Deep breath; I promise it will be okay.
By now, many of you have probably seen the one image that haunts your dreams: the backlit photo of the towering acacia that makes the wildebeest in front look tiny, with those two terrible words in big white print across the front — “We’re Done!” Now what are you going to do when you drink your morning coffee?? Need a break from staring at spreadsheets?? Are in desperate need of an African animal fix?? Trust me, I know the feeling.
Deep breath. (And skip to the end if you can’t wait another minute to find out when you can ID Snapshot Serengeti animals again.)
I have to admit that as a scientist using the Snapshot Serengeti data, I’m pretty stoked that Seasons 5 and 6 are done. I’ve been anxiously watching the progress bars inch along, hoping that they’d be done in time for me to incorporate them in my dissertation analyses that I’m finally starting to hash out. Silly me for worrying. You, our Snapshot Serengeti community, have consistently awed us with how quickly you have waded through our mountains of pictures. Remember when we first launched? We put up Seasons 1-3 and thought we’d have a month or so to wait. In three days we were scrambling to put up Season 4. This is not usually the problem that scientists with big datasets have!
Now that Seasons 5 and 6 are done, we’ll download all of the classifications for every single capture event and try to make sense of them using the algorithms that Margaret’s written about here and here. We’ll also need to do a lot of data “cleaning” — fixing errors in the database. Our biggest worry is handling incorrect timestamps — and for whatever reason, when a camera trap gets injured, the time stamps are the first things to malfunction (usually shuttling back to 1970 or into the futuristic 2029). It’s a big data cleaning problem for us. First, one of the things we care about is when animals are at different sites, so knowing the time is important. But also, many of the cameras are rendered non-functional for various reasons – meaning that sometimes a site isn’t taking pictures for days or even weeks. To properly analyze the data, we need to line up the number of animal captures with the record of activity, so we know that a record of 0 lions for the week really means 0 lions, and not just that the camera was face down in the mud.
So, we now have a lot of work in front of us. But what about you? First, Season 7 will be on its way soon, and we hope to have it online in early 2014. But that’s so far away! Yes, so in the meanwhile, the Zooniverse team will be “un-retiring” images like they’ve done in previous seasons. This means that we’ll be collecting more classifications on photos that have already been boxed away as “done.” Especially for the really tricky images, this can help us refine the algorithms that turn your classifications into a “correct answer.”
But there are also a whole bunch of awesome new Zooniverse projects out there that we’d encourage you to try in the meanwhile. For example, this fall, Zooniverse launched Plankton Portal, which takes you on a whole different kind of safari. Instead of identifying different gazelles by the white patches on their bums, you identify different species of plankton by their shapes. Although plankton are small, they have big impacts on the system — as the Plankton Portal scientists point out on their new site, “No plankton = No life in the ocean.”
Wherever you choose to spend your time, know that all of us on the science teams are incredibly grateful for your help. We couldn’t do this without you.
You’ve undoubtedly seen it: Grass. Tall waving grass. Lots of it. From here to the horizon. If you’re itching to get images of animals to classify, the “nothing here” grass images can seem annoying. Some people find the grass images soothing. The animals themselves, well, a lot of them seem to like it.
Some animals find that tall grass is nice for concealing themselves from predators, like these guys:
Or this impala:
And some animals think the grass is nice for eating, like here:
This post is brought to you by Faulty Cameras that switch unexpectedly to video mode when they’re not supposed to. These Season 5 videos have no sound, but capture some of the movement you don’t get with the photographs, so I thought you might like them.
Cute Baby Elephant
I hope you’ve been having fun with the new Season 5 images. I have. It’s been about a week since we went live with Season 5, and we’re making good progress. It took under two weeks to go through the first three seasons in December. (We had some media attention then and lots of people checking out the site.) It took about three weeks to finish Season 4 in January. According to my super science-y image copy-and-paste method, it may take us about two months to do Season 5:
And that’s fine. But I was curious about who’s working on Season 5. The Talk discussion boards are particularly quiet, with almost no newbie questions. So is everyone working on Season 5 a returnee? Or do we have new folks on board?
I looked at the user data from a data dump done on Sunday. So it includes the first 5 or so days of Season 5. In total, there are 2,000 volunteers who had contributed to 280,000 classifications by Sunday! I was actually quite amazed to see that 6% of the classifications are being done by folks not logged in. Is that because they’re new people trying out the site — or because there are some folks who like to classify without logging in? I can’t tell.
But I can compare Season 5 to Season 4. We had 8,300 logged-in volunteers working on Season 4. Of all the classifications, 9% were done by not-logged-in folks. That suggests we have fewer newcomers so far for Season 5. But then we get to an intriguing statistic: of those 2,000 volunteers working on Season 5 in its first five days, 33% of them did not work on Season 4 at all! And those 33% apparently new folks have contributed 50% of the (logged-in) classifications!
