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Analyzing the Effects of Data Collection on Endangered Animal Populations

By dgallomc

Bloomberg's Data For Good Exchange 2017

Bloomberg’s Data For Good Exchange 2017

On September 24, 2017 Bloomberg hosted the fourth annual Data For Good Exchange. According to Bloomberg, the conference enables data scientists from academia, industry and public sector actors from government and NGOs to build relationships, share insights and progress, and encourages them to work together on applying modern machine learning and data science methods to challenges in the public and non-profit sectors (Data for Good Exchange 2017). The event held panels that addressed novel methods for collecting data; collaborations to address the global refugee crisis; utilizing data to aid vulnerable and youth populations; and the effects of big data and judicial bias in the criminal justice system. Throughout the different panels, major themes appeared regarding the ethics of data collection and research. Specifically, panelists touched upon the possible unintended consequences of research. Although various panels and papers discussed these effects, an organization called Wildbook presented the most concrete consequences.

Wildbook is an initiative that merges crowdsourcing, computer vision and data science for conservation efforts to combat animal extinction. It aggregates photographs and videos of animals to provide information regarding endangered animal populations across the world. Wild book’s technology merges algorithms and machine learning to identify animals through their physical characteristics such as cheetah spots or whale flukes. According to Wildbook, the organization combines vision and user interaction design to create a quick and accurate edge mapper to identify animals by their individual characteristics (Services).

Wildbook - Cheetah Marking Area

Wildbook – Cheetah Marking Area

According to a data scientist at Wildbook, the team launched the organization in order more accurately count populations of endangered species. Prior to Wildbook, scientists estimated animal populations throughout the world utilizing satellite imagery, a measurement practice that has proven to be imprecise and costly. Now through the usage of Wildbook’s technology, tourist photography and YouTube videos can be scraped according to their dates and geo-location. The blending of algorithms and machine learning can then detect the animal’s specific physical characteristics to collect information on the animal’s network, travel patterns and population size.

Although some benefits of Wildbook include the ability to more accurately gauge the number of certain endangered species, other benefits involve tracking mobility patterns, animal social networks, and individual animal wellbeing. Through the use of embedded geo-tagging properties in cameras and videography, scientists can track a population’s or an individual animal’s movement patterns. For example, the software allows scientists to research and track humpback whale travel patterns across the Atlantic and giraffe migrations in Africa. Although beneficial for animal behavior research, capturing movement patterns also allows scientists to observe the effects of severe weather conditions such as hurricanes and floods on animal populations.

Wildbook also allows scientists to observe an animal’s social network. It derives the information from photographs and videos where animals appear together, as well as through similar geo-tag location. Collecting information on an animal’s social network may be beneficial for studying animals’ behavioral patterns and species interactions. Scientists also benefit by tracking an animal at the individual level. For example, Wildbook can identify the exact animal depicted in a photograph by name and can present the animal’s history, including when they first appeared on Wildbook, what other animals comprise its network and where it was last seen. Providing information on an individual animal allows researchers to check into how the animal is living and examine its wellbeing.

Although Wildbook provides a collection of beneficial information that can influence scientist’s ability to study animal populations, the organization discovered impactful unintended consequence for the animals represented through the software. Wildbook’s population estimation, location and network capabilities facilitate the tracking of these animals, a feature poachers have began exploiting. Due to the software’s ease of use, location precision and it’s benefit of being up to date with scraping occurring daily, poachers can more easily find the geographical location of the animals they wish to hunt through the use of the software. According to the Program for Ethnographic Research & Community Studies (PERCS), a dilemma may arise in which the software pits the interests of the researcher against the interests of the community (Merz, 1998). In this case, the “interests of the community” lie in the wellbeing of the animals themselves, who most certainly don’t care about being assessed or tracked, but do suffer due to poaching activities.

Wildbook - Spotting Giant Sea Bass

Wildbook – Spotting Giant Sea Bass

During the conference, Wildbook researchers stated that they had not yet devised a solution to poachers exploiting the software. Although the organization pride’s itself on being accessible to everyone through open-access software, this makes it easier for poachers to obtain geo-location information on the animals. According to PERCS, careful consideration should also be given to publication and distribution channels when presenting research and data collection. They state that as we think about methods of reporting, we must also think about the locations of that reporting (Merz, 1998) as they may be impactful to subject of the research.

Overall, although scientists generally choose to perform research in order to raise awareness or solve problems facing individuals or populations, the research they perform carries weight and might sometimes have unpredictable effects. In the case of Wildbook, the benefit the software provides is important, but the consequences to wildlife are significantly impactful and might create greater repercussions for the populations being studied—endangered species throughout the world. Wildbook should weigh both the benefits and negative implications of their research as well as their information dissemination methods in order to ensure that their research subjects are not being disproportionately disadvantaged.



Data for Good Exchange 2017. (n.d.).

Services. (n.d.).

Merz, T. (1998). The Ethics of Fieldwork.




New Technology for the Preservation of Memories

By dgallomc

Where did you find the strength to survive Auschwitz? What’s your most vivid memory of the war? What happened to the rest of your family?

Imagine being able to ask a Holocaust survivor these and many other questions. Now imagine your great grandchildren being able to do the same, decades after the last survivor has passed away from old age. A new virtual storytelling installation that allows people to interact with Holocaust survivors attempts to combat the effects of time in the chronicles of personal narratives and memories.

