The “obscured data” problem

Many citizen science platforms now permit users to automatically obscure (or set to private) the locations at which they made observations of flora and fauna, including butterflies. Many of you have likely seen the lively conversation on the MDLepsOdes Google Group over the past weeks about the rationale(s) for and against blocking locality data for butterfly and ode species.

The Toronto Entomologists’ Association (TEA), which maintains the Ontario Butterfly Atlas, recently made a decision about excluding obscured or private coded data from the Atlas, a move that is likely to be copied by other local and regional groups who deal with ingesting iNat and other citizen science platform data. In short, the Atlas will no longer ingest geoprivate data.

Rick Cavasin, a long-time reader of LepLog, authored a blog on this new policy that is now published to the iNaturalist pages; it is reprinted here with his permission.


A note about “Geoprivacy” and the TEA’s Ontario Butterfly Atlas

The TEA maintains an online Atlas of Butterfly observations for the province of Ontario. The Atlas aggregates observations from a number of sources, including iNaturalist. In recent years, iNaturalist users have made increasing use of the “Geoprivacy” setting to obscure the locations of their observations. In the past, the Ontario Butterfly Atlas was able to include obscured observations if observers granted project curators permission to “see” their hidden locations. In 2021, iNaturalist changed how they handle obscured observations, and now iNaturalist obscures both the location and the date of these observations. Because of this change, and the increasing concern around privacy settings in general, the Ontario Butterfly Atlas will no longer include obscured observations in our database, even when the observer has granted us permission to “see” the precise location/date of these observations.

With thousands of observations posted to iNaturalist every year, we don’t have the resources to keep track of who is “OK” with the level of information that the Atlas reveals and who is not. The TEA simply can’t take the risk of revealing information about observations that observers want or need to keep hidden. Therefore, the safest course of action is for the Atlas is to simply exclude all iNaturalist observations where the Geoprivacy is set to obscured (or private). Long time contributors to the Ontario Butterfly Atlas who want to see their observations included in the Atlas should consider whether obscuring their observations is really necessary. There are certainly a number of circumstances where it’s the appropriate thing to do, but only in very rare circumstances is it because the butterfly in question needs “protection”.

In summary, if you obscure your observations using the Geoprivacy setting, the Ontario Butterfly Atlas will not include those observations. Furthermore, I will no longer verify the identifications of these observations (because TANSTAAFL).

Please note that this policy will (eventually) be applied retroactively to all observations in the Atlas database, so long term contributors may see some of their older observations “disappear” from the Atlas if those observations have the Geoprivacy setting set to “obscured” or “private”.

Also note that I’m not telling anybody that they shouldn’t use the Geoprivacy setting. What I’m saying is, if you ask that your observations be obscured, the Atlas project will respect your request. Just consider whether it’s what you really want.

For those who are OK with the level of detail revealed by the Butterfly Atlas, but don’t want to set the Geoprivacy on their iNat observations to “open”, there is a solution. Observers can submit their observations to the Atlas Project using a spreadsheet. Contact me (rcavasin) for details.

Posted by rcavasin rcavasin, December 17, 2021 14:38


Editor’s note: TANSTAAFL = “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch”

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