So what’s going on? Maybe we’re getting these new volunteers from other Zooniverse projects that have launched since January. Maybe they’re finding us in other ways. (Have you seen that the site can be displayed in Finnish in addition to Polish now?) But in any case, welcome everyone and I hope you spot your favorite animal.
Me, I found this super cute baby elephant just the other day:
If you’ve been following Margaret’s blogs, you’ve known this moment was coming. So stop what you’re doing, put down your pens and pencils, and open up your internet browsers, folks, because Season 5 is here!
It’s been an admittedly long wait. Season 5 represents photos from June – December 2012. During those six months I was back here in Minnesota, working with Margaret and the amazing team at Zooniverse to launch Snapshot Serengeti; meanwhile, in Serengeti, Stanslaus Mwampeta was working hard to keep the camera trap survey going. I mailed the Season 5 photos back as soon as possible after returning to Serengeti – but the vagaries of cross-continental postal service were against us, and it took nearly 5 months to get these images from Serengeti to Minnesota, where they could be prepped for the Snapshot interface.
So now that you’ve finally kicked the habit, get ready to dive back in. As with Season 4, the photos in Season 5 have never been seen before. Your eyes are the first. And you might see some really exciting things.
For starters, you won’t see as many wildebeest. By now, they’ve moved back to the north – northern Serengeti as well as Kenya’s Masaai Mara – where more frequent rains keep the grass long and lush year-round. Here, June marks the onslaught of the dry season. From June through October, if not later, everything is covered in a relentless layer of dust. After three months without a drop of rain, we start to wonder if the water in our six 3,000 liter tanks will last us another two months. We ration laundry to one dusty load a week, and showers to every few field days. We’ve always made it through so far, but sometimes barely…and often rather smelly.
You might see Stan
And occasionally Daniel
Checking the camera traps.
But most excitingly, you might see African wild dogs.
Also known as the Cape hunting dog or painted hunting dog, these canines disappeared from Serengeti in the early 1990’s. While various factors may have contributed to their decline, wild dog populations have lurked just outside the Serengeti, in multi-use protected areas (e.g. with people, cows, and few lions) for at least 10 years. Many researchers suspect that wild dogs have failed to recolonize their previous home-ranges inside the park because lion populations have nearly tripled – and as you saw in “Big, Mean, & Nasty”, lions do not make living easy for African wild dogs.
Nonetheless, the Tanzanian government has initiated a wild dog relocation program that hopes to bring wild dogs back to Serengeti, where they thrived several decades ago. In August 2012, and again in December, the Serengeti National Park authorities released a total of 29 wild dogs in the western corridor of the park. While the release area is well outside of the camera survey area, rumor has it that the dogs booked it across the park, through the camera survey, on their journey to the hills of Loliondo. Only a handful of people have seen these newly released dogs in person, but it’s possible they’ve been caught on camera. So keep your eyes peeled! And if you see something that might be a wild dog, please tag it with #wild-dog!! Happy hunting!
Update on Season 5
In short, delay. 😦
In long, we’ve processed all the images and are uploading them onto the Zooniverse servers. However, it’s taking a long time. A really long time. Since Season 4, the Minnesota Supercomputer Institute (MSI) has switched over to a new system, and it seems like the upload time from this new system is painfully slow. We’ve uploaded over 25% of the images, but it’s taken a couple days uploading non-stop. So best estimate is mid to late next week for when they’ll all be uploaded. We’re trying to coordinate with the staff at MSI to see if they can increase upload speeds for us, but no guarantees.
(Man, I wish we had some images of turtles or snails or sloths or something from Serengeti… Wait! I know what’s slow — stationary, actually.)
Meanwhile, you can read a guest blog post that I wrote over at Dynamic Ecology. Dynamic Ecology is read by ecologists, so my blog post introduces the concept of citizen science (and Snapshot Serengeti, of course) to professional ecologists who may not be very familiar with it. One question that comes up in the comments is: can you do citizen science if you don’t have cool, awesome animals? Like, what if you have flies or worms or plankton instead? I think the answer is yes. But feel free to give your perspectives in the comments there, too.
Good News Bad News
So there’s good news and there’s bad news. Which would you like first? Good news?
