Year In Review 2020

It's the end of the year and here at iNat that means another Year in Review (don't forget, you can make your own, too). Of course, 2020 wasn't a typical year, so this go around I figured I'd spend a little time trying to answer the question many people asked us this year: how is COVID-19 affecting iNaturalist?

When lockdowns and stay-at-home orders started going into effect around the world in March, there was a lot of speculation about what would happen on iNat. Would we see less activity because people couldn't travel as far or as much as they used to? Would we see more because people were spending even more of their lives on the Internet? There was even an early and largely falsified series of social media posts out there about nature "returning" to the world now that humans had supposedly abandoned it, so some journalists were wondering if we were seeing that in iNat data.

That last question is the easiest to answer: no, we didn't, not because the behavior of all the other organisms changed (or not), but because for most of them we simply don't have the amount or regularity of data to detect changes like that. Even if we did, that data is entirely dependent on people, particularly people behaving consistently in the aggregate, and 2020 was just not the year to assume that people were behaving the same as they were last year.

So let's try a question that we might have a shot at: did people use iNat more or less when the pandemic set in? Answer: they used it more... but maybe not more than they would have without a pandemic:

That's verifiable observations by week of the year observed from the last four years (week of year is a bit weird but it makes it easy to compare years with a little more resolution than months). You can see people observed more than ever before in 2020, but maybe not quite as much more than the difference between 2018 and 2019. Plus you can see that City Nature Challenge (the big spike in Spring) took a serious hit, only barely exceeding its 2019 numbers (City Nature Challenge isn't organized by iNat, but it's regularly the biggest single event on iNat).

The number of people making those observations shows a similar pattern:

Early in the pandemic we were observing minor shifts in intra-week activity, i.e. people seemed to be making more observations during weekdays than on weekends than they did in 2019, but that pattern seemed to go away after a few weeks.

One of my favorite metrics of COVID's impact on iNat behavior is unfortunately also one of the hardest to explain, but in short: people traveled less to make observations in 2020. Surprise! The way we looked at this was to draw a rectangle around all the obs each person made each month and measure that rectangle's diagonal as an estimate of how far they traveled, and then calculated some stats on those numbers. Here's what that looks like for each month in 2019 and 2020:

It's definitely a bit zany, but you can see steep upticks around the solstices in 2019, which I would expect for summer/winter holiday travel, and then a big dip when COVID sets in and people stopped traveling. Those of you who remember your geometry and think about my description of this metric will realize that it's only a rough estimate, but it's a lot quicker to compute than measuring the actual maximum distance between observations.

Newly-added species also took a hit, as you can see in the YIR chart.

We also wondered if more of the observations added this year were actually observed in prior years, so we calculated these percentages for each year of iNat's life ("backlog" observations):

So... we're not seeing any major shift in backlogging, and in fact it seems to be stabilizing over time.

Finally it's important to remember that many of the benefits of iNat specifically and natural history more generally are impossible to measure and chart. Taking the time to slow down, consider another creature, and deliberately document the encounter has always been, for many of us, a source of solace in itself. It's an act that's just as grounding when you do it in a neighborhood park as when you do it in far-flung locales, a fact that has been crucial this year as we've all been spending more time at home. I know I personally cut way down on nature-related travel this year, but I think I also appreciated my local hikes even more. I distinctly remember the surprising sense of... unknotting I felt on the first long hike I went on with my partner during the pandemic. Just to be reminded that the sun was still shining and the plants were still growing seemed strangely revelatory, easing a tension I wasn't fully aware of.

I hope you've all managed to weather this terrible year as best as you can, that you've spent some time with friends and family, human and otherwise, in person or remotely, and that those encounters brought some some small degree of relief. As always, a huge thanks to all of you from everyone on the iNat team. While iNat has changed a lot over the years, it has always been an expression of the collective efforts of the people who use it. That means you! So to everyone who's added an observation, made an identification, or even told a friend about iNat, thank you. Here's to more time in nature in 2021.

Posted by kueda kueda, December 23, 2020 04:44


fascinating! thanks for all of this data! im really interested by the geographical one

Posted by kuchipatchis almost 2 years ago (Flag)

my personal YIR is definitely broken. it's 5am here but I'll do a real bug report when I get up for real.
it appears to only be counting maybe a week of data, not the whole year

Posted by trh_blue almost 2 years ago (Flag)

I'm sure I posted a lot of insect observations, and the plots agree with me, but the legend does not list them

Posted by carlacorazza almost 2 years ago (Flag)

My YiR is also buggy, as it seems to count until Aug only.