New Dimensions in Testimony, a collaboration between the USC Shoah Foundation and the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, in partnership with Conscience Display, allows future generations the opportunity to interview and interact with Holocaust survivors through virtual platforms. Through thousands of pre-recorded answers, the installation, currently being displayed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, yields insights into the experiences of Holocaust survivors by means of shared dialogue between learners and two survivors who sit on red chairs behind flat screen monitors. Currently, museum visitors can interact with Anne Frank’s stepsister Eva Schloss and Pinchas Gutter, a survivor of six German Nazi concentration camps. Visitors can ask questions in real-time that trigger relevant, spoken responses (“New Dimensions in Testimony℠ — Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust”). These interactive dialogues create a new kind of record that takes the possibilities of preserving cultural heritage to a new level.

New Dimensions in Testimony - Museum of Jewish Heritage

New Dimensions in Testimony – Museum of Jewish Heritage

Although the definition of a record is widely debated, throughout this article I use Shannon Faulkhead’s pluralistic definition from Caswell’s “The Archive” is Not An Archives as any account, regardless of form, that preserves memory or knowledge of facts and events. A record can be a document, an individual’s memory… an actual person, a community or the land itself (p. 5).

The New Dimensions in Testimony installation is altering the art of storytelling for the purpose of archiving and preserving cultural heritage through its use of first person narrative, lifelike visuals, and interactive real-time responses. Although records of Holocaust survivors’ experiences have been widely collected, maintained, and archived in the past, this installation removes any distance and ambiguity between the storyteller and his audience. The installation itself is an archive and the memories shared its records—it is up to the visitor to discover the myriad of answers and memories they hold by asking questions. Through intimate visual, auditory and spatial storytelling, the installation allows survivors to revisit and communicate their own remembrances. Doing so enlightens the collective memory and creates perspectives of personal tragedies, resilience during the war, and even their present lives.

Creating New Dimensions in Testimony

Creating New Dimensions in Testimony

The installation’s value, that which represents some important aspect of the past for present and future users (Caswell, p. 8) lays in the ability of the memories to transcend time; it lays in the engagement fostered through virtual dialogue and facilitated by the technology. It is not the technology itself that makes the installation valuable, but the experiences being transported within it that allow the public to acquire these memories from the subjects themselves, possibly maintaining survivors’ memories alive, well past their material lives.

Although these survivors’ memories can now be kept alive through intimate and virtual dialogues, one must not forget the moral responsibility of creating these installations. According to Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, chief curator of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, she hopes that future technological advances don’t overshadow the survivors themselves, stating that “What’s beautiful about this installation is that the survivors are front and center, they are charismatic and what they have to say is utterly compelling. (Matthews, 2017). Thus, computer scientists, archivists, and curators involved in creating these installations must continue to keep the value of their work front of mind, focusing foremost on representing the survivors and the memories, for of educative and experiential purposes.

For example, when Schloss and Gutter were filmed and recorded, several cameras were used to one day be able to represent these figures three-dimensionally. It is imperative that as technologies evolve, their stories and those of others in the future, whether two or three-dimensionally, continue to be told to advance historical understanding and remembrance. The focus of future installations must not be technology-centric in order to avoid deteriorating the subject’s memories and stories. It is crucial that the technologies not overshadow the context of the installation, but instead support the subjects’ memories to continue to provide historical understanding of a culture’s heritage.

Dialogue in New Dimensions in Testimony

Dialogue in New Dimensions in Testimony

As this sort of interactive storytelling technology becomes a more prominent way of preserving and disseminating digital cultural heritage, institutions, curators, and their teams might encounter obstacles pertaining to ownership and distribution of information. Although these institutions own the technology, can the memories and stories told by survivors be classified as proprietary? Specifically, will institutions claim them as their property, licensing and centrally controlling individuals’ memories and journeys? Additionally, as the technology evolves, will institutions disseminate the information to make it more widely available to schools, libraries and universities or will it be kept under lock and key only to be seen at curated installations? Although this technology advances the art of storytelling, lack of access for certain communities could limit its impact on preservation of cultural heritage.

Overall, New Dimensions in Testimony transforms the art of verbal storytelling from an ephemeral experience to a verbal, visual and spatial archive of stories and memories direct from the source. Such archives and records have the ability to change the concept of time and space by allowing the permanence of the interactions to exist into the future, way past the material lives of the subjects. According to Schwartz and Cook (2002), these spaces are the loci of power of the present to control what the future will know of the past (p. 13). Lack of access, though, can hinder its potential in preserving digital cultural heritage. It is the institutions that create such technologies that decide how much access they’ll give the public and in turn determine the real effects of using technology for fostering personal narrative and preserving a culture’s history.



New Dimensions in Testimony℠ — Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Caswell, M. (Caswell, “The Archive” is Not An Archives: Acknowledging the Intellectual Contributions of Archival Studies. Reconstruction Vol. 16, No 1

Matthews, K. (2017, September 18). Exhibit allows virtual ‘interviews’ with Holocaust survivors. Retrieved from‘interviews’-with-Holocaust-survivors

Schwartz, J.M., & Cook, T. (2002). Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory. Archival Science


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