Article excerpt

Byline: Rob Verger

'Citizen scientists' classify Africa's animals.

after ali Swanson, an ecology researcher from the University of Minnesota, set up 225 cameras over 400 square miles of Tanzania's Serengeti National Park, she was hit by the curse of Big Data: how do you make sense of the head-spinning contents of more than a million photographs? Her cameras, triggered by sensors that measure heat and motion, were capturing an enormous number of images of prolific animals like wildebeest, stampeding through the park. Swanson was initially most interested in carnivore behavior, so she desperately needed help sifting through this tsunami of snapshots.

So the research team applied to join Zooniverse, part of a larger suite of projects that allow the general public to sift through data--like searching for images of star clusters in the Andromeda Galaxy, for example--and help researchers with the taxonomy. A visitor to the resulting website, SnapshotSerengeti.org, is instructed in how to classify an animal and can then click through images, one at a time, labeling the contents of each one. It reveals an intimate look at a corner of Africa: a photo might clearly show a zebra, or it might be a trickier image, no more than an animal's rump and tail, with grassland and sky in the background.

Perusing the site is like taking a virtual safari, an edition of National Geographic with no editing. Some photos offer a lovely glimpse of wildlife--a group of gazelle, with long curved, elegant horns, standing in a sunny field of grass--and others are humorously candid. The frame of one photograph is filled three quarters of the way with an extreme close-up of a zebra's striped chest. In a nighttime shot, is that an elephant's butt, bleached white by the camera's flash?

The researchers were astonished by the public's response: in the first week alone, they received 3 million classifications. "We were excited, but also a little flummoxed, because we were hoping that this would be something that would continue a little longer so people could enjoy it more," says Margaret Kosmala, one of the researchers on the team. …