Have you ever uploaded a family photo or crew shot to Facebook and had the website know who was in the picture? That’s their advanced facial recognition software that keeps tabs on our facial features in tagged photos for quick and easy photo sharing.
This software is convenient (albeit a little creepy) and makes sharing or organizing photos much easier.
Now imagine uploading a photo of a whale you took out on your boat last week and having Facebook ask, “Would you like to tag Quasimodo in this photo?”
That’s (sort of) what members of the right-whale research community and data scientists have been working on.
Christin Khan, a biologist at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center is part of a team that flies aerial surveys off the East Coast to look for and track North Atlantic right whales. They track individual whales by their distinct features and help keep tabs on them in the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog. The catalog includes a page for each tracked whale that includes photos, sketches of identifying marks and any other pertinent biological notes (think your ‘about’ section on your own profile).
And yes, a lot of the whales have names. Javelin (No. 1112) and Pegleg (No. 1217) were my personal favorites, for the record.
The catalog is very detailed, but identifying a whale can still take up a lot of time using this system. Khan got the idea of creating an algorithm to identify whales after scrolling through her Facebook page one day.
After looking for help in online forums, a team of data scientists created an algorithm that could identify whales with 87 percent accuracy. The software and application for this algorithm has yet to be developed, and Khan is looking for support in the community.
Khan’s search for the right supporters was detailed in “Making Facebook for Whales” published in the Atlantic just last week.
I don’t think we’ll be naming the world’s salmon anytime soon, but the amount of collaboration that went into this project is impressive and is a good example of industry innovation. Without having spend long hours digging through the catalog just to identify a whale, researchers can do a bit more research. By streamlining one tedious process, the entire field will be able to work more efficiently.
Also, it might be time to start brainstorming cool whale names in your spare time.