My name is Anastasia, and I am currently in my second month as a Research Fellow at the Institute for Marine Research (IMR) here in Dauin. As an aspiring marine biologist, I have taken part in many research-based internships and programmes with organisations all over the world. In my experience, the Achilles’ heel of many of these organisations is unreliable data collection and a disconnect between those who collect the data and those who process it. This is not the case at IMR.
Most organisations use citizen science, typically having interns learn every organism that they may encounter underwater, and then having them mark the number of each organism seen on a slate carried with them. This results in data that entirely depends on the identification skills of the interns and is impossible to check for errors. Whilst such data has its place, it fails to create the hard data we need to do real science. Even where ‘good’ data is collected it always seems to fall, unanalysed and unfulfilled, into the ether of a hard drive living in an attic somewhere. This isn’t how it is at IMR, here reliable data is collected using cameras, so that it can be checked at any time. We work in tight-knit teams during our surveys, an ethos which continues throughout the analytical process, whilst it is entirely possible for one person to go through the images and video collected, this is not the attitude taken here. Anyone can ask another team member for help with a tricky fish or coral, this team approach creates more accurate and reliable results. The same people who collected and analysed the data then write the data into easily understood reports so that anyone can see and understand our results, helping to capture the nuances of the data and bridges the void between collectors and processers.
In other organisations outreach and conservation programs sometimes seem to be produced from nowhere, based on what staff or interns happen to have seen work before. Worse, some programs are designed based on how ‘Instagramable’ they are (although, thankfully, this has never been a key driver where I have been). Conservation efforts sometimes don’t consider the needs and nuances of the local ecosystems, despite the best intentions of their staff. At IMR, however, the data collected is used to inform conservation and outreach efforts in the local community. The problems that are most prevalent, both in Dauin as a whole and at specific sites can be easily identified, and this information can be used to target conservation efforts and engineer the most effective strategies. The data can also be used to assess the long-term effects of various strategies as changes can be observed where it matters; on the reef.
Data driven conservation has the capability to create more targeted efforts and to evaluate how effective these efforts are, basically it makes conservation better. As a research fellow at IMR I have been able to watch and be involved with every part of this chain, from collecting and analysing the data, writing the reports and creating new community outreach programmes. This has made me realise how vital this approach is and how widespread the issue of separating science from actual conservation efforts is, and is knowledge I am sure to use in any future conservation I take part in.