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Whale.FM: Where Citizen Science, Whale Songs and Education Come Together

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Whale.FM, the Whale Project

Above all, science is a collaborative enterprise, where researchers working together can span the continents. Increasingly, nonspecialists—citizen scientists—are pitching in as well. Whale.FM—a collaborative effort of Scientific American, Zooniverse and the research institutions WHOI, TNO, the University of Oxford and SMRU—lets citizen scientists help marine researchers who are studying what whales are saying. (You can also hear them in a…wait for it…podcast.) That’s a big help for researchers: citizen scientists have gotten years’ worth of work accomplished in months. And directly engaging youngsters and the public with actual research is inspiring for participants as well.

With the help of Robin Lloyd, Scientific American’s news editor, and Angela Cesaro, our Senior Product Manager, Editorial, I moderated a live chat at 1 p.m. on Thursday, April 19, 2012, about this project with Robert Simpson of Zooniverse (Twitter: @orbitingfrog), A.M. (Sander) von Benda-Beckmann of TNO and Carol Tang of the Coalition for Science After School (Twitter: @CarolTang1). An edited transcript follows.

DiChristina: I’m Mariette DiChristina, editor in chief of Scientific American, and welcome to our live chat about Whale.FM. We’ll talk about what citizen science is, what Whale.FM can do for research, and how kids and educators can participate. With us today are Robert Simpson of Zooniverse, A.M. (Sander) von Benda-Beckmann of TNO, and Carol Tang of Coalition for Science After School. I’m going to ask each of them a couple of questions for background, and then we’ll open it up to the audience. My first questions are for Robert Simpson of Zooniverse. Rob: What is citizen science? And what kinds of things can it do?

Simpson: That’s a big question! Citizen science is about enabling everyone to take part in science. The Web has made it easier to do, but its been going on for a very long time. The web also means we can crowdsource the problem and get a lot of eyes looking at something useful. My background is astronomy, which has a long history of amateurs taking part. But many fields (e.g., bird watching) have involved amateurs for a long time. Here at @the_zooniverse we’ve been trying to engage people in citizen science for a few years. We have been asking people to help us classify millions of galaxies, find exoplanets, map the galaxy—and recently we’ve been listening to whales.

DiChristina: Awesome, Rob. @the_zooniverse has many fine projects. Now let’s talk about Whale.FM. It’s a Zooniverse collaboration with Scientific American, TNO, WHOI, the University of Oxford and SMU. Tell us what you do when you go to Whale.FM.

Simpson: When you visit Whale.FM, you are presented with a sound clip of a recording of a whale. The idea is to match the big sound that you see/hear with one of the smaller ones underneath. All the pairings go into a database and we use that to find the best pairs of sounds and build up our understanding of what the whales are saying to each other. Basically: we need help decoding the language of whales :)

DiChristina: Good segue. Next, I’d like to ask some questions of A.M. (Sander) von Benda-Beckmann of TNO. Sander: Tell us about your research. What do we want to know about whales and their songs?

Von Benda-Beckmann: We a studying the sounds that whales and dolphins make underwater to talk to each other. It is very hard to see far underwater, but sound can travel very far. That’s why these animals rely on sound to communicate, orient and find food underwater. This makes sound on of the efficient methods to study whales while they are underwater.

DiChristina: Sander, one more: What is really missing in the data that you need that citizen scientists can help you accomplish?

Von Benda-Beckmann: We still don’t know much about how whales and dolphins communicate under water. Some species, such as killer whales and pilot whales that we show on the Whale.fm website are very communicative and make a lot of different sounds. This makes it very hard to understand what sound is made for what purpose. For example, do these animals tell each other where they are, that they have found food? To understand this, we first need to know what are the typical sounds that these animals make. This is a hard task, especially for very vocal species such as killer whales and pilot whales.

DiChristina: Is that where the citizen scientists are helping? Cataloging those sounds, as Rob described?

Von Benda-Beckmann Yes, exactly! For killer whales we have a pretty good idea what sounds they make. For the pilot whales, however, we still don’t know. This is where we as volunteers to help us.

DiChristina: Re volunteers: Next, let’s meet Carol Tang of Coalition for Science After School. Carol: What are the big needs for kids after school?

