Facebook used to help identify 5000 fish species

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Facebook needs no introduction as a social networking tool, but researchers on a collection expedition to a remote river in Guyana have highlighted another useful purpose for Facebook...

It's called crowdsourcing and it's a term used when work is outsourced to a large community via an open call.  

Devin Bloom, a PhD student from the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) was part of a research team conducting the first ichthyological survey of the Cuyuni River in Guyana. 

In two weeks the team had collected over 5000 specimens but, with only a few days of the expedition left they came across an almost impossible problem; the terms of their research permit required them to report an accurate count for each of the species collected to the Guyanese government.

Bloom came up with the idea of using Facebook, and expedition leader Dr Brian Sidlauskas of Oregon State University, loved the idea and started uploading photos of the fish. Less than 24 hours later the team’s network of friends —many of whom hold PhDs in ichthyology and are "diehard fish-heads"— had identified nearly every specimen!

"The network of fish experts is pretty small," says Bloom, "and fish people can be real fanatics. Once a fish pops up on Facebook, they get very excited and start arguing. So next thing we knew, we had a really interesting intellectual debate going on between various world experts on fish, sort of like a real-time peer review that reached across continents and around the world."

Such an unusual use of social networking to crowdsource data might help academics to accurately collate scientific data, and change a few minds on the value of social networking sites.  It certainly changed Bloom’s mind – who wouldn’t even have a Facebook account if his little sister hadn’t secretly set one up for him.

"Social networking is so powerful, and scientists should be using it more to connect with the world-at-large," he says. "I can’t take credit for the idea, though." Bloom’s friend, an ichthyologist at Texas A and M named Nathan Lujan "a real fish-head", has been using Facebook to identify fish for years.