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The Best Way to Procrastinate in the Zooniverse

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

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Cheetah. Credit: Serengeti Snapshot, Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0

Procrastination feels like an inevitable part of getting anything done these days. It really should be called procrastihate, as I always hate myself afterwards, whether I’ve spent an hour on Facebook scrolling through photos of a wedding I wasn’t invited to, or lost 40 games of spider solitaire in a row.

But I’ve found a way to waste time in a way that’s fulfilling: by helping researchers identify animals online.

Yesterday, the Zooniverse, a citizen science hub, launched its latest project, called Snapshot Serengeti. Using motion sensing cameras, University of Minnesota scientists have taken more than 3 million photos of African wildlife in 3 years–an amount of data that would take the rest of their careers to sift through. So instead of doing it all themselves, they have enlisted the public to help them sort through the photos, identifying zebras, gazelles, lions, elephants, hyenas and other species to advance their study of Serengeti ecology.

Warthog. Credit: Serengeti Snapshot, Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0

The process of sorting through the photos is surprisingly engaging. Snapshot Serengeti presents a photo or a series of photos and, using their animal ID guide, you simply select the number of each species you see in the photo. And to lift some of the pressure–”what if I get it wrong?”–each photo is presented to at least 5 participants. If they all agree, the identification is deemed correct; if there’s disagreement, it’s left in the pool of photos and given a closer look by the researchers.

The process is a perfect replacement for standard procrastination methods. After you get the method down, it’s relatively brainless, but has moments of excitement: “OH MY GOD a baby elephant!” is not dissimilar from “OH MY GOD that guy from high school got fat!” And it certainly gives instant gratification as you scroll through the photos, successfully completing each one.

The big difference is that I don’t hate myself after an hour of identifying African animals. Instead, I feel like I’ve done some good in the world.

Zebra butt. Credit: Serengeti Snapshot, Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0

Of course, the whole process can be incredibly engaging and a worthwhile hobby beyond procrastination. You can star your favorite photos for later and create collections (such as my praise-worthy collection of animal butts). And in the forum, you can talk to other participants and scientists about a cool photo or to ask about animal behavior, troubleshoot IDs, and learn more about the research.

Don’t care for charismatic megafauna like giraffes and cheetahs? Then get into Seafloor Explorer to help identify marine crustaceans and mollusks, sort through whale songs on WhaleFM, moon photos on MoonZoo, or galaxies on GalaxyZoo. I swear it will make you feel better than losing at spider solitaire again.

Hannah Waters About the Author: Hannah Waters writes about natural history and the way people think about nature. She lives and works in Philadelphia, PA, but really on the internet. Follow on Twitter @hannahjwaters.

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

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