Media Releases

Crowdsourcing science: Researcher uses Facebook to identify thousands of fish

May 13, 2011

TORONTO, ON – Face­book is well-known for con­nect­ing friends, pub­li­ciz­ing events and allow­ing peo­ple ample space to pro­cras­ti­nate online.

But recent­ly, a sci­en­tist at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough (UTSC) helped illu­mi­nate a pow­er­ful new use for the social net­work­ing tool.

In Jan­u­ary, UTSC PhD can­di­date Devin Bloom helped con­duct the first ichthy­olog­i­cal sur­vey on Guyana’s remote Cuyu­ni Riv­er. Led by Ore­gon State University’s Dr. Bri­an Sid­lauskas, the goal was to find out which species of fish live in the Cuyu­ni and get a good esti­mate of their abun­dance.

Dur­ing the sur­vey, Bloom and the rest of the research team spent two weeks catch­ing as many fish as they could. They even slept in makeshift jun­gle camps. But after col­lect­ing more than 5,000 spec­i­mens, the team had a big prob­lem.

In order to get the fish out of the coun­try, the research team need need­ed an accu­rate count of each species and pro­vide a detailed report to the Guyanese gov­ern­ment. Since the team had to return to North Amer­i­ca as soon as pos­si­ble, they had just a few days to iden­ti­fy thou­sands of fish spec­i­mens.

That’s when Bloom, who isn’t exact­ly the most tech-savvy guy out there, sug­gest­ed Face­book. Sid­lauskas loved the idea, so he uploaded pho­tos of each species. And in less than 24 hours, their net­work of friends—many of whom hold PhDs in ichthy­ol­o­gy and are “diehard fish-heads”—had iden­ti­fied almost every spec­i­men. With 5,000 iden­ti­fi­ca­tions in hand, the team was able to deliv­er their results to the gov­ern­ment and return home on sched­ule.

The team’s nov­el use of Face­book to accu­rate­ly crowd­source sci­en­tif­ic data could change the way aca­d­e­mics view social net­work­ing. It has cer­tain­ly led Bloom to change his mind about the val­ue of online tools. “Social net­work­ing is so pow­er­ful,” he says, “and sci­en­tists should be using it more to con­nect with the world-at-large.”

The Cuyu­ni Riv­er trip was fund­ed through the Bio­log­i­cal Diver­si­ty of the Guiana Shield pro­gram at the Smith­son­ian Institution’s Nation­al Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry.


For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

Karen Ho
Media and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Assis­tant
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough