Flickr data-mining discovers record-breaking whale migration

Computers & Mobile Science
Flickr data-mining discovers record-breaking whale migration
Whale 1363.jpg

Data is everywhere. Dedicated citizen scientists can advance “professional science,” even without any appreciable funding, by learning to intelligently navigate and draw conclusions from the oceans of largely un-analyzed public data that we swim through every day. This story from The Boston Globe is a fantastic case in point:

By scouring a photo-sharing website for tourists’ pictures of whales, a citizen scientist from Maine has helped to document a female humpback’s record-breaking 6,000-mile journey from Brazil to Madagascar. The remarkable voyage of whale number 1363 from one breeding ground to another is a scientific discovery for the social-networking age — a study made possible both by vacation photos posted on Flickr and an exhaustive library of photos of whales’ tails that scientists have built since the 1970s.

The tail of “Whale 1363” was first cataloged by scientists off the coast of Brazil in 1999. Then, two years later, Norwegian Freddy Johansen snapped a film picture of her off the coast of Madagascar. In 2009, Freddy scanned in a bunch of old negatives from this trip and uploaded them to his Flickr account, and this shot was found by Gale McCullough of Hancock, Maine, who regularly monitors tourists’ whale photos trying to match tails. An online pre-print of her discovery was published today in Biology Letters. [Thanks, Alan Dove!]

18 thoughts on “Flickr data-mining discovers record-breaking whale migration

  1. don crozier says:

    data ARE everywhere

    1. Paul says:

      According to the online Oxford dictionary:


      In Latin, data is the plural of datum and, historically and in specialized scientific fields , it is also treated as a plural in English, taking a plural verb, as in the data were collected and classified . In modern nonscientific use, however , it is generally not treated as a plural. Instead, it is treated as a mass noun, similar to a word like information, which takes a singular verb. Sentences such as data was collected over a number of years are now widely accepted in standard English”

      So, either would probably be fine, and as English is a living, changing language, you’re really going to have to get used to hearing and reading, “Data is…”.

  2. Sean Michael Ragan says:

    …and such use is especially appropriate in this context where the “data is water” metaphor is actually explicit. I can’t speak for others, but “data are everywhere” is quite awkward to my ear.

  3. Alan says:

    I’m with don crozier: data are plural, just like bacteria. And both are everywhere.

    1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

      The mass noun use of data (“data is”) is actually more common than the plural use (“data are”) among pages indexed by Google at The New York Times. Compare“data+is”

      ….which for me returns 12,500 hits, to“data+are”

      …which only returns 8,700 hits.

      Performing the same comparison at or suggests that among scientists “data is” is less common than “data are,” but still returns thousands of hits for “data is,” most of which appear to be the mass noun form. Are all these native speakers and writers “wrong?”

      1. Alan says:

        Yes, they are. Bear in mind that for a huge proportion of the writers and speakers quoted in Nature and Science, English is not their native language. And anyone at all can be quoted in the New York Times. I’m stickin’ to my guns on this one.

  4. Brick Moon says:

    an original poem, inspired by this thread:

    A datum here,
    a datum there.
    Data can be anywhere

    Here a datum,
    there a datum.
    Data cannot be an item?

    Can you buy
    a gram of grammar,
    or a pound
    from a two-pound hammer?

    “Water don’t,
    but data do”
    somehow doesn’t
    quite ring true.

    All due praise
    to data parsers,
    and to
    dialect effacers.

    Some odd phrases
    give us pauses,
    but we say them
    just becauses.

    1. don crozier says:

      Love it!

  5. don crozier says:

    Nice article and great way of using new media…

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I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

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