracted and can remain aware of your surroundings, preventing the risk of coming in close contact with others. 




Consider visiting one of these areas, where you will have plenty of space to spread and remain socially distant:

Calvert Vaux Park: At over 85 acres, you can easily explore the serene stretch of bay-front green space at a safe distance from others.

North Forty Natural Area and Hiking Trails at Floyd Bennet Field: hiking trails and abandoned buildings can be found above NYC’s first municipal air field

Fresh Creek Nature Preserve: City nature preserve composed of marshland, offering trails & bird-watching opportunities.

Spring Creek Park: Land parcel & wildlife habitat, with scenic paths, bird-watching opportunities & a cricket field.

Check before you leave your house that these public spaces are currently open!


On your Block

While we know there are probably many flowers and hedges that have been planted in your area, as well as lots of household pets in your neighborhood, we encourage and challenge you to go look for the plants that are growing on their own and the wild organisms that live in and around our houses and yards! What are the wild plants that are growing in your yard or neighborhood? Taking photos of weeds is fine! Can you find the insects and other creatures that use the cultivated plants in your area as habitat or food? Do you know the names of all of the street trees on your block? You will be surprised about how many things you observe within a small radius!







At Home

There are many ways to look for nature in your home, from your window, on your roof, and in your backyard. Below is a list of things you can identify inside your home and from your window:

– an insect or spider. Think about places you might forget about when you clean like under the sink or up on the ceiling. Look in your light fixtures, too.

– a mold on old bread or fruit 

– a pest on a house plant (see below for how to properly upload a houseplant observation)

– a bird flyover

– an animal noise to record (bird calls, squirrels, raccoons)

– a street tree

– an animal in a street tree

– a visitor to a nearby fire escape or roof

– something growing or living on your window sill

– an insect that visits your window at night (leave your light on and see what lands on your closed window!)

– a visitor that comes to retrieve a nut or seeds that you leave outside on your window ledge



How to use iNaturalist

Once you have downloaded the app and created an account, you’re ready to make some observations! You can do this by opening the app and using the camera function to take a photo of any individual organism. Depending on what sort of device you are using, the app may function differently and require you to upload your observation a certain way. Find out exactly how to record a device specific observation in this iNaturalist guide

Technically speaking, an observation records the encounter with the individual organism at a particular time and location, not just the organism itself. Pretty cool! As soon as your observation has been uploaded, it can be searched for by expert identifiers who will try to identify it as best as possible. You can get alerted when someone has identified your observation, and agree or disagree with their suggestion. To date, over 34 million individual observations have been made!

Some pro-tips for making good observations:

– No matter what type or organism you’re observing, the more images and angles you’re able to get, the easier it will be to identify correctly. For example, when you’re observing a plant, try to take a photo of the whole plant, an individual leaf, the leaf attachment pattern, and the flower and/or flowering parts! This will help get the best possible identification of the species.

– If you’re making an observation of a living creature, make sure to get a “safety shot”! Don’t wait until you’re a foot away from the squirrel or bird you’re trying to observe, rather take a photo as soon as you see it! This will guarantee you get some evidence and can still make the observation before the creature scurries or flies away. Once you’ve made the “safety shot” you can try to capture the creature from all of its best angles. 

– If you are out making observations with friends, make sure you both don’t upload the same observation to repeat the data.  

– Make sure to mark “cultivated” when observing indoor house plants and pets. It’s fine to upload an observation of your cat or indoor herb garden, but the observation needs to be as accurate as possible!

– Even if you have no idea what you’re observing (is it a wasp or a fly or a bee?!), you can add additional information in the “notes” portion of the observation to help expert identifiers. 

Photos by Hagan Knauth


City Nature Challenge

This year’s City Nature Challenge has been modified to keep participants and organizers safe, in response to global shelter in place recommendations. This year, in order to keep each other safe, the CNC will not be a competition. Rather, users are encouraged to appreciate the healing power of nature by making observations and identifying them in the safety of their own home.


The City Nature Challenge (CNC) is an international week long event where cities compete against each other to observe and identify the most species. Since its inaugural weekend in 2016, the CNC has grown to include over 159 participating countries, and in 2019 alone there were over 963,00 individual observations made! These timed observation windows, otherwise known as “BioBlitzes,” invite participation from large groups of people to come together around citizen science every year. When the weekend-long observation window has closed, individuals are then invited to identify as many of those (global) observations that they can. To participate in BGI’s Greenway BioBlitz, follow our project page on iNaturalist here.