The role of IT in citizen science efforts to fight climate change

Meet two organizations doing citizen science conservation work with edge technology.

In 2016, headlines proclaiming the Great Barrier Reef “dead” sent shock waves around the globe. The news was devastating. It was also patently untrue.

“The reef is still here and vibrant. But the impacts of climate change are accelerating,” says Som Meaden, chief technology officer at nonprofit Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef. “We don’t want it to be the poster child for climate change—we want it to be the inspiration for [preventing such devastation].”

As climate change continues to disrupt our planet’s ecosystems, it will take large-scale, collaborative efforts to save our oceans. Thankfully, individuals and corporations are banding together to ensure those dire headlines don’t come true. From Cairns, Australia, to New York City, information technology (IT) companies, citizen scientists, and conservation groups are uniting to preserve and restore marine environments.

We sat down with two experts to talk about the role of IT and data in this all-important work.

Q&A with Som Meaden and Ben LoGuidice

Som Meaden, based in Cairns, Australia, works on the Great Reef Census, an innovative approach to assessing reef health using citizen scientists to capture survey images. These images are aggregated and analyzed online by people around the world to assess the larger ecosystem’s health.

Ben LoGuidice is a hatchery technician with the Billion Oyster Project, a citizen science initiative that aims to restore a billion live oysters to New York Harbor by 2035.

Photo by Grumpy Turtle Creative and courtesy of Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef

What’s the mission/vision of your respective organizations?

Som: Everything we do is related to the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), but we’re really tackling the bigger question around climate change and our ability to act. Currently, only 5% of the GBR is surveyed in a year. To help fill some of these knowledge gaps, we’re calling on citizen scientists—tourists, divers, fishermen—to help us document the state of the reef.

We specifically look for hard, live coral so we can assign a “coral cover” score. This is one indication of health. By gauging the status of individual reefs, we can better understand the complexities of the broader ecosystem and identify areas most in need of protection.

Ben: The mission of our organization is oyster restoration through education. We can grow a lot of oysters, but people are really the driving factor behind change. The big shift comes from the community. It’s important for locals and students to learn about what we’re doing.

How does data/technology play a role in your short- and long-term goals?

Photo by Steven Dewitt and courtesy of Billion Oyster Project

Som: Last year, we launched a massive, crowd-sourced research flotilla with the support of many partners, including Dell. In that effort, we reached more than 690 reef sites and captured 14,000 images.

To better understand the images, we developed a drawing tool, which lets people jump in and show us what they see in each scene. We give them a basic introduction to reef ecology and ask them to draw a “map” of what’s in each image. We ended up getting 33,000 images analyzed by citizen scientists from 50 countries off the back of that innovation. It’s obviously a lot of data.

Right now, analysis is manual. We have to ensure images are valid and tagged in the right places. For long-term goals, we’re working with Dell to train a computer-vision AI model to speed up the process. We’re also looking to scale the program to reefs around the world, hopefully in the next two to three years.

Ben: Data collection is really important in my role. We’re dealing with larval oysters, and they’re really sensitive, small animals that require very specific water chemistry to thrive.

Monitoring water quality and temperature during the “setting period”—a three-day metamorphosis that can be stressful to the animal—is critical. With technology, we can do this in real-time, rather than having to go to a site and manually put in thermometers. It’s much more efficient and accurate.

Short-term goals are to be able to remotely monitor our systems using live-feed from videos. Long-term, I’d love to be able to monitor even more water quality parameters in real-time.

What IoT/edge technologies do your teams work with?

Photo by Johnny Gaskell and courtesy of Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef

Som: The reef is massive, and some parts are very remote. Dell’s edge devices let us mirror our online, cloud-based setup wherever we are. What this means is that people can jump onto the Census website even when they’re out of range of shore-based internet and have no cell connection. They can submit data as soon as they collect it, which is important for accuracy. We added GPS to the system, so we know what reef they’re on. And thanks to an aerial and SIM card for 4G, data is synced up to the cloud as soon as signal is available.

Last year, only 20% of the vessels that went out on the water had one of these devices on them—but they accounted for more than one-third of the images submitted. This year, all of our expeditions will have a Dell edge device on board.

Ben: Edge technology has enabled us to respond quickly to volatility in the water. Because we’re analyzing data that’s created in situ, we can react swiftly when the conditions are right.

The students from the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School that come to work at the hatchery also appreciate this level of responsiveness. They help grow microalgae to feed the oysters. Before putting algae in the water, we have to do a lot of tests—for dissolved oxygen, salinity, pH, nitrates, etc. We use a whole array of digital tools to do this. It’s a great way for students to be hands-on and understand what technology can do, versus analog methods like pH sticks.

Why is partnering with IT vendors useful for conservation?

Photo courtesy of Billion Oyster Project

Som: We’re in a sweet spot with the convergence of different types of technologies that lend themselves well to conservation—satellites, drone imagery, AI, etc. Partnership and collaboration move the needle on what we’re trying to do.

We’ve already solved so many problems thanks to IT, and the AI work that’s currently in progress has come off the back of that. We don’t know where it will lead, but things are moving at a surprising pace. We definitely didn’t think we’d be here 12 months ago.

Ben: Computers give us the freedom to work from home, which has been especially important these past two years. We’re also using several HOBO loggers, which are a great resource for monitoring.

We’re really looking forward to this next season. Thanks to advancing technologies, we’ll start capturing some exciting new data; it will give us insights into why we’re having success in certain areas and not in others. It’ll help us continue to move forward. We can’t do that without partnerships.

Lead photo by Harriet Spark of Grumpy Turtle Creative and courtesy of Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef