Community Contributor
6:00 am
Tue October 22, 2013

Become An Online Citizen Scientist Through UM Plankton Project

An example of the computer screen interface volunteers see when reviewing images.
An example of the computer screen interface volunteers see when reviewing images.
Credit Zooniverse.org

Planktonportal is a new online citizen science project to engage the public’s help in identifying planktonic creature images collected by an underwater robotic camera.

Plankton is the basis of our ocean ecosystem. No plankton, no life in the ocean. By understanding the mechanisms underlying plankton distribution both locally and globally, we can better assess the health of the ocean and better manage this precious environment. And now we can all do it together!

The idea of Planktonportal came about during a research cruise in the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 2010. Our team from the University of Miami was collecting images of plankton one year after the BP oil spill. We could see live images zooming by using our underwater camera system inside the ship’s science room.

As we literally were collecting millions of images, we were pondering the task of analyzing these data. I was reading an article at the time on Zooniverse and how they were able to harness the analyzing power of the public to classify millions of galaxies. This idea seduced me right away, because I was really convinced that beyond their utility, these images were beautiful and could potentially grasp the attention of a larger public.

The underwater robotic camera, ISIIS being retrieved after collecting data in the Straits of Florida.
The underwater robotic camera, ISIIS being retrieved after collecting data in the Straits of Florida.
Credit Adam Greer

I soon learned that the Zooniverse team was welcoming new projects based on scientific merit using a simple online application system. I was so excited that I must have written the whole thing in less than a couple hours, and with the approval and support of the project leader, Robert Cowen, we submitted it.

Two weeks later, we got the news!

It took a year and a half with the hard work of the Zooniverse team in collaboration with graduate students Jessica Luo and Adam Greer, as well as undergraduate students Ben Grassian and Dorothy Tang from the University of Miami, to really get the idea in motion.

Last September, we finally launched and users immediately began accessing and using the site, and we received many questions about plankton! Realizing that the public has interest in what we are doing and is willing to give us their time and effort has led to this being the most rewarding thing I have done during my scientific career.

I think that beyond the obvious scientific and educational value these projects possess, there is another important phenomenon that is happening: demystification of science. Citizen science makes science accessible and fun, and opens it to the world so it is not the privilege of a select few anymore. It becomes democratic!

For years now we have been collecting data from different locations around the world and we have accumulated millions of images. The problem is to find a way to analyze them in a timely fashion. We started using different technologies to automate the classification using computers, but this technique alone is not as efficient as the human eye because it needs constant human supervision. We need a combination of the two.

The ability of the human brain to recognize patterns is fantastic. People need only be exposed to only a few similar objects before they are able to start recognizing them in different positions, in front of backgrounds, or recognize if the image is only a partial picture. Think about it! It is baffling. The underlying concept is that you do not need to know the scientific name of an elephant to be able to recognize one.

Deep-sea shrimp larvae.
Deep-sea shrimp larvae.
Credit Cedric Guigand

That’s what we have done with Planktonportal; no crazy scientific names just simple nicknames. You can always learn more about it with our support material, discussion board and blogs. We encourage you to do this, but we do not “force” you to take a class or long, cumbersome training. You just need to visit our website www.planktonportal.org and watch a very short, fun, interactive tutorial.

We ask the “citizen scientists” to measure and classify different plankton types directly on raw images that we collected. Every time you select an image, you will see a simple drop-down menu of possible plankton candidates. Once you are done with the current image, click next and another one will appear. Think about it, you may be the first to see some of these images. There are so many the science team can’t possibly have looked at all of them.

If you are really hooked we recommend that you sign up and get a user name. We have some “users” that classified several thousands of images on their own! So far, after 3 weeks, we have collected more than 120,000 classifications. This amount of work is almost equivalent to one year in graduate school. With your help, our understanding of the ocean will improve!

Baby squid.
Baby squid.
Credit Cedric Guigand

Plankton Portal” http://www.planktonportal.org was created by researchers at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (RSMAS) and the Oregon State University in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) and developers at Zooniverse.org.

Cedric Guigand
Cedric Guigand

Cedric Guigand is a Senior Research Associate at the University of Miami, RSMAS, working on underwater technologies to advance the field of Marine Sciences.

Guigand's work mainly focuses on planktonic organism and how to observed them in their natural environment.

His expertise is in underwater imaging and in-situ monitoring systems. He has been working the field of biological oceanography for the last 14 years.