May 19, 2023

Commencement Speaker Ken-ichi Ueda, iNaturalist Creator, Inspires Graduates with Humor and Insights on Responsible Technology

Ken-ichi Ueda, alumnus (MIMS ’08) and co-founder of iNaturalist, the nature observation application dubbed the “nicest place online” by the New York Times, gave the following address to the School of Information graduating class on May 15, 2023:

Ken-ichi Ueda

Thank you, Marti, and I just want to give another huge congratulations to the class of 2023. So cool. You guys all made it. Some of you just earned another row on your LinkedIn profiles. Some of the folks behind me earned the eternal right to insist that everyone in their lives refer to them as “doctor.” 

But that’s why you all are here. I get that. I don’t really know why I’m here. It’s true that I was sitting where all of you were sitting about 15 years ago — I graduated from the MIMS program — and it’s true that I still peddle in and ponder information professionally and for fun. So it’s possible that I’m here to tell you about one potential direction that you all can take from this point forward. Or maybe, as one of the few people on Earth who has spent literally over a decade working on an I School final project, I’m here as some kind of cautionary tale. You know, don’t be this guy. He didn’t really understand what “graduation” meant. He didn’t realize that you can stop, and do anything else.

So it’s possible that I’m here to tell you about one potential direction that you all can take from this point forward. Or maybe, as one of the few people on Earth who has spent literally over a decade working on an I School final project, I’m here as some kind of cautionary tale.

I am a little alarmed to entertain the thought that I’m here to give you all advice of some kind. If you are anything like the people I went to the School of Information with, you are all smarter than I am. And you’ve all spent the last few years hanging around professors and researchers, your fellow students, all of whom are really among some of the brightest lights in the world. I’ve spent the last 15 years desperately searching through Stack Overflow trying to find the right answer. So I’ve made some poor choices and maybe you all should be giving me advice.

So I’m not going to give you much advice here,  nor am I going to try to inspire you or to convince you that working with information is still worth it despite the looming demise of democracy, the entrenchment of capital, and the myriad misuses of literally every good idea technologists have ever come up with. I’m just going to tell you about a few events from my life in information, mostly related to iNaturalist. That’s really all I feel I have to give you. I hope they strike a chord with what you’ve learned over the last few years and some of the great work you’re about to do in the world. If you find yourself inspired, I assure you it will be by accident.

If there isn’t a particularly descriptive blurb in your program or if Marti’s introduction didn’t quite paint a picture for you… Actually, John [Chuang] was just telling me that all of you were forced to use iNaturalist in one of your classes, so you all know what it’s about. But your parents don’t, so just a little thumbnail: iNaturalist is an app you upload pictures of organisms you see in nature. If you go on a hike and see a cool newt on the trail, you can upload that on the internet and other people can see what you posted and tell you what kind of newt it was and you can talk to them about “what’s the life of a newt like?” So the next time you’re on a trail, you can impress your friends and family by saying that’s not just a newt, that’s a California Newt. And if you eat it, it’ll kill you. Bonus: every time you do that, you’re recording useful information. You’re taking a picture — you’re recording what, where, and when about biodiversity — and it’s enormously beneficial to scientists and conservationists who need that information to do their work. Information about where organisms are is pretty rare unless that organism is Rihanna or Elon. 

Anyway, that’s the thumbnail. That was my final project. I’m still working on it, and my stories kind of revolve around it, so if you were forced to use it and you had a bad time… sorry. My first story begins in 2010; it was two years after I graduated, and I was mostly keeping iNat going on my own. This guy gave a talk here at Cal across campus at Mulford Hall. His name was Scott Loarie, and he was an ecologist. He had just published a paper in Nature — kind of a big deal — and it was about how quickly climate conditions will shift environmental envelopes. For example, where is the average 70 degree band on the Earth going to move given climate change and whether or not the organisms that need those climatic conditions —maybe you need it hot; maybe you need it cold — whether they can move quickly enough to keep up with those shifting envelopes. So to study this problem, Scott needed information like all good scientists. For the climate stuff, he had satellites. Satellites are these information gathering and producing marvels with so much data about climate, about how hot, how much rain, how much ice. He did a really great job of thinking about where those envelopes were going to be. 

But the other side of it, where the organisms were, was kind of missing. Satellites can tell you about trees, and they can tell you about elephants, and these days they could probably tell you about a really slow-moving squirrel, but they can’t really tell you about a newt under a log, or that bee on a flower. For that you still need people on the ground looking at these things and recording the data manually. And if you want to get that kind of data you need to go across campus over to [Museum of Vertebrate Zoology] and their drawers and drawers of jars and dead things. That’s how we database this kind of information and that’s limited by many drawers you can stuff dead things into. That’s a long way of saying that there’s not a lot of that kind of data, and every time Scott would give a talk about his research, he would end up saying, you know what we need? We need this giant group of people with their smartphones, taking pictures of organisms so that we can have this giant database that’s going to rival all the satellites. Someone I knew was in the audience and was like, are you talking about iNaturalist? Is that what you’re talking about?

