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Sofa conservation

Sofa conservation
15 Jan
How many elephants can you see? How many orang-utans are in that tree? New conservation projects are hoping the answers to these questions can help protect endangered species around the world

Zooniverse describes itself as ‘the world’s largest and most popular platform for people-powered research’. It’s part of a growing number of organisations that believe harnessing the power of crowdsourcing can beckon in a whole new era for conservation work, enabling research that would not be possible, or practical, otherwise.

Conservation work that combines high-tech satellite and drone photography with someone simply sitting on their sofa counting has huge potential according to Sol Milne, head of an Aberdeen University research project monitoring and protecting orang-utans in Northern Borneo. ‘I think this will be an important tool for conservation,’ he says. ‘It allows us to get through work that may be tedious for the experienced observer.’ He goes on to highlight how, as a by-product of the crowd-led method, more people might discover for themselves how precarious the situation is for endangered species. ‘Citizen science allows us to unpack information while putting people on the front line of this kind of research, and showing them the current environmental situation being faced.’

Crowdsourcing is hardly a new concept. Organisations using contributions from internet users to sift information, come up with ideas, test products, or simply take advantage of the sheer numbers of hands working together to make light of a task, have been around since [email protected], an early pioneer that harnessed idle home computing power to aide in the search for extra-terrestrial life signs back in 1999. More recently, crowdsourcing has been particularly successful for investigative journalism, an example being bellingcat, which used open and crowdsourcing to track the missiles that shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014.

However, in the realm of conservation crowdsourcing is a relatively new, and exciting, idea. The Aberdeen University survey is working with Zooniverse, asking citizen volunteers to count orang-utan nests within thousands of drone photos. ‘We are hoping that a large number of citizen scientists get involved in this project and start looking through the images on our website in order to find orang-utan nests,’ says Milne. According to Milne, this new approach maximises accuracy in research and has already produced 50 peer-reviewed journal articles.

Drone image of orangutan nest

Another Zooniverse project utilising this new tool is Save the Elephants. ‘This is the perfect opportunity to release the budding conservationist in you, the part of you that has what it takes to be part of something big,’ says the project’s marketing material. ‘It’s fun and addictive... Simply put, we count – collectively – and you can assist us from the comfort of your own home, wherever you are in the world!’

Save the Elephants believes this mass counting effort can help to cut the cost of research and provide more detailed distribution numbers, to aid in protection efforts for endagered species like the elephants of Africa.

There are however some concerns about the accuracy of the results, particularly to do with reliability and accuracy, once the analysis is taken out of the hands of experts and into the living rooms of the eager amateur conservationist.

shutterstock elephants

Despite these worries, Milne and his team are convinvced more data equals more reliable results: ‘By having a large number of volunteers we will encompass a wide spectrum of ability, and use the framework designed by the website to arrive at the most accurate results possible for our survey.

However, Milne also suggests that crowdsourced information could eventually lead to humans being taken out of the process entirely. ‘It is also possible to use data from these large-scale surveys to provide training data for machine learning algorithms that may potentially be able to automate these processes in the future.’

So while for the moment this exciting new form of mass conservation continues to aid in research and preservation efforts, at some point in the not too distant future, we could see crowdsourced data taking the citizen out of citizen science.

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