Citizen science is more popular than ever before. The idea of couch-bound folks and others contributing to labor-intensive science projects is appealing to science enthusiasts and cash-strapped researchers alike. And these projects are very varied, from playing a protein-folding puzzle game aiming to help find solutions to the foodborne toxin aflatoxin, to counting birds for an Audubon database, or transcribing historically significant documents.
Sure, there might be a risk of exploitation from treating an army of netizens like unpaid interns, but the possibilities of engaging the public in science are generally positive.
Zooniverse bills itself as the largest citizen science website, with projects open to anyone regardless of educational background. One of the more intriguing projects is the South Sudan DiversityCam, part of a larger conservation program seeking to understand and protect biodiversity in the southwestern part of South Sudan. Wildlife in South Sudan are threatened by ongoing conflict, poaching, deforestation, and limited resources for wildlife conservation.
In view of these challenges, the NGO Fauna & Flora International and Bucknell University have teamed up with the South Sudan Wildlife Service and community wildlife ambassadors to install camera traps: motion-activated cameras that detect animal movements remotely. The visual information on animal behaviors then feeds into plans for patrolling and protecting the animals. One example is the golden cat, which turns up regularly on the camera traps despite being little seen in South Sudan.
So what about the South Sudan DiversityCam? In this Zooniverse project, volunteers around the world examine photos and identify the animal species in them, referring to an index of animals created by researchers. These include bush pigs, aardvarks, and many types of duikers. If you’re not up to date on all the types of duikers (or, hell, even sure what a duiker is), not to worry. The “Like” tab helpfully allows you to select a broad category of animals that a pictured animal resembles, like “primate” or “antelope/deer.” You can also search by the animal’s horns, pattern and color (although the last one is hard to detect if the cameras are taking night-time black-and-white shots). Once you tentatively select a particular species, a box will pop up with more information about the species, as well as other species that are often mistaken for one another. There are also options to add information about the number of animals, the presence of young, and any particular behaviors.
It’s not completely seamless. There’s no option to select “Don’t know” or “Not sure,” meaning that you’re pressured to try to identify even what look like formless blurs. And there’s no possibility of a do-over either, if, say, you suddenly have a burning feeling that that W-tail mongoose you marked a second ago is actually a marsh mongoose (surely a problem you face constantly in your day-to-day life). The researchers are discouraging indecision as they collect identifications from multiple people, so a single error won’t matter too much. And lots of online shrugs would help them less than volunteers’ best guesses.
All in all, it’s pretty straightforward. Many of the photos won’t contain animals, or will contain hard-to-spot animals, as the cameras may have gotten triggered by the wind or a plant movement. Clicking through these, as well as playing spot-the-South-Sudanese animal, can be hypnotic – . Plus the knowledge that you might just be contributing to conservation, even if you’re sitting with your laptop in your pajamas.
- ^ help find solutions to the foodborne toxin aflatoxin (www.forbes.com)
- ^ counting birds for an Audubon database (www.forbes.com)
- ^ transcribing historically significant documents (bookriot.com)
- ^ Zooniverse (www.zooniverse.org)
- ^ South Sudan DiversityCam (www.zooniverse.org)
- ^ golden cat (www.zooniverse.org)
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