Big Data: Big possibilities with bigger challenges

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Did you know that Excel has a maximum number of rows? I do. During Winter Term for my GIS project, I was using Excel to merge oceanographic data, from a publicly-available data source website, and Excel continuously quit. Naturally, I assumed I had caused some sort of computer error. [As an aside, I’ve concluded that most problems related to technology are human error-based.] Therefore, I tried reformatting the data, restarting my computer, the program, etc. Nothing. Then, thanks to the magic of Google, I discovered that Excel allows no more than 1,048,576 rows by 16,384 columns. ONLY 1.05 million rows?! The oceanography data was more than 3 million rows—and that’s with me eliminating data points. This is what happens when we’re dealing with big data.

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, big data is an accumulation of data that is too large and complex for processing by traditional database management tools (www.merriam-webster.com). However, there are journal articles, like this one from Forbes, that discuss the ongoing debate of how to define “big data”. According to the article, there are 12 major definitions; so, I’ll let you decide what you qualify as “big data”. Either way, I think that when Excel reaches its maximum row capacity, I’m working with big data.

Collecting oceanography data aboard the R/V Shimada. Photo source: Alexa K.

Here’s the thing: the oceanography data that I referred to was just a snippet of my data. Technically, it’s not even MY data; it’s data I accessed from NOAA’s ERDDAP website that had been consistently observed for the time frame of my dolphin data points. You may recall my blog about maps and geospatial analysis that highlights some of the reasons these variables, such as temperature and salinity, are important. However, what I didn’t previously mention was that I spent weeks working on editing this NOAA data. My project on common bottlenose dolphins overlays environmental variables to better understand dolphin population health off of California. These variables should have similar spatiotemporal attributes as the dolphin data I’m working with, which has a time series beginning in the 1980s. Without taking out a calculator, I still know that equates to a lot of data. Great data: data that will let me answer interesting, pertinent questions. But, big data nonetheless.

This is a screenshot of what the oceanography data looked like when I downloaded it to Excel. This format repeats for nearly 3 million rows.

Excel Screen Shot. Image source: Alexa K.

I showed this Excel spreadsheet to my GIS professor, and his response was something akin to “holy smokes”, with a few more expletives and a look of horror. It was not the sheer number of rows that shocked him; it was the data format. Nowadays, nearly everyone works with big data. It’s par for the course. However, the way data are formatted is the major split between what I’ll call “easy” data and “hard” data. The oceanography data could have been “easy” data. It could have had many variables listed in columns. Instead, this data  alternated between rows with variable headings and columns with variable headings, for millions of cells. And, as described earlier, this is only one example of big data and its challenges.

Data does not always come in a form with text and numbers; sometimes it appears as media such as photographs, videos, and audio files. Big data just got a whole lot bigger. While working as a scientist at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, one project brought in over 80 terabytes of raw data per year. The project centered on the eastern north pacific gray whale population, and, more specifically, its migration. Scientists have observed the gray whale migration annually since 1994 from Piedras Blancas Light Station for the Northbound migration, and 2 out of every 5 years from Granite Canyon Field Station (GCFS) for the Southbound migration. One of my roles was to ground-truth software that would help transition from humans as observers to computer as observers. One avenue we assessed was to compare how well a computer “counted” whales compared to people. For this question, three infrared cameras at the GCFS recorded during the same time span that human observers were counting the migratory whales. Next, scientists, such as myself, would transfer those video files, upwards of 80 TB, from the hard drives to Synology boxes and to a different facility–miles away. Synology boxes store arrays of hard drives and that can be accessed remotely. To review, three locations with 80 TB of the same raw data. Once the data is saved in triplet, then I could run a computer program, to detect whale. In summary, three months of recorded infrared video files requires upwards of 240 TB before processing. This is big data.

Scientists on an observation shift at Granite Canyon Field Station in Northern California. Photo source: Alexa K.
Alexa and another NOAA scientist watching for gray whales at Piedras Blancas Light Station. Photo source: Alexa K.

In the GEMM Laboratory, we have so many sources of data that I did not bother trying to count. I’m entering my second year of the Ph.D. program and I already have a hard drive of data that I’ve backed up three different locations. It’s no longer a matter of “if” you work with big data, it’s “how”. How will you format the data? How will you store the data? How will you maintain back-ups of the data? How will you share this data with collaborators/funders/the public?

The wonderful aspect to big data is in the name: big and data. The scientific community can answer more, in-depth, challenging questions because of access to data and more of it. Data is often the limiting factor in what researchers can do because increased sample size allows more questions to be asked and greater confidence in results. That, and funding of course. It’s the reason why when you see GEMM Lab members in the field, we’re not only using drones to capture aerial images of whales, we’re taking fecal, biopsy, and phytoplankton samples. We’re recording the location, temperature, water conditions, wind conditions, cloud cover, date/time, water depth, and so much more. Because all of this data will help us and help other scientists answer critical questions. Thus, to my fellow scientists, I feel your pain and I applaud you, because I too know that the challenges that come with big data are worth it. And, to the non-scientists out there, hopefully this gives you some insight as to why we scientists ask for external hard drives as gifts.

Leila launching the drone to collect aerial images of gray whales to measure body condition. Photo source: Alexa K.
Using the theodolite to collect tracking data on the Pacific Coast Feeding Group in Port Orford, OR. Photo source: Alexa K.

References:

https://support.office.com/en-us/article/excel-specifications-and-limits-1672b34d-7043-467e-8e27-269d656771c3

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/big%20data

What REALLY is a Wildlife Biologist?

