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Introducing Dronefly, a Discord bot for naturalists

In the past few years, since first leaving Debian as a free software developer in 2016, I’ve taken up some new hobbies, or more accurately, renewed my interest in some old ones.

Screenshot from Dronefly bot tutorial
Screenshot from Dronefly bot tutorial

During that hiatus, I also quietly un-retired from Debian, anticipating there would be some way to contribute to the project in these new areas of interest. That’s still an idea looking for the right opportunity to present itself, not to mention the available time to get involved again.

With age comes an increasing clamor of complaints from your body when you have a sedentary job in front of a screen, and hobbies that rarely take you away from it. You can’t just plunk down in front of a screen and do computer stuff non-stop & just bounce back again at the start of each new day. So in the past several years, getting outside more started to improve my well-being and address those complaints. That revived an old interest in me: nature photography. That, in turn, landed me at iNaturalist, re-ignited my childhood love of learning about the natural world, & hooked me on a regular habit of making observations & uploading them to iNat ever since.

Second, back in the late nineties, I wrote a little library loans renewal reminder project in Python. Python was a pleasure to work with, but that project never took off and soon was forgotten. Now once again, decades later, Python is a delight to be writing in, with its focus on writing readable code & backed by a strong culture of education.

Where Python came to bear on this new hobby was when the naturalists on the iNaturalist Discord server became a part of my life. Last spring, I stumbled upon this group & started hanging out. On this platform, we share what we are finding, we talk about those findings, and we challenge each other to get better at it. It wasn’t long before the idea to write some code to access the iNaturalist platform directly from our conversations started to take shape.

Now, ideally, what happened next would have been for an open platform, but this is where the community is. In many ways, too, other chat platforms (like irc) are not as capable vs. Discord to support the image-rich chat experience we enjoy. Thus, it seemed that’s where the code had to be. Dronefly, an open source Python bot for naturalists built on the Red DiscordBot bot framework, was born in the summer of 2019.

Dronefly is still alpha stage software, but in the short space of six months, has grown to roughly 3k lines of code and is used used by hundreds of users across 9 different Discord servers. It includes some innovative features requested by our users like the related command to discover the nearest common ancestor of one or more named taxa, and the map command to easily access a range map on the platform for all the named taxa. So far as I know, no equivalent features exist yet on the iNat website or apps for mobile. Commands like these put iNat data directly at users’ fingertips in chat, improving understanding of the material with minimal interruption to the flow of conversation.

This tutorial gives an overview of Dronefly’s features. If you’re intrigued, please look me up on the iNaturalist Discord server following the invite from the tutorial. You can try out the bot there, and I’d be happy to talk to you about our work. Even if this is not your thing, do have a look at iNaturalist itself. Perhaps, like me, you’ll find in this platform a fun, rewarding, & socially significant outlet that gets you outside more, with all the benefits that go along with that.

That’s what has been keeping me busy lately. I hope all my Debian friends are well & finding joy in what you’re doing. Keep up the good work!

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