So Scott and I got in touch, and my first impression of him was wow, this guy talks too much. Scott had a lot of big ideas and big plans about what he wanted to do with iNat and he really wanted me to tell me about them… a lot. I really didn’t care because that is not how I think; that’s not how I learn. I like to read, I like to consider, sometimes I like to write my thoughts down, but that kind of verbal excess is not my preferred way to consume information, it’s not really what I like, and present circumstances aside, it’s not generally how I like to communicate information. Apologies to those who are like me. So I was like whatever, this guy’s full of it, not unlike several other people with big ideas and big plans for iNat who’d approached me in the two years since leaving the I School. But, I’d found that I had a really good mechanism for testing folks out, which was: did they actually upload any observations to iNat? If they didn’t, that meant they didn’t jump that lowest hurdle; they didn’t even sign up for an account; they didn’t even try to use this thing that they were trying to exploit. 

It was this encoding and sharing of his behavior that let me see something something I failed to see in conversation, that Scott and I share a fundamental kinship over our love of other organisms.

I had this talk with Scott; I was like, whatever. He’s not really into this, but I’ll just check out and see whether he signed up. He definitely signed up… and he added 60+ observations, and they weren’t just observations of his spouse and his dog (which is what everyone pretty much uploads for the first time). He’d posted an unusual local toad, a colobus monkey from fieldwork he’d done in Tanzania, and a bunch of plants from a hike he’d gone on in Glen Canyon in San Francisco. I could tell from these informational imprints that even though my first impression was kind of right (Scott does like to talk a lot), my emotional read was totally wrong. I’d written him off, but in the information I could see that Scott was like me. He wasn’t just talking about weird bugs and plants, he cared about them. He cared enough to slow down 60+ times on his hike in Glen Canyon and take a picture of them. It was this encoding and sharing of his behavior that let me see something I failed to see in conversation, that Scott and I share a fundamental kinship over our love of other organisms. iNat served as kind of a prosthesis for my underdeveloped social skills! It was that trust that led me to start working with Scott, and it’s what’s kept us working together for 13 years now. I’ll be honest; he still annoys the hell out of me a lot of the time, but when he’s like 2 minutes into a monologue, I know that, like me, he’d probably prefer to be looking at a newt.

Alright, second story. One day, in the middle of the pandemic — remember that? — we received an email at iNat from a South African botanist informing us that police in the Cape region had detained a poacher with a bag full of succulent plants and a phone full of videos he’d sent to potential buyers overseas, explaining that he’d found the plants using location information from iNaturalist. The plants in question were in the genus Conophytum. I don’t know if anyone’s a giant succulent collector here, but they’re called “cone plants.” They’re really cool and they’re like these upside-down candy corns that grow out of the soil, and they have a giant flower that’s bigger than the plant. They’re super cute, and to some people, they’re so cute that they will pay a lot of money for them. There is a global black market distribution of these plants and other succulents. This botanist was writing to tell us that while the pandemic lockdowns had totally shut down poachers coming into South Africa to poach these plants, it had unlocked a world of potential poachers using the Internet to communicate with locals in South Africa to convince them to poach the plants.  led to a massive increase in Internet-based recruitment of local people to do the same work. And if you’re an Internet native and you need information about where these plants are, or any plant is, where are you going to go? Dat us.

We’ve been aware of this threat pretty much since the beginning, which is why we obscure the coordinates of observations of organisms we know to be threatened, but those of you who study information security know, partial security, where you reveal part of the truth but not the whole truth, is particularly difficult. And the stakes in South Africa are especially dire: some species are known from only one or two patches the size of a kitchen table. A dedicated person with a shovel could literally drive a species to extinction in under an hour’s work. And if that person found the population using data from iNaturalist, I would be complicit in that extinction. That’s the exact opposite of the moral outcome I was hoping to achieve with iNaturalist. I want people to pay attention to other organisms. I want people to care about other life on Earth so that they don’t destroy it, so that they feel enough kinship with slugs and birds and tiny weird desert plants with giant flowers that they want to help them thrive and keep them alive forever. So naturally, I found this email pretty disturbing.

I want people to care about other life on Earth so that they don’t destroy it, so that they feel enough kinship with slugs and birds and tiny weird desert plants with giant flowers that they want to help them thrive and keep them alive forever.

But it’s complicated. If iNat helps a million people value other organisms for themselves and not for how much they can sell them for, is it worth the extinction of one species? If not, is there an acceptable tradeoff, maybe 10 million people benefitting for the extinction of one species? People describe new species using iNaturalist data all the time; they see a photo of something and are like, that’s not a thing and I’m the expert of that thing. It happens pretty frequently. So if iNat helps humanity understand and describe 100 new species in the time it helps to facilitate the destruction of one, is that an acceptable tradeoff? It’s also worth pointing out that poaching is a vanishingly small threat to biodiversity next to the destruction of land for human use, so is it defensible for us to facilitate some collateral poaching if we can combat habitat loss by showing people what we lose each time we set up a lithium mine or solar farm, by helping them to see other creatures as peers and not acceptable collateral damage? My opinions on this shift day to day, but oftentimes it’s hard to see the extinction of a species as worth it.

