Geographic outliers at GBIF are a known problem.

Outliers can be errors, coordinates with high uncertainty, or simply occurrences from an under-sampled region.

In data cleaning pipelines outliers are often removed (even if they are legitimate points) because the researcher does not have time to verify each record one-by-one. In almost all cases, outlier points are occurrences that need attention. Currently, there is no outlier detection implemented at GBIF and it is up to the user to remove outliers themselves (e.g. using CoordinateCleaner, DIVA-GIS)

DBSCAN is a simple and popular clustering algorithm. Here is a nice introduction. It uses distance and a minimum number of points per cluster to classify a point as an outlier.

“A density-based algorithm for discovering clusters in large spatial databases with noise” - DBSCAN

Since GBIF mediated occurrence data can be very patchy, clustering is important. One advantage of DBSCAN is that it does not need to know the expected number of clusters in advance. Also DBSCAN uses only distance and not some additional environmental variables like Bioclim. This makes it simple, but also vulnerable to certain types of false positives.

Plotted Examples

Here I plot some examples of DBSCAN outlier flagging.

Details :

  • DBSCAN was run with haversine distance.
  • Maximum distance was set to <1500km.
  • Minimum points was set to 3.
  • Points here are unique points by (specieskey, lat-lon).
  • Only run with species having >30 and <30,000 unique points.
  • The gray gray circle around each point has a radius=~1500km.
  • I was able to run this on all Plants, Animals and Fungi in under an hour with GBIF’s current cluster setup.
  • No point was classified as an outlier if the publisher filled in the establishment means (where a publisher can put in that the occurrence is managed, in a zoo, garden ect.) or basis of record = Living Specimen or Fossil.
Example 1

The two outlier points ( 1, 2 ) in this example: 1. Botanical Garden in Denver 2. Herbarium in Norway. These are two points that most users would probably want to exclude. If you had 1000s of species, you would not want to do this manually.

Example 2

I think most agree that these two points ( 1, 2 ) in North America are the most needing of attention/verification. These points are probably within private gardens.

Example 3

Sometimes lacking environmental information produces results that a human being might think is probably not an outlier. In any case the result is reasonable, and out of all the points, the outlier point ( 1 ) is probably the one that needs the most attention.

Example 4

This outlier ( 1 ) is near a botanical garden.

Example 5

This example shows that DBSCAN is able to cluster effectively while flagging an outlier point( 1 ) with low additional support in Japan.

Example 6

S This example shows that DBSCAN does not do well when the species is poorly sampled in some regions, like the ocean. Also DBSCAN tends to flag occurrences on islands and other remote places.

Outlier detection vs error detection

Outlier detection and error detection are different. If your goal is to produce a system with no false positives, it will fail. Probably combining this distance method with other environmentally informed methods would be very powerful way to flag outliers.

Advantages of DBSCAN :

  • Simple
  • Easy to Understand
  • Only two parameters to set
  • Scales well

Drawbacks :

  • Only uses distance
  • Must choose parameter settings
  • Sensitive to sparse global sampling
  • Does not include any other relevant information

DBSCAN would not do well at flagging any of the outlier’s in this example from twitter. Environmentally-informed reverse jackknifing would probably do better in these cases.

Percentage of taxa-group outliers

Well sampled groups like Birds, Mammals, and flowering plants do not have many outliers. Less well-sampled groups, will have more outliers, which might not be “errors” but false positives caused by sparse sampling. Fortunately, if the class is somewhat well sampled >50K records, the outlier flagging rate is less than 1% points.

It is difficult to judge whether a dataset with a high percentage of outliers contains more “errors” or whether it has occurrences from under sampled regions (like the ocean or Siberia).

Current implementation details

Currently this DBSCAN-outlier detection is an internal tool. I am using it to find errors and assess dataset quality. It is a Spark job written in Scala ( github ).

Let me know in the comments if DBSCAN-based-outlier flagging is something GBIF should do?