Recent improvements in online information communication and mobile location-aware technologies have led to the production of large volumes of volunteered geographic information. Widespread, large-scale efforts by volunteers to collect data can inform and drive scientific advances in diverse fields, including ecology and climatology. Traditional workflows to check the quality of such volunteered information can be costly and time consuming as they heavily rely on human interventions. However, identifying factors that can influence data quality, such as inconsistency, is crucial when these data are used in modeling and decision- making frameworks. Recently developed workflows use simple statistical approaches that assume that the majority of the information is consistent. However, this assumption is not generalizable, and ignores underlying geographic and environmental contextual variability that may explain apparent inconsistencies. Here we describe an automated workflow to check inconsistency based on the availability of contextual environmental information for sampling locations. The workflow consists of three steps: (1) dimensionality reduction to facilitate further analysis and interpretation of results, (2) model-based clustering to group observations according to their contextual conditions, and (3) identification of inconsistent observations within each cluster. The workflow was applied to volunteered observations of flowering in common and cloned lilac plants (Syringa vulgaris and Syringa x chinensis) in the United States for the period 1980 to 2013. About 97% of the observations for both common and cloned lilacs were flagged as consistent, indicating that volunteers provided reliable information for this case study. Relative to the original dataset, the exclusion of inconsistent observations changed the apparent rate of change in lilac bloom dates by two days per decade, indicating the importance of inconsistency checking as a key step in data quality assessment for volunteered geographic information. Initiatives that leverage volunteered geographic information can adapt this workflow to improve the quality of their datasets and the robustness of their scientific analyses.
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