Just when we were beginning to think that Facebook was only good for virtual farming, viral memes and keeping tabs on your frenemies, a new story about the social networking giant instills hope for the usefulness of having a billion people killing time online. Brian Sidlauskas is an ichthyologist from Oregon State University who recently had the daunting task of identifying nearly a thousand species of freshwater fish from a collection in a Guyanese river.
Before he would be able to get permits to export all the different species, he had to identify each and every one of them. Ichthyologists are good at their job but they are usually very specialized, and an expert on suckermouth catfish may not know hardly anything about the vastly different tetra fish. To solve the massive taxonomic challenge before him Dr. Sidlauskas took detailed pictures of every specimen they collected along the way, and levered the massive potential of the world’s biggest social network.
Naturally, Ichthyologists are friends with other ichthyologists. After uploading all of the high resolution pictures taken on the expedition through Guyana, Sidlauskas tagged various researchers on Facebook in the pictures of fish with which they were most knowledgeable. What could have been an incredibly drawn out, laborious task of identifying so many different groups of fish was boiled down to a crowdsourced fish identifying project. In just a matter of days Sidlauskas’ fish collection was almost completely identified and he and his grad students spent a minimum of time with their noses deep in taxonomic works.
We can imagine that the fish world and all of the life sciences will take note of this fabulous example of crowdsourcing, which was massively improved by the use of existing connections between experts in a particular field. Imagine how reef surveys could be conducted by divers and photographers around the world who have an eye for marine life but don’t necessarily know everything that they are looking at. We truly are living in an amazing time when we are just beginning to understand what we can do with the abundance of information now available to us, and this is just one incredible story of how our personal and professional connections are changing the world.