To get back to South Africa, we worked with our colleagues there to ensure records of all Conophytum species were obscured, as well as other rare succulents in the country, and we have not heard of any of them going extinct on our watch, and we’re not even really convinced that poacher really got their information from iNaturalist. But the point is that the threat is real, not just for succulent plants but for all kinds of different organisms all around the world.

Bonus: a paper was just published a few weeks ago asserting that the obscuration we apply to coordinates to protect rare species actually leads to bad science when (presumably) bad scientists ignore the precision metadata we attach to such records and base their analyses on intentionally incorrect information. I don’t know; maybe we are the baddies.

Alright last anecdote, it’s a bit of a mishmash. I don’t know if I just live in a hole — well, I guess I know that I live in a hole — but in the last year I feel like iNat has become relevant and pervasive in the biological and natural history circles I run in, in kind of weird ways. I was on a lichen walk earlier this year (yes, people go on lichen walks intentionally to look at lichens), and I was shocked to be not the youngest attendee. I’m 42, and I’m usually the youngest person on a lichen walk by 20 years. And there were all these people that were younger than me and they were all talking about “observing” things and whether their observations would be “research grade” and whether they should trust the identification of the “algorithm,” all of which are pieces of iNat jargon. It was a bit surreal to know that it had become that interwoven in their personal practice. Just a few weeks ago I was in the field with some entomologists (people who study insects) and in their downtime when they weren’t outside waving a net around and catching butterflies, they had iNat open on their laptops, and they were using it to share their findings from the day in real time with their colleagues or to identify plants. All these bug people who are super-world-expert in bugs weren’t so world-expert in plants, so they were using iNat to help them out with the plants. It felt a bit weird, and kind of intimidating and rewarding, that people are using my work in the way that I hoped they would, but also knowing all of my biases that are infiltrated into the platform… It’s a bit unsettling.

But where I wanted to end: earlier this year I was working on a reboot of our mobile app and I was really regretting the decision to abandon ten years of legacy code to build a new app in a year. Nothing was working right and something was broken with fetching GPS coordinates; it would cause you to lose all your data. It was lame. I’m sure all you MIMS students can commiserate because you were going through this like two weeks ago, right? I was sick of things failing, sick of looking at a screen, and frankly sick of helping people learn about nature, so I did my best to add a little more logging to the app, loaded a test copy on my phone, and jumped on the bus and I went to the closest park to me that feels a bit wild,. It’s called Dimond Canyon in Oakland, and I was like, cool; I’m just going to test the app and get some log data to figure this out. Dimond Canyon is an interesting spot if you haven’t been there. It’s a park. It’s very green. It’s very beautiful. But, it’s riddled with invasive plants and has a very complicated history of redwood logging, damming, channelization, and someone had the dumb idea to put a driving range in there. Drives me a bit nuts. But I jumped off the bus. I stepped into the park and took a deep breath and filled my lungs with that awesome smell and feel of wet forest air and heard the creek babbling. I instantly felt a lot better. 

I walked up the trail a little bit, and I noticed these liverworts, which are these little flat plants underneath the ivy! I was super excited and immediately closed the broken test version of the app, opened the old version that worked, and crouched down to take pictures of the liverworts.  This woman came up behind me with her dog and was like, ”Whatchya doing there?“

“Liverworts!” I said a little too crazily. “Right here, they’re on this embankment.”

She’s like “Oh cool! Those are mosses, right?”

“No they’re not,” I said, “They’re similar!”

“I think you’re wrong about that. I’m pretty sure they’re mosses.”

“No, no, they used to both be lumped in this group called Bryophyta, but these days they’re two separate things. Plus these things form these little scales on the soil. Check it out! You can look at it right here.”

So I stepped back and she crouched down like I was crouching down and she’s looking at these liverworts and I thought to myself, this is great! Here we are, two perfect strangers, two semi-normal people, talking about living things, outside, in this complicated but also enriching landscape that is both wild and not really that wild, just trying to understand this complicated cosmopolitan world together, without the need for any technological intermediary, no need to encode it or share our experiences for future discussion or popularity or anything. We’re just two people in a weird world having a discussion about this wondrous thing. 

She stood up and said, “Well, that’s quite interesting, I’ll have to look that up when I get home,” kinda skeptical. And she turned to me, this kindred stranger on the trail, sharing this experience that humans have been having for time in memory of seeing a weird thing outside and being like, huh, isn’t that cool? And she turned to me and went like, “You are going to post this to iNaturalist, right?”

“Yes,” I said, “yes I am.”

Congratulations again to you all, and thanks!

Last updated: May 21, 2024