When you’re splashing in the waves at the beach, it’s hard to imagine the complex ecosystem that swirls around you. Researchers at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Oregon, however, have been capturing underwater images of tiny plankton to understand, at a microscopic level, what’s happening beneath the waves.
Although you can barely see them, the tiny plankton are critically important. They uptake 25 percent of carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels every year and form the foundation for marine and terrestrial food chains. Because they are susceptible to small changes in temperature or water chemistry, plankton populations serve as an indicator for broader ocean health, with rolling impacts on the environment, economics, and even tourism. Unfortunately, critical insights are slow to reveal themselves; a day’s worth of images can take up to a year to analyze manually—far too long to be of real use in protecting the oceans, forecasting changes, or correcting problems.
Booz Allen, in partnership with Kaggle, the world's largest community of data scientists, knew that predictive modeling and next-generation analytics could give Hatfield researchers a leg up. The emerging practice of data science looks for patterns and asks the kinds of questions that make sense of the world—including the oceans. Thus the challenge for the inaugural National Data Science Bowl was created. With more than 5,000 entries, the Booz Allen-sponsored National Data Science Bowl helped scientists find new tools to understand changes in oceans’ makeup.