The good news is that the pictures from Season 5 are being processed at the Minnesota Supercomputer Institute right this minute. There are about 900,000 images total, so it will take a few days to process them all. (What are we doing? We’re resizing them, extracting the place and time they were taken, and grouping those that need it into groups of 3.) Then we’ll need to upload them to Zooniverse’s servers. That might take another day or so. If everything goes without a hitch (fingers crossed), we’ll be ready to unleash Season 5 by the end of next week! (So for those of you who wanted some warning, this is your warning. Clear you schedules. Get your work done early. Set up an ‘away’ message on your email…)
The other news is bad, I’m afraid. We just found out that the grant proposal we wrote to the National Science Foundation back in January got turned down. Our grant would have funded Snapshot Serengeti and the Serengeti Lion Project for another five years, and included money for scientists to continue to analyze all the data you’ve been generating by identifying animals in the Snapshot Serengeti images.
Our proposal was reviewed by three other scientists independently and then talked about by a group of scientists who had our proposal and the three reviews to look at. Our three reviews varied. One person thought that our proposal was the most exciting project s/he had read yet this year. But the others were a bit concerned about exactly how we would analyze the data. This proposal was a “pre-proposal,” meaning that we only had a few pages to explain what we wanted to do, how we would do it, why it’s important, and the broader impact we would have. I guess we didn’t manage to get in enough of the “how” for these reviewers.
We were all taken by surprise by the rejection. The Lion Research Center has been reliably funded by the National Science Foundation for decades. But things are changing. Firstly, this “pre-proposal” system is new; it’s only in its second year. And everyone — both proposal writers and proposal reviewers — are still figuring out what exactly should go in the new shorter pre-proposals. And secondly, the Sequester is still in place, so the National Science Foundation has less money to give out this coming year than usual.
In any case, we’re now regrouping to come up with a new funding plan. We’ll be able to apply again to the National Science Foundation in January 2014 to fund camera trapping starting in 2015. And we’ve got several papers that we plan to write in the next six months using Snapshot Serengeti data that we’ll be able to point to to show reviewers that we can properly analyze the data. Meanwhile, we’re going to try to keep the cameras rolling by looking for other funding sources to cover our year-long funding gap. Suggestions welcome.
It’s been an exciting and exhausting past couple days. I’ve been at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, chatting with Zooniverse developers, scientists from other Zooniverse projects, educators and social scientists, and citizen science volunteers. There have been presentations on the history of the Zooniverse, starting with the original Galaxy Zoo, and on why people say they participate in citizen science projects. We’ve talked about ways to process the huge amount of data that comes out of the projects, and how to make translations of projects into other languages easier. We’ve seen that for some projects, many people do few classifications, and for others, few people do many classifications. And we’ve consumed coffee and food, and just gotten to know one another. (I discovered a scientist on another project went to my alma mater, graduated a year after me, and that we know many of the same people!)
One of the things I’m most excited about for Snapshot Serengeti is a set of visualization and analysis tools that the Zooniverse team is developing. They’ve started on a nice set of tools for Galaxy Zoo already, and Snapshot Serengeti is well-positioned to have tools added next. The tools will allow you to do things like map where images were taken, look at trends over time of species, and make some simple graphs. Is there anything you’d like to do easily with Snapshot Serengeti data? Now is the time to let us know. Feel free to leave ideas in the comments.
This workshop has also been fun because we’ve gotten a sneak peak at what lies down the Zooniverse road… a project called SpaceWarps is coming soon… further down the road, we have plankton, condors, kelp, sunspots… plus more data for Andromeda Project, Notes from Nature, and… Snapshot Serengeti!
It turns out to be true: there IS a new hard drive in Minnesota and it has all the Season 5 images on it. On Friday, Lora Orme and I started loading those images onto the supercomputers so we can start processing them. You’ll have to forgive the Zooniverse for stealing me away these past couple days and keeping me from working on the Season 5 images. But it’s just a small delay; I think we’ll have Season 5 online within the month.
Lost in the Mail
I have some sad news. The hard drive carrying Season 5 never arrived in Minnesota. Ali had it sent several weeks ago by postal mail. But not all the world’s mail is quite as reliable as we might hope. The hard drive may be sitting in some office somewhere, lost among piles of boxes. Or someone may have decided that a hard drive would turn a nice personal profit. Whatever happened, we’ll probably never see the hard drive again. Or we might – I once sent a package to a friend in South Africa and gave up on it when it hadn’t arrived after a couple months. But almost a year later, my friend sent me an email thanking me for the package and curious about some rather out-of-date news that I had written her.
But fret not. Ali said she’ll scrounge up another hard drive and load it with Season 5’s photos. She knows of someone traveling to the U.S. in a couple weeks and will ask for the hard drive to be hand couriered. Meanwhile, we’ll all have to sit tight.
Since it’s Friday and I can’t leave you with just sad news for the weekend, here are some Serengeti laughing hippos.