Tang: After school is more about engaging and inspiring youth, and helping them to believe they can grow up to be a creative scientist. Citizen science can engage kids afters chool in REAL science…not memorizing facts, but DOING science.

DiChristina: Carol: How can teachers/volunteers incorporate citizen science into a group activity? Or an assignment?

Tang: After-school STEM needs to be relevant to the real world, engaging and accessible—so citizen science fits the bill! Citizen science projects should be used to ignite curiosity, spur discussions, hone critical thinking. So students can observe birds or record rain or sketch first flowers together and share data with researchers.

DiChristina: Carol: Any specific tips for using Whale.FM?

Tang: Whale.FM is perfect for engaging girls who we know are more interested in bio and whales are popular. I would incorporate Whale.FM along with other hands on biology, marine biology or sound physics activities. Or pair it with a trip to your local aquarium or beach (if you are lucky) to scaffold the learning. Make sure to have discussion about: What is evidence? How do you design research? What is uncertainty?

DiChristina: OK, now I’d like to open it up to questions from the audience. We’ve got some great questions. Rob: Whale.FM has been going for a few months. Any preliminary results?

Simpson: Yes we do have one big preliminary result: the site appears to work :) We took a subsample of calls that we already knew the call category for and tested the parsing from volunteers. We found that the Whale.FM volunteers grouped up the sounds in the same way that professionals would.

DiChristina: Rob: How well does the cataloging by the volunteers agree with the work that professional scientists do? I’m one of the volunteers by the way! Matching whale calls is a great Saturday activity with my 11-year-old daughter.

Simpson: It agrees very well. We found approximately 90 percent agreement in our preliminary test. Our volunteers are amazing!

(Audience question) melipalSC: Are you also using math tools (spectral analysis for instance) for pattern recognition?

Von Benda-Beckmann: Such methods are commonly to automatically classify whale calls. The challenge here is that a lot of calls are slightly different, and currently too challenging to do so automatically.

(Audience question) DaveMosher: Whale.FM is processing a lot of whale song data. Other than the project’s stated goals. Have you found any surprising new uses for this data—i.e., things you didn’t plan on?

Von Benda-Beckmann: We have had a lot of questions from the scientific community of people who’d like to compare their algorithms against the choices made by volunteers.

Tang: As an educator, kudos on the design of the project. Nothing worse than frustration to turn kids OFF! This one works!

Simpson: The surprise from me has been, as Sander says, that we probably use it to compare automated algorithms and hopefully improve them. There are tens of thousands of whale calls out here. It would seem that Whale FM can help narrow the big problem into a smaller, more mangeable one.

(Audience question) melipalSC: How difficult has been for you to deal with the background noise in the water environment?

Von Benda-Beckmann: Yes, the background noise in the water is typically the thing that is hardest to take out automatically. Humans however are much better at this by far! That is why scientist still keep on going through their datasets by eye/ear and this makes big datasets so cumbersome to process, which is exactly why help of volunteers is so useful!

(Audience question) Angela Grima: I intend to go whale watching this summer. Do u have any suggestions for me. I am novice.

Tang: During migration, whales can be seen from shore or in ships. Make sure it’s an ethical operator because annoying whales is illegal (they are protected). But most whale watching operators have naturalists who know a lot about the biology. Be prepared by reading in advance will help increase the appreciation. Using Whale.FM helps you think about the research that is still being done.  We know so little!

melipalSC: I discovered the Whale.FM project some time ago, and I helped with some matchings. You are doing a great job.

Von Benda-Beckmann: Thanks for helping out!

Simpson: Thanks to all the citizen scientists out there helping with @whalefm.

DiChristina: Thanks for coming! That concludes our live chat for today. For more, visit Whale.FM, e-mail team@whale.fm & follow @WhaleFM (Twitter). Follow @CarolTang1 @SciAfterSchool @orbitingfrog @theZooniverse @WhaleFM @sciam

Mariette DiChristina About the Author: Editor in Chief, Mariette DiChristina, oversees Scientific American, ScientificAmerican.com, Scientific American MIND and all newsstand special editions. Follow on Twitter @mdichristina.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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