Citizen science. It’s grown in popularity as citizens tackle global problems to see how they can put their brainpower and curiosity to the task at hand to right wrongs, to improve the world and learn more about the ecology of our planet. UK botanist and bioinformatician at the Sainsbury Laboratory Dan MacLean thought, hey, how about asking the general public to play a game which analyses genetic data on the ash trees and the disease-causing agent Ashe Dieback that threatens up to 95 percent of Britain’s ash trees. He and game developer company Team Cooper, developed Fraxinus in December 2012.
Since Facebook claims to have 250 million gamers, MacLean aimed to get a fraction of them to play Fraxinus. Thousands of citizen scientists are playing. The game involves matching rows of leaf shapes that represent nucleotides to get as close as possible to a given pattern. Humans are very adept at recognizing patterns. Top scorers are acknowledged in publications.
“[It is a] fast moving and very damaging disease.”
According to the UK’s Forestry Commission, losses to the disease are estimated between 60 and 90 per cent of Denmark’s ash trees. In Kent, cases of the killer tree disease have risen nearly fivefold as of October 2013. In parts of Yorkshire, there are now 634 cases with more than half the cases linked to imports.
According to Wilderness Foundation UK, while it’s not clear if there is a link between climate change and the Ash Dieback disease, it does impact climate change mitigation strategies. Since building resilience into ecosystems is a strategy to prevent collapse at the slightest change in the environment, it’s important to monitor and take steps to prevent the killer tree disease.
Dr Maggie Keegan, head of policy at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, stresses, that disease-carrying insects can survive better with milder weather from climate change and can therefore reproduce more.
Game development is considered the future of data-driven science. Dr. Dan MacLean lectured on how emergent plant pathogens are a major problem for food security. He believes that science is changing to react more rapidly with new tools like games. It’s amazing that by playing an online game, you can help botanists solve the mystery of the fungus that’s killing so many ash trees.
The project started with some early successes, given that in the first nine or ten months they were able to complete work that would take one group three or four years.
He set out with a challenge to understand what basic rules scientists follow when they normally analyze the data.Then, he focused on how to convey those rules in the game. Since he was working with non-biologists, he was forced to pare the problem down simply. 10,000 sequences were analyzed in the first 10 weeks online.
“It was really a matter of working out what was the scientific baggage I was carrying around, what were the assumptions I was making,” he says.
The Ashe Dieback disease was first spotted in Poland in the early 1990s. It spread across Europe like the plague and Britain by 2012. Studying how Ash Dieback affects trees on a genetic level is the key to fighting the disease. In order to achieve their goal of reducing the lethal results and increase the resistance of the ash tree, they need to find genetic components to amplify their tolerance toward the disease.
It’s beneficial in many ways. First, this is a great case study in these types of projects. Secondly, it helps determine the genetic variability of both ash trees and fungus. Thirdly, this could hopefully lead to carrying out phylogenetic and association studies to identify resistance genes. Ultimately, by understanding how the fungus spreads there are more chances they can learn how to stop it.
When asked how he felt about the success of the project in late 2013, he told Lab Times,
Very well, in our first day we had 5,500 players from 80 countries! Each of 10,000 data sets in the game got played at least once. Then, in the first couple of weeks we had 36,000 separate visits to the game, from 126 countries.
And, if you’re wondering if it’s going to feel like slogging through a lab class with a harried teacher who makes you collect leaves, dissect frogs and memorize tons of facts from textbooks, you’re mistaken. They designed it to be fun and the fact that it’s for a good cause is a bonus.
The principal pathologist and head of the tree health research group at the Forest Research, Dr Joan Webber admires the project and its ambition. He likes the idea of trying to help find a faster start rather than leaving the trees to naturally find a way to fight the pathogen over a longer period of time.
Dan MacLean approached a concern mindfully and tapped into the human spirit acknowledging a fundamental common thread that resonates among all of us, and that’s what makes his idea so much more savvy.
“Humans are smart and humorous, and we love games.”
