It's an "I can't believe no one had thought of this yet" idea: using facial recognition technology to help identify and keep tabs on individual endangered animals for scientific study. In this case, researcher have developed an app to keep an eye out for endangered tigers.
Right now, there are only about 3,000 individual tigers left in the planet. Their secretive nature and the intensity of poaching means that many tigers are not being counted. Researchers have been trying to come up with ways to get a more accurate count to help conservation efforts, mainly relying on camera traps, but those are a matter of luck and it can take months of waiting to finally photograph a tiger.
Wanting to tap into the power of crowdsourcing, a team of researchers at the UK's University of Surrey have built the Wildsense Tigers app for iPad that pulls tourist photos from Flickr and Instagram as well as biologist's camera trap feeds and uses facial recognition and location data to compile a more complete census of tigers in the wild.
"If we can just analyze this data, we can find out a lot more than what individuals are working on all around the world. It becomes easier to keep on top of things. Rather than doing a survey every few years, you could literally have a look at how many tigers there are in the world this hour, and what's changed in the last day," says PhD student Aaron Mason.
Pulling together photos from both experts in the field as well as tourists helps to give researchers a better idea of how many tigers are in the wild and where the cats are located.
Anyone with an iPad and photos of tigers can use the app. Once it's downloaded, users can pull their photos from other apps or their photo albums and then indicate the tiger by drawing a box around its face. You can also add a location or other information about the photo. The app then adds the tiger to its database.
"Each tiger has a unique stripe pattern -- it's like a fingerprint or a barcode," says Mason. "An expert is able to look at a tiger and instantly know which one it is. So it's possible, but it is a challenge, and it's especially a challenge for various photographs where there's a difference in light or occlusions. It's quite ambitious, really, what we're trying to do."
The creators have already tested the app on a small number of tigers that are already identified and it successfully sorted them.
The team wants to get more people using the app and helping to monitor tigers and they plan to eventually expand it to work with other endangered animals.