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Latest big data challenge: Identify the right whales

August 28, 2015, 2:16 PM UTC
Right Whales Spotted Close To Shore On Cape Cod Bay
DUXBURY, MA - MAY 6: An aerial view of a right whale erupting from the blow hole while feeding off the shores of Duxbury Beach. There were groups of the North Atlantic right whales swimming off shore. The critically endangered animals are making a comeback since they were nearly hunted to extinction a century ago. They are also making a habit of appearing off the local coastline in the spring. The whales feed on copepods by opening their mouths as they swim through masses of the tiny, but fat-rich, creatures. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Photograph by David L. Ryan — Boston Globe via Getty Images

With reportedly fewer than 500 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, researchers and environmentalists want to do what they can to ensure the health and safety of the remaining population. That means tracking and identifying individual whales, a tricky task given that there are relatively few marine biologists and a whole lot of water.

That’s why the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries arm has turned to Kaggle, a data analytics competition site, to crowdsource some help. NOAA already has custom software called DIGIT, but NOAA still needs help speeding up and automating the process by which researchers match each image with a given right whale.

Once the mammals are properly identified, researchers can work to better protect them, according to the Kaggle post about the effort:

This competition challenges you to automate the right whale recognition process using a dataset of aerial photographs of individual whales. Automating the identification of right whales would allow researchers to better focus on their conservation efforts. Recognizing a whale in real-time would also give researchers on the water access to potentially life-saving historical health and entanglement records as they struggle to free a whale that has been accidentally caught up in fishing gear.

Kaggle lets data scientists compete for points (there are leaderboards for each competition including this one) and bragging rights for their analytics prowess in a super hot category.

This challenge kicked off Thursday and runs through January 7, 2016.

For more on innovative uses of big data analytics, check out the video.

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