Sources: Wired UK, MicrobeWorld, CABI.org, BBC News, Biodiversityrevolution.wordpress.com, LabTimes, Daily Mail Online, The Kent Online, The Argus, Yorkshire Post, Mendeley Blog, Gizmag.com, Wilderness Foundation, insidesocialgames.com, Biomedical Computation Review
Earlier this year, Southern California conservationists were forced to take extreme measures to protect rare desert tortoises from poachers at a turtle sanctuary in Ventura County. In order to reduce their black market value, conservationists are branding each of the 360 ploughshare tortoises in captivity and 300 in the wild. Conservationists have been very concerned. The tortoises are listed as “threatened” under the United States federal Endangered Species Act. Endangered Species International says that besides poachers, the other major threats to the tortoises include: off-roading drivers, raven predation, trash, and diseases. Defenders of the Wildlife cite human disturbances, climate change, and predation as the main contributing factors. The Desert Tortoise Conservancy acknowledges that a lack of funding to enforce regulations is an additional factor. Conservationists who are trying ways to counter the threats to desert tortoises are often fighting an uphill battle given the difficulties of attacking each of the contributing factors head-on.
And according to Tim Shields, there might also be a boredom factor that isn’t helping either. And so, although he didn’t pull out any outrageous costumes or throw together a rap song feature Ninja Turtles skirting danger in the Mojave, he came up with an idea, while in Vegas. Yes, Vegas. After sharing his idea to disrupt ravens and protect the tortoise through crowd-sourced conservation technology that ties the playfulness found in game enthusiasts to our connection to the natural world, a game app was developed. When he realized that players were having fun, he was sure it would engage them more in conservation than any other approach.
The game app Raven Repel launch happened while he also launched Hardshell Labs to create a multidisciplinary approach to the problem of conservation. As a field biologist whose life has been devoted to the study of the desert tortoise, he’s been through every known advocacy method. However, Shields envisions game-based, crowd-sourced conservation as a strategy that replaces the hand-wringing negativity and scolding that often muddies the messages seeking to get more people feeling a sense of responsibility toward the environment and animals. At the core of his work, he wants to make environmentalism fun and accessible to get more people involved.
He’s got a point, because I’ve seen how people struggle about whether they are doing enough or whether they should do anything at all, since it doesn’t fit into their daily grind. If people are more willing to be motivated by convenience or user-friendliness than by stepping outside of their comfort zones to address concerns about the environment through practical ways to incorporate actions into set lifestyle choices, then there’s the cell phone or your tablet. And on that phone, you can be sitting on your couch, outside, in a car, or even at the beach, fighting predatory ravens or using drone technology to catch a poacher. Drones can capture environmental violations to provide documentation, making the process of saving animals from the black market much more successful and more reliable. The success of using drones for this application is noteworthy in Kenya. After a pilot program in major protected wildlife area turned out to reduce poaching by 96% as a direct result of the use of drones, Kenya adopted the use of drones in all of their national parks. Looks like not everyone wants to be in pictures.
“Our challenge is learning a more enlightened approach to the human endeavor. Like it or not we are the most powerful species that has appeared on Earth. We are de facto ecological managers. Wildlife conservation offers us an opportunity to channel that power positively, for the good of “lions and tigers and bears” and for our own good as well.” – Tim Shields of the Tortoise Research Group
One way to get past the idea of just quietly knowing about endangered species or wildlife that his group brings up on their Facebook page is to check out livecams of animals that you are curious about. For instance, this baby rhino cam.
Some environmentalist believe that there is no substitute for establishing a real connection with nature and that each person who cares must engage more with their surroundings to feel that extinction in their hearts in order to prevent it. However, I consider how many times I’ve set myself up thinking the same thing, only to find out that there is not only one pure way to care about an issue. If it is true that engagement with natural surroundings must occur before someone does something to prevent further damage, then it could possibly be true, in the same line of thinking, that just because someone has never themselves painted a painting then they could not possibly become a supporter of the arts when arts funding or interest is declining. I don’t agree, because I think that people show their love for the outdoors, nature and conservation efforts in many ways and sometimes that doesn’t involve the ability to get to the magnificent places on their own, but through the lense of nature shows, and, dare I say it, game apps like Raven Repel. I think there are enough problems we as people have in not connecting with one another about important issues that affect all of us, and so, let it be, that tech-phobias might be the least worthy of preservation.
While you’re considering technology and its application to environmental concerns, you might find this list of ecogames fascinating as well. Thanks Tim Shields for broadening the horizons.
According to Celia Pearce, a video game designer and Georgia Tech professor, games allow us to try things, to rehearse things and engage with dynamic systems in an interactive way.
I can see this as being widely and entirely reasonable as a benefit to conservation efforts.
Ken Eklund, the developer of a game called World Without Oil, an online interactive game that simulated a worldwide oil shortage in 2007. “Any sort of solution is going to be a collaborative, widespread solution.”
Sources: KPCC NPR, techie.com, UC Berkeley Student Environmental Resource Center Environmental News, The Guardian, EarthProtect.com, Clean Technica