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The citizen science of the deep ocean

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The citizen science of the deep ocean

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A fantastic part of the social business world is the growing number of citizen science projects that are emerging that let regular folks contribute to the advancement of science.  One such project launched this week with the aim of furthering our understanding of the deep ocean.

The site, called Plankton Portal, allows people to explore the ocean from the comfort of your armchair.  The goal of the site is to have users classify the millions of underwater images stored on the site, and hopefully identify plankton diversity, distribution and behaviour.

The site was developed under the leadership of Dr. Robert K. Cowen, UM RSMAS Emeritus Professor in Marine Biology and Fisheries (MBF) and now the Director of Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, and by Research Associate Cedric Guigand and MBF graduate students Jessica Luo and Adam Greer.

There are millions of images of plankton taken by the In Situ Ichthyoplankton Imaging System, which is an underwater robot designed by the University of Miami.  Many more images than can be processed by professional oceanographers.

“ISIIS gives us a new view on plankton, enabling us to see them in their natural setting, where they occur, what other organisms are nearby, even their orientation,” explains Cowen.

The images contained in the Plankton Portal come from the ISIIS’s journey in the Southern California Bight area, which is a meeting of two water masses, during a three day period in 2010.  In those three days, enough data was collected to occupy the professional scientists for three whole years in pure analysis.  A perfect job for all of the amateur Steve Zissou’s out there.

“A computer will probably be able to tell the difference between major classes of organisms, such as a shrimp versus a jellyfish,” explains Luo, “but to distinguish different species within an order or family, that is still best done by the human eye.”

The site comes with a guide to help you with your classifications, and discussion forums allow for collaboration between users, with the forums also monitored by the professionals as well.  An interesting project that’s well worth checking out.

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