Most ecology citizen science initiatives ask individuals to collect data locally. Projects like the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count and Project BudBurst collate participants’ direct observations; other projects address local environmental issues, such as the impact of invasive pests on neighborhood trees. We are building a unique citizen science initiative called Serengeti Live that invites participants to go on an adventure of discovery in the African savanna.
In Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, 200 remote, automatic cameras are producing over 1 million digital photographs each year as part of an NSF-funded project on the ecology of African lions, their competitors, and their prey. For each photograph to become useful data, someone has to inspect the photograph and identify each animal species; computer software is not yet sophisticated enough to recognize wildlife automatically. To address the growing mountain of photographs, we created an online interface and enlisted local undergraduate volunteers to identify animals. Word spread, and we began to receive requests from people around the world, asking how they too could be a part of Serengeti Live. The camera-trap photographs offer a powerful sense of adventure and discovery, and there is untapped potential in the multitude of nature lovers who want to participate in ecological research and wildlife conservation.
We currently work with over 200 volunteers worldwide, most of whom heard about the site through word-of-mouth. They have so far identified animal species in over 1.2 million pictures. Our online approach allows volunteers to contribute in small chunks of time – while waiting for a bus, or during a lunch shift – making scientific participation accessible to an increasingly busy public.
We recently partnered with Zooniverse, an online citizen-science platform pioneered by astronomers. In addition to improving our interface and broadening the reach of Serengeti Live, Zooniverse will design a citizen-science platform that will be available to other researchers using camera-trap surveys. Interfaces are also being designed to allow volunteers to answer their own science questions using the Serengeti Live data. We are further collaborating with education professionals to create tools for 7-12th grade science teachers to use in teaching both ecology and the scientific process.
Serengeti Live shares the thrill of discovery with the public, while engaging a large pool of busy volunteers in ecological research.