Crowdsourcing at the Bottom of the Sea

Published Jul-22-13

An open innovation project to study data from the deep is allowing the public to make valuable contributions to marine research.

NEPTUNE Canada/University of Victoria, Canada

The Story:

Crowdsourcing at the Bottom of the Sea Thanks to the power of the Internet hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens all over the world are helping scientists with their research endeavors. There are many citizen science initiatives covering a multitude of genres including astronomy, infectious diseases, wildlife, and global warming.

Journey to the Bottom of the Sea via Your Computer

One such project is Digital Fishers, an undertaking by NEPTUNE Canada and the University of Victoria’s Center for Global Studies. The purpose is to study the mechanisms that shape animal communities that live in deep water.

NEPTUNE CANADA, an underwater ocean observatory network has recorded thousands of hours of video from installation dives and a series of underwater cameras. Every frame needs to be studied, but unfortunately the organization’s software lacks the sophistication to identify each animal or object that’s been filmed. This is where the crowd comes in.

Volunteers are presented with a dashboard that resembles the cockpit of a research submarine. The focal point is a screen that plays a 15 second video clip from the NEPTUNE Canada archive. On the left and right side of the screen is some additional information about the clip being viewed. The video can be played repeatedly and no experience is required to participate.

Making Discoveries

When a user sees something interesting they click on it and fill in the description fields below the video. These include such categories as: water clarity, sea life, seafloor composition, and natural and human made objects. There are also comments fields where further information can be added.

The work will help scientists answer such fundamental questions as:

• What environmental factors influence the distribution of species in the deep?
• How do species interact with each other and with their environment?

Gamification Techniques

To keep the crowd motivated there is a gaming aspect to the research project. Every time a user completes two annotations they receive a digital card with information about a particular marine species. When five cards have been amassed they proceed to the next level. There are five levels in all and each level gets more difficult in terms of the information that is required from studying the video clips.

The user’s dashboard also has a leader board that highlights the all-time leader and the day’s leader.

Fascinating Findings

Among the finds is a perfect example of how citizens are helping scientists with their important work. A 14-year-old boy from the Ukraine with a passion for biology discovered an elephant seal 894 meters under the sea eating a hagfish meal.

He was watching a video feed from one of NEPTUNE Canada’s cameras and saw a hagfish moving when suddenly a large creature came into view and ate it.

Unsure as to what it was he posted the clip on his YouTube channel and asked NEPTUNE Canada to identify it. They put a call out to marine mammal experts in Canada and the US who identified the animal as a female northern elephant seal.

This turned out to be NEPTUNE’s first sighting of an elephant seal in seafloor footage. It was also the first time this event had been seen on camera. Thanks to this citizen scientist the researchers now know how deep a female northern elephant seal can swim and what it does when it gets to the seafloor.

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