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

The first lecture slide. Source: Lecture1_Population Dynamics_Lou Botsford

This was the very first lecture slide in my population dynamics course at UC Davis. Population dynamics was infamous in our department for being an ultimate rite of passage due to it’s notoriously challenge curriculum. So, when Professor Lou Botsford pointed to his slide, all 120 of us Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology majors, didn’t know how to react. Finally, he announced, “This [pointing to the slide] is all of you”. The class laughed. Lou smirked. Lou knew.

Lou knew that there is more truth to this meme than words could express. I can’t tell you how many times friends and acquaintances have asked me if I was going to be a park ranger. Incredibly, not all—or even most—wildlife biologists are park rangers. I’m sure that at one point, my parents had hoped I’d be holding a tiger cub as part of a conservation project—that has never happened. Society may think that all wildlife biologists want to walk in the footsteps of the famous Steven Irwin and say thinks like “Crikey!”—but I can’t remember the last time I uttered that exclamation with the exception of doing a Steve Irwin impression. Hollywood may think we hug trees—and, don’t get me wrong, I love a good tie-dyed shirt—but most of us believe in the principles of conservation and wise-use A.K.A. we know that some trees must be cut down to support our needs. Helicoptering into a remote location to dart and take samples from wild bear populations…HA. Good one. I tell myself this is what I do sometimes, and then the chopper crashes and I wake up from my dream. But, actually, a scientist staring at a computer with stacks of papers spread across every surface, is me and almost every wildlife biologist that I know.

The “dry lab” on the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer en route to Antarctica. This room full of technology is where the majority of the science takes place. Drake Passage, International Waters in August 2015. Source: Alexa Kownacki

There is an illusion that wildlife biologists are constantly in the field doing all the cool, science-y, outdoors-y things while being followed by a National Geographic photojournalist. Well, let me break it to you, we’re not. Yes, we do have some incredible opportunities. For example, I happen to know that one lab member (eh-hem, Todd), has gotten up close and personal with wild polar bear cubs in the Arctic, and that all of us have taken part in some work that is worthy of a cover image on NatGeo. We love that stuff. For many of us, it’s those few, memorable moments when we are out in the field, wearing pants that we haven’t washed in days, and we finally see our study species AND gather the necessary data, that the stars align. Those are the shining lights in a dark sea of papers, grant-writing, teaching, data management, data analysis, and coding. I’m not saying that we don’t find our desk work enjoyable; we jump for joy when our R script finally runs and we do a little dance when our paper is accepted and we definitely shed a tear of relief when funding comes through (or maybe that’s just me).

A picturesque moment of being a wildlife biologist: Alexa and her coworker, Jim, surveying migrating gray whales. Piedras Blancas Light Station, San Simeon, CA in May 2017. Source: Alexa Kownacki.

What I’m trying to get at is that we accepted our fates as the “scientists in front of computers surrounded by papers” long ago and we embrace it. It’s been almost five years since I was a senior in undergrad and saw this meme for the first time. Five years ago, I wanted to be that scientist surrounded by papers, because I knew that’s where the difference is made. Most people have heard the quote by Mahatma Gandhi, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” In my mind, it is that scientist combing through relevant, peer-reviewed scientific papers while writing a compelling and well-researched article, that has the potential to make positive changes. For me, that scientist at the desk is being the change that he/she wish to see in the world.

Scientists aboard the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer using the time in between net tows to draft papers and analyze data…note the facial expressions. Antarctic Peninsula in August 2015. Source: Alexa Kownacki.

One of my favorite people to colloquially reference in the wildlife biology field is Milton Love, a research biologist at the University of California Santa Barbara, because he tells it how it is. In his oh-so-true-it-hurts website, he has a page titled, “So You Want To Be A Marine Biologist?” that highlights what he refers to as, “Three really, really bad reasons to want to be a marine biologist” and “Two really, really good reasons to want to be a marine biologist”. I HIGHLY suggest you read them verbatim on his site, whether you think you want to be a marine biologist or not because they’re downright hilarious. However, I will paraphrase if you just can’t be bothered to open up a new tab and go down a laugh-filled wormhole.

Really, Really Bad Reasons to Want to be a Marine Biologist:

  1. To talk to dolphins. Hint: They don’t want to talk to you…and you probably like your face.
  2. You like Jacques Cousteau. Hint: I like cheese…doesn’t mean I want to be cheese.
  3. Hint: Lack thereof.

Really, Really Good Reasons to Want to be a Marine Biologist:

  1. Work attire/attitude. Hint: Dress for the job you want finally translates to board shorts and tank tops.
  2. You like it. *BINGO*
Alexa with colleagues showing the “cool” part of the job is working the zooplankton net tows. This DOES have required attire: steel-toed boots, hard hat, and float coat. R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer, Antarctic Peninsula in August 2015. Source: Alexa Kownacki.

In summary, as wildlife or marine biologists we’ve taken a vow of poverty, and in doing so, we’ve committed ourselves to fulfilling lives with incredible experiences and being the change we wish to see in the world. To those of you who want to pursue a career in wildlife or marine biology—even after reading this—then do it. And to those who don’t, hopefully you have a better understanding of why wearing jeans is our version of “business formal”.

A fieldwork version of a lab meeting with Leigh Torres, Tom Calvanese (Field Station Manager), Florence Sullivan, and Leila Lemos. Port Orford, OR in August 2017. Source: Alexa Kownacki.