Wildbook: facial recognition for critters in the wild

The Wildbook project conducts wild animal population censuses by combining photos of animals taken by tourists, scientists, and volunteers and then using their distinctive features (zebra stripes, whale fluke shapes, leopard spots, etc) to identify individuals and produces unprecedented data that uses creepy facial recognition tools for non-creepy purposes.

According to a July 2017 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a “sixth mass extinction” is underway, a trend signalled by widespread vertebrate losses that “will have negative cascading consequences on ecosystem functioning and services vital to sustaining civilization.” This meta-study is based on multiple, independent analyses and represents a growing awareness in the wildlife research community that more rapid assessment, response, and review are needed to understand and counter this decline.

Unfortunately, wildlife research efforts are frequently underfunded and small scale. The collection and management of wildlife data remains a largely ad hoc and academic exercise focused on moving small data sets (often in Excel and Access) into local, custom population studies for “one-off” analyses without long-term data curation or collaboration across borders and regions. Arriving at a critical mass of data for population analysis can take years (especially for rare or endangered species). Long required observation periods and manual data processing (e.g., matching photos “by eye”) can create multi-year lags between study initialization and scientific results, as well as create conclusions too coarse or slow for effective and optimizable conservation action. This limits the scope, scale, repeatability, continuity, and ROI of the studies as they face the limits of their home-grown tools and IT capabilities.

Wildlife researchers lack a common yet customizable platform for collaboration and often don’t have the technical experience or budget to take advantage of advanced computing tools (e.g., computer vision, artificial intelligence). These tools allows projects to obtain, curate, and analyze “Big Data”, such as the potential of citizen scientists to collect and contribute large volumes of wildlife data through tourism and volunteerism.