Posted by dinofelis almost 2 years ago (Flag)

If anyone's personal stats are clearly incomplete, scroll down to the bottom and click "Regenerate Stats".

Posted by carrieseltzer almost 2 years ago (Flag)

Thanks Carrie, that worked for me!

Posted by trh_blue almost 2 years ago (Flag)

Had a wonderful year on iNat, hope everyone else also had ! And wish everyone good luck for having even more fantastic year in 2021 ! Happy New Year, folks !

Posted by naturalist_aditya almost 2 years ago (Flag)

These stats are always so much fun to read about. Thank you!

Posted by annikaml almost 2 years ago (Flag)

I definitely had so much more time to travel (far and near) and document life in 2020 thanks to the remote work measures now in place.

Posted by langlands almost 2 years ago (Flag)

Congratulations again for another year! The page looks really neat!

Posted by carancho almost 2 years ago (Flag)

Thanks iNat! You are the best place to be. Love the stats! 2021!!

Posted by mikef451 almost 2 years ago (Flag)

Beautiful, thank you.

Posted by muir almost 2 years ago (Flag)

Many thanks iNaturalist! It's the best site for Citizen Science. Hope, everyone can do the best in the next year 2021. I wish that next year will be full of surprises and new species

Posted by karimhaddad almost 2 years ago (Flag)

"Year in review" is a highlight of the whole year. :) Thanks for all the work and energy to put this together, as always. As others note, iNaturalist is the best place in the whole wide world wide internet. :)

Posted by sambiology almost 2 years ago (Flag)

I had more time to observe/iNat because my employer went to 100% telework in the middle of March, so I gained 2 hours of time that was normally spent commuting to and from work. Because of that, I was able to head to the local nature preserves on weekdays after finishing work for the day (socially distancing, of course). I was wondering how COVID-19 would affect iNat stats overall, this is very interesting! Thank you!

Posted by jblinde almost 2 years ago (Flag)

Nice to see the rise in observations in Finland and Russia this year as well.

Posted by kemper almost 2 years ago (Flag)

Statistics aside, iNat kept me sane and mentally and physically active this year. I am grateful for that. As my iNat/TMN friends Sam and Mike said above: "iNat is the best place to be". Looking forward to iNat 2021.

Posted by connlindajo almost 2 years ago (Flag)

These Year in Review reports, both for individual users and the project as a whole, are outstanding. Keep up the great work.

Posted by radrat almost 2 years ago (Flag)

It would be interesting to see how many (or how much more often) people posted old observations in 2020 rather than in previous years. I'd expect that this was a time where a lot of people went through old photos and such and uploaded observations from previous years, but the photos hadn't been edited or filed until they had the downtime 2020 offered.

Posted by earthknight almost 2 years ago (Flag)

@earthknight that's what the "% Backlog vs Year" chart is showing above. Absolute number of obs has been steadily increasing, so absolute backlog obs has increased as well but it's just a function of increased overall use and probably not people stuck at home poring over their archives, so I charted it as a percentage of all obs and there's not much of a signal. Seems like it's stabilizing around 11-12%.

Posted by kueda almost 2 years ago (Flag)

Awesome - as @sambiology already stated, this is a highlight of the year. The "Max Obs Distance" chart step change says it all. iNat has been my primary motivator. Perhaps unfortunately using a local iNat node I don't see the "promotional" bits on the Dashboard but happened to log in to the US domain this time so at least caught this blog. 👍

Posted by reiner almost 2 years ago (Flag)

@kueda - ah, don't know how I missed that. Thanks.

Posted by earthknight almost 2 years ago (Flag)

Using iNat every day definitely was the high point of each day of the whole year for me. iNat showed me that nature keeps going no matter what happens, and that the natural world has its diseases, just like we do, that is normal, but nature keeps going regardless.

I think "Green Therapy" was wonderful for a lot of people during the Covid 19 pandemic, not just iNatters, but everyone who went to a park or a trail or a green spot even if it was just their garden.

Posted by susanhewitt almost 2 years ago (Flag)

iNaturalist certainly helped keep me grounded in what was a crazy year, personally and internationally. I love seeing all these stats - thank you for taking the time to generate them!

Posted by lisa_bennett over 1 year ago (Flag)

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