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Crowdsourcing Conservation: Microsoft Releases Free Tool for Tracking Animals

The free software could provide scientific insights that help threatened species.

Mirek Kijewski / Shutterstock

Microsoft Research has released free software that scientists or students can use to analyze animal behavior captured on video, potentially offering insights that could, among other things, aid threatened species.

The Redmond, Wash., software giant’s research division will formally announce ZooTracer on Wednesday. It’s the result of a partnership between MSR’s Computational Ecology and Environmental Sciences division and the Computer Vision group, both based in Cambridge, England.

The mission of the first group is to create computer models to help answer scientific questions about the planet and environment. But unlike online ad clicks, data is hard to come by in the natural world. It can require armies of grad students meticulously cataloging animal behavior over weeks or months.

The big idea here is that the process can be automated. ZooTracer’s algorithms can extract meaning from video by tracking and analyzing the movements of animals, be they bees, frogs or elephants.

This could already be done with high-end cameras and software under controlled conditions. But the new tool, developed with MSR’s computer vision experts, promises similar results from even shaky and poorly lit iPhone footage. Users can also easily correct the algorithms, helping train the software on how best to track particular objects, the company said.

The easier it is to produce this data, the more people will do so, offering better models and greater insight for scientists. That can include improved knowledge of how animals are responding to shifting environmental conditions, such as climate change.

“For the first time, it allows us to dramatically scale up our ability to collect information about animal behavior in the wild,” Lucas Joppa, head of the CEES group’s Conservation Science Research Unit, said in an interview. “There are many different domains of environmental science and ecology interested in that for various reasons, from the applied to the esoteric.”

For example, MSR is using it to analyze what flower color patterns lure bees and under what conditions, information that can advance our understanding of evolutionary selection pressures.

But it’s possible the tool could also be used to track bee movements in an effort to help unravel the mystery of colony collapse disorder.

Tracking animals in video footage “is an important step in addressing fundamental ecological and environmental problems,” Joppa said in the blog post.

He said there are applications beyond animals as well.

“I’m really intrigued by the many other, non-ecological, uses I’m sure people will find for the software,” Joppa added. “Putting people back in the loop and allowing them to decide what they want to track should lead to some pretty interesting scientific applications.”

For more, check out the video below:

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