So Animals Are Live-Blogging Their Lives Now

Satellite-tagged birds are sending real-time automatic blog updates to the web as they fly around. It's like LiveJournal for red kites.

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Aug 23 2013, 7:20pm

They way some scientists figure it, if social media can encourage people to connect and relate to other people, maybe it can forge the same bonds between humans and the rest of the living species that call Earth home. They’re putting the theory to test with a new technology that turns birds into bloggers. Kind of.

Scientists from the University of Aberdeen, working with conservationists from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, suited up birds with satellite tags that gather real-time information on where they go and what they do. From there, a computer program uses the data to automatically publish daily and weekly blog posts about the birds, with no human input.

The resulting website, Blogging Birds, launched this month. It's like LiveJournal for birds—red kites, to be specific—updated in near real-time, complete with maps of the birds’ location as they soar around the UK.

The red kite was chosen partly because it went extinct in the UK back in the 1940s, was later successfully reintroduced, and now scientists want to keep an eye on it. It also made a good guinea pig because it's a "typically rural, charismatic bird that lives close to people," University of Aberdeen ecologist René van der Wal told me in an email.

Charisma is important because the whole project is designed to get people to connect with the species they share a habitat with—to make it easier to relate to the animals and care about their lives. When you visit the Blogging Birds website, you’ll see it’s all very personal. You can choose which of the four birds to check in with—Wyvis, Moray, Millie, and Ussie—by clicking on seriously cute little photos of them. (Actually it's somewhat surprising that the blogs aren't written in the first person.)

Here's the latest on Millie:

This week Millie was active. She predominantly flew between Torness and Easter Aberchalder. Millie's foraging patterns during this week have been varied while roosting largely on woodlands around Errogie. No doubt Millie had a social week as kites Moray and Beauly were seen in the vicinity often.

The entire week Millie spent most of her time around Easter Aberchalder and Torness. During this time she was seen mainly on farmland while making odd journeys to bog. She must have been feasting on worms and insects which are in abundance in farmland. But what could she be looking for in bog?

The red kite is just the tip of the iceberg for this technology. According to researchers, Blogging is a proof of concept that's being scaled up. Scientists are interested in launching similar blogs for ospreys, cuckoos, and Golden Eagles. Why stop there? Imagine if in the future you could go online and check in on what monkeys in Africa or panda bears in China or penguins in Antarctica are live-blogging about today. Surely it would be more interesting than the scores of dumb selfies from your Facebook friends. 

Anyway, here's how it works. Each of the kites is fitted with little backpacks that hold a satellite tag that geo-locates the birds up to six times a day. Then other databases are culled to collect information on the landscape, weather, nearby towns, and so on based on the birds’ location. From the data, a Natural Language Generation software called Tag2Blog can infer the birds’ habits, eating patterns, social behavior, and flight paths. And then it blogs about it.

Screenshot from the Blogging Birds live site

Blogging Birds is one of the first experiments to use data-to-text programs to create engaging narratives meant for consumers, rather than helping specialists—scientists, medical experts, engineers—to understand technical data. The blogging birds project takes it to the next level.

"We aim to generate inspiring as well as informative texts…to make narratives engaging for non-experts,” the Aberdeen scientists wrote in a report (pdf).

"Infotainment" language-generation technology is maturing. Another leader in this space is a company called Narrative Science, which does a remarkably good job at auto-writing news articles from financial data or sports statistics, sans human help.

"These are straight business applications that aim to produce a helpful summary but lead to a rather dull text," Van der Wal said. "What we have tried to do is developing routines that create texts which have a narrative structure, are engaging and bring out emotion. There are many applications in the nature conservation world… wherever you have rich data and require/benefit from up to date stories that people can engage with you could use the kind of approach we have developed."

The project builds off work being done for years to encourage citizen scientists to help researchers get information about nature—like the UK's Open Air Laboratories, which uses social media to collect data and encourage engagement.

To make this crowdsourced science scale, scientists want to automate part of the process, and that's where Natural Language Generation comes in. University of Aberdeen scientists tested this in an earlier program called BEEWATCH, which used computer-generated messages to give feedback to citizen scientists to help them better identify bumble bee species.

The team hopes to keep refining the automated storytelling with the self-blogging birds to get users to interact with the site and learn about the birds. It's the high-tech approach to the most low-tech of goals, Van der Wal said: "Conservation new-style, you could say."