Queensland University of Technology (QUT)’s Virtual Reef Diver project will allow people to work online from home alongside marine scientists to classify underwater images of the world’s biggest reef.

Project leader Dr Erin Peterson said the information would aid in understanding those GBR locations in which hard coral was increasing or decreasing.

“Professional monitoring data is extremely valuable because it helps us understand how coral reefs are changing over time, but the sheer size of the reef means that it is impossible for any one organisation to complete the task alone,” she said.

“The motivation for the Virtual Reef Diver project was to look for innovative ways to obtain new data in a cost-effective manner and one way is to tap into the power of citizen-scientists.

“We see this as a wonderful opportunity to involve the community, no matter where they live – and for those citizen-scientists to add real value to our monitoring and mapping.

“The results of this project will help to give marine scientists and reef managers the information they need to make critical decisions about the reef’s future. It will also lay the groundwork for creating an up-to-date and comprehensive map of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral cover,” she said.

To classify a reef image, volunteers identify and categorise what they see beneath 15 randomly placed circles on an underwater image of the reef, such as coral, water, sand or algae. Hundreds of thousands of images will be available for classification until the end of July 2019.

“The good news is that people who want to participate can do as much or as little as they would like,” said Dr Peterson. “There is no minimum number of images to classify.”

Citizen-science data will be integrated with that collected by professional monitoring programs, research institutes and private organisations.

“Behind the scenes, we also want to investigate how classification decisions from citizen-scientists compare to those produced by artificial intelligence,” said Dr Peterson. “Are scientists at home going to get the best results? We’re going to find out.”

The website is now live.