Putting a name to a fin: The app that’s harnessing AI and people power to save our marine species

 |   Microsoft New Zealand News Centre

For most Kiwis, spotting a Māui dolphin is akin to spotting a celebrity. Better, in fact. After all, there are thousands of actors, musicians, and sports stars to be glimpsed out on the streets, but the sea-list is rather more exclusive.

Just 54 Māui dolphins remain in the whole world, endemic to New Zealand waters. To help in conservation efforts, it’s essential to build our knowledge about this threatened species, and many others. Currently more than half of the marine mammals in Aotearoa New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DoC) Threat Classification system are listed as data deficient, meaning nobody knows exactly how many of them there are, let alone if they are at immediate risk of extinction.

But the latest technologies provide new ways of gathering valuable information to help our marine neighbours and massively expand the number of people who can join in.

Led by MAUI63 co-founder Tane van der Boon, with funding and support from Microsoft and a host of other agencies across Aotearoa, efforts are now underway to do just that. They’ve created an innovative tool to enlist every one of us as citizen scientists – using our cameras for good.

Imagine this. You’re out on a boat with your family. And suddenly: a pair of fins in the water. They surge out of the waves, allowing you to see their strange, curved shape and black colouration. What do you do? You grab your phones, of course, snapping a flurry of photos. Usually, that would be the end of the story, save for some pic-swapping over dinner later.

But with a little bit of AI magic, your phone could tell you who these dolphins are, where they were last sighted and how old they are.

Creating a rich dolphin database

The new SeaSpotter app is a real passion project for Tane and others who’ve helped make it a reality.

“When we first started MAUI63, using drone technology to map Māui dolphins’ movements, we named it for the number of animals that were left. The number fluctuates a bit, but we know that we need to know more if we’re going to save them. That starts with filling the data gap. For the first time, this technology has the potential to provide detailed information about marine mammals – not just Māui or Hector’s dolphins, but many types of marine species. The science potential is limitless,” he says.

“One of the unique aspects of this project is the data will be publicly accessible as a rich source of learning for curious scientific minds, innovators, conservationists, industry and policy makers.”

Using the SeaSpotter app, anyone can take and upload a photo, whether they are visiting their local beach, on whale-watching boats or commercial fishers. Via an in-app chat box, they then learn more about the individual animals they’re photographing, a fun element of gamification which Tane says helps encourage more people to give it a go – and to keep doing it.

Meanwhile, every picture fills in a piece of the puzzle that is our oceans. Scientists can use the app’s Microsoft AI technology to analyse the photo and identify which dolphin species has been sighted through unique features such as their colour patterns or dorsal fin. The date and location stamp on each photo also provides valuable new insights into the species’ range and information around interactions, including with other species.

Collaboration for conservation

The project wouldn’t have been possible without support from businesses and charities up and down Aotearoa – or the world. Microsoft provided a substantial grant to MAUI63 and local tech partner Aware Group to develop the app as part of its global AI for Good programme, which provides funding for organisations wanting to harness AI for projects that benefit the environment.

Russell Craig, National Technology Officer at Microsoft New Zealand says that making the app a collaboration between scientists and citizens was essential.

“If we want to effectively preserve our wildlife and taonga we must gather and use data in a more collaborative way. The more knowledge we all have on the threats our mammals are facing, the better equipped we will be to protect them. Although the app is currently focused on New Zealand’s seas, it has the potential to be used to protect species globally and we’re very excited to be supporting this vital mahi,” he says.

DoC, Maverick Digital, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), WWF-New Zealand and Christchurch City Council, also came on board to support via funding and guidance.

Michael Healy, Programme Manager of Christchurch City Council’s Smart Christchurch programme, says he is excited by the app’s ability to help build up a picture of the marine life around Christchurch – and the whole country.

“The app gives the community the chance to get involved. Collecting data will help scientists and researchers track and protect marine mammals like the endangered Hector’s dolphin. The more people involved, the better the data and the greater impact it will have,” he says.

Meanwhile, WWF-New Zealand Marine Species Programme Manager Dr Krista van der Linde has been involved with the project since day one. She had seen success with people submitting leopard seal sightings to a not-for-profit organisation she co-founded (LeopardSeals.org) and based on this wanted to work with MAUI63 to support SeaSpotter’s development.

“We don’t have the ability to attach satellite tags or to genetically sample every marine mammal we come into contact with, but we do have the ability to take a photo of them. Then, we can use machine learning to provide much of the information we need and can potentially revolutionise marine conservation in the process.”

Alex Dykman, Founder/Director of Maverick Digital, says empowering conservation initiatives through innovative technology projects like this aligns with the agency’s values.

“Maverick Digital is a specialist tourism marketing agency, and regenerative tourism is at the heart of our industry. When we heard about the concept of the SeaSpotter app, we jumped at the opportunity to be involved – this is an incredible project that will make real, tangible change in the way we are able to protect our marine mammals,” he says.

And the launch is only the beginning. Plans are already in the works to extend the app into more habitats, countries and species, giving even more of us the opportunity to become citizen scientists across our blue planet. Tane and his team are thinking big.

“This is all about making data available to train identification models. If you did that at a global level, think what more we could achieve. The opportunity is huge,” he says.