Argentina Team Members
Team Argentina (left to right): German Santini, Amelia Lourdes Balsamo, Maria Cecilia Bel and Diego Tabares.
Argentina Team Members
Team Argentina (left to right): German Santini, Amelia Lourdes Balsamo, Maria Cecilia Bel and Diego Tabares.

Do whales and dolphins have fingerprints?

Not exactly. But many of these animals do have unique markings that make them individually identifiable and trackable among their population—a huge benefit to those monitoring the health and patterns of these important creatures to our ecosystem.

However, in the vast open ocean, getting images of these markings is a huge challenge. Accurately identifying the same animal over time is even more difficult.

German Santini, an IBM solutions architect in Buenos Aires, Argentina, heard about the efforts of Fundacion Cethus—a marine mammal conservation organization—and determined that IBM Watson could be part of the solution.

IBM Volunteers spoke to German about the project, for which he and a team of IBM volunteers were awarded a 2018 IBM Volunteer Excellence Award along with a USD 10,000 IBM grant for Fundacion Cethus.

Congratulations to you and the team. How does it feel to receive this recognition?
Thank you! It was a great surprise! What has been most satisfying is learning that there are so many people interested in this project and willing to help in any way. It's very moving. Receiving the IBM Volunteer Excellence Award was a very big plus we were not expecting. I may have cried a bit when it was announced, and then when I received the recognition from Ginni Rometty (IBM CEO and Chairman).

Who are the members of your IBM volunteer team?
The core team who shared the award with me are Amelia Lourdes Balsamo, Maria Cecilia Bel and Diego Tabare. Wonderful teammates!

We could not have moved forward to overcome challenges without all the different volunteers who helped. We've become very good friends after all the volunteering opportunities we've taken together, and they deserve another very big thank you!

Tell us about the hackathon where you learned about Fundacion Cethus
It was an event on sustainability in the coastal city of Miramar, organized by IBM and an entrepreneurship organization named Las Brusquitas. I was there as an IBM ambassador and volunteer to assist in solutions that could use tools from the IBM cloud catalog or with IBM Watson services.

Cethus was doing whale research nearby and a scientist joined us to describe their problems of identifying and taking pictures of whales without disturbing them. I immediately thought this was something we could address with artificial intelligence and a very good drone.

Why were you personally motivated to help Fundacion Cethus?
I am passionate about the environment and admire the scientists and volunteers who dedicate their lives to preserve the biodiversity of our beautiful planet. When I heard about Cethus’ values and mission—to conserve whales and dolphins in the Argentine sea—and its struggles, I felt an urgent need to help. I was also interested in the challenge.

Before this project, I heard about the use of AI to classify animals or cars but never to identify different individuals from the same species. I was excited that IBM could collaborate to preserve and track a natural monument—which is what these whales were declared in 1984—and participate in the conservation of the southern right whale.

I was exhausted after the hackathon weekend but was already in love with the project. Back in the office, I told my colleagues about it and everything started to flow from that point on.

Who do you work with at Fundacion Cethus?
Eliana Zuazquita was the biologist that I first met at the hackathon. Then I was introduced to Jimena Belgrano and Miguel Iñiguez, president of the foundation. They are located near Buenos Aires but work all over the Atlantic coast of Argentina.

How does the solution use IBM Watson?
Southern right whales have distinctive calluses on their backs, which are visible when they come up to breathe. Since the marks are unique for each individual—something like fingerprints, a trained AI model could be used to identify different specimens from the same species. We use IBM Watson Visual Recognition and heavy image editing to highlight those calluses and compare known individuals. We also include a negative class of images, such as the sky or the sea, so the tool can distinguish between things we care about and things we don’t.

However, we understand this is a very basic model and are planning to investigate the use of neural networks and machine learning to improve the models and use Watson Studio to improve the recognition. We also want to start using locations and dates to predict when and where the whales should be and, by this, identify when something may be wrong with one of the tracked specimens. The idea is to track the whales with noninvasive techniques.

What obstacles have you encountered?
In the beginning we had many false positives. The images were good enough to distinguish a whale from the sky, for example, but not one individual from another. But we know that better imaging can overcome this, which is why I’m so happy Cethus received the IBM grant that comes with the Volunteer Excellence award. Now they can procure an open water drone and capture better pictures or videos to create models from every angle of the specimens. Identifying different individuals from the same species requires a very good dataset, which we don't have yet.

Right now, Cethus is preparing for this year’s whale mating season, which is when they get to observe the whales in this part of the world. The plan is to already have the drone, so that we can get better images to train our AI model.

Have you gone onto the ocean to participate in the data collection?
Not yet! But we'd love to! If we are lucky, maybe we'll get to join them this year.

How will this new approach support Cethus’ efforts?
It will significantly reduce the time it takes them to identify the different specimens. Right now, they identify them by hand and it could take weeks or months to identify a single whale. When fully implemented, the approach with Watson could reduce the time to minutes or even seconds. Which means they can more quickly understand if critical patterns, such as mating or migration, are being impacted or changed.

What skills from your work at IBM helped with this project?
Architectural and design thinking, for sure. Then my own experience using Watson services and the help of colleagues for machine learning and model training. Diego Tabares is well versed in neural networks and helped me understand what we need to move forward. Amelia Balsamo and Cecilia Bel are also very knowledgeable about development, project management and Watson Services. We all bring a little to the mix and a lot of passion to keep moving forward.

What do you hope happens with the solution and Fundacion Cethus?
Our hope is that they can have a Watson-powered solution to identify the specimens in minutes to support what they do in the field. We also hope that the solution is shared with similar organizations for better collaboration across groups.

Anything thing else you’d like to share with us?
I would absolutely recommend everyone volunteer, at least once. The experiences I've gathered have given me so much; you get to learn about areas you otherwise wouldn't, acquire skills and knowledge, and most of all, gratitude and meaning. It makes you realize that anyone can make a difference in other people's lives. The skills and experiences we gather at IBM are worth sharing with the world; dare to try it and you will not regret it.

The volunteer team from Argentina is among 15 IBM teams and individuals who are recipients of the fourteenth annual IBM Volunteer Excellence Award. The award is recognition from IBM Chairman and CEO Ginni Rometty and is the highest form of global volunteer recognition given by the company to employees. It includes an IBM grant for the associated not-for-profit partner or school.

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