“The technology behind this website can also be used in other projects”
The CoastSnap project asks random beachgoers to take pictures of the Dutch coast. Those ‘snaps’ are used by Utrecht geoscientists to find out how the coastline is changing. RDM Support helped the researchers in building a smart online platform to which participants send their pictures. Now if you upload a picture, you immediately get an analysed image back on your mobile phone.
Five CoastSnap measuring points have been placed along the coast in the province of North-Holland. These measuring points are surprisingly simple: each one consists of a wooden pole with a metal holder on top. If you want to participate in the research, you scan the QR-code on the pole and then place your smartphone in the holder. The picture you take via CoastSnap will be automatically and anonymously sent to the researchers.
“The more pictures we have of a particular spot, the better we understand how the coastline changes over time”, says researcher Timothy Price, who leads the project. “Try to imagine how much sediment washes ashore each day: sand, pebbles and shells. At the same time erosion occurs. The coast is crumbling away, for instance during storms. So the question is: is more coast added in the long run, or do the dunes slowly disappear into the water? It is an important research question, especially now that the sea level is rising.”
Pictures of the coast
CoastSnap is a worldwide research project with contributions from ‘ordinary citizens’. Scientists of the University of New South Wales in Australia came up with the idea. In our country Utrecht University coastal scientists placed measuring points in Egmond aan Zee, Noordvoort (between Noordwijk and Zandvoort), on the Wadden island of Texel, and two points in Petten.
Until 2021 Egmond was the only place where a pole was located, says researcher Math van Soest. The Faculty of Geosciences asked him to extend and improve CoastSnap. “That one pole did not have an easy-to-use automated system with QR code. People had to send the picture they made to an email address. And we processed those photos one by one in the database. Quite a time-consuming job.”
Moreover, the participants only received an automated reply to their contribution. “After that, they never heard anything back. So hardly any interaction, much to my regret. Emailing a picture yourself turned out to be too much of a hurdle: we did not receive many photos.”
We have almost 2,000 submissions now, and the number keeps growing.
There has to be a smarter way, the scienists thought. That is how the idea came about to develop a ‘CoastSnap 2.0’: by scanning a QR code you immediately come on a website where you can take and send the photo. “You immediately get the analysed image back on your phone. In that image the computer has ‘flipped’ the photo so it looks like a satellite photo taken from above. You will see a red line indicating precisely how the waterline is running at that particular moment. In this way you see the differences between low and high tide over time.”
The technological development of ‘CoastSnap 2.0’ turned out to be more complicated than Math and Timothy initially thought. IT experts of their faculty brought the two into contact with RDM Support. “As part of our research, we do quite some coding ourselves”, says Math. “But we don’t have experience in setting up websites or building online photo-exchange structures.”
Casper Kaandorp and his colleague Jelle Treep from RDM Support immediately welcomed the plan of the coast researchers. Together they set to work: Math van Soest busied himself with the programming code for the coastline pictures, Caspar Kaandorp worked on the online platform for submitted photos. “There were regular phone calls. Often we speeded things up together and did a lot of work in just a few days.”
RDM Support designed the system in such a way that the researchers can manage and extend it themselves. “We can edit the texts and images ourselves”, says Timothy Price. “And if we would like to add new locations in the future, we can do so without having to ask for help. Very practical.”
Maybe the best thing about it, adds Math van Soest, is that the technology behind the website can also be used for other projects. ‘Everything that includes the wish to collect data with pictures on location – and where you want to send edited photos back at once - is possible. For instance, think of counting the number of people on the beach, so you can see how crowded it is. And there is also technology that uses photos to discover dangerous sea currents for swimmers.”
Over 2,000 submissions
Since the new poles with ‘CoastSnap 2.0’ are placed on the locations, the number of submitted photos has exploded. “We have almost 2,000 submissions now, and the number keeps growing”, says Timothy Price, happy with the result. What’s more: on the very same day that Math van Soest is installing a new pole, it is being used. “I walked back to my car to get my measuring equipment, and when I came back, I saw a man who was busy taking a picture. On my phone I could see how the submission entered our database.”
Such direct feedback motivates people to participate, says Math van Soest. “It is a small gift in return for your contribution. On the website you can learn more about the location: what kind of interesting things are happening in the landscape? In this way we hope to involve participants in collecting data, but also to generate interest for our research into the Dutch coast.”
The creator of the project said: the way in which you operate, that is the holy grail of how we originally envisioned the project.
The holy grail
CoastSnap is a good example of citizen science- involving the lay public in academic research. “Generating interaction is the idea behind it”, says Math van Soest. “In other words: knowledge works both ways. Participants not only help science, they also benefit from it. So it is not only about collecting data. In that case, you could just as well install a webcam. Our system is both cheaper and more interactive.”
Besides, projects such as CoastSnap offer scientists the option to collect data relatively cheaply and on several locations. “In this way you can get more out of your research, without spending too much money”, says Math van Soest. “This is what I would like to share with colleagues: you may gain a lot by getting together with the RDM Support specialists and think about creative ways of data collection. They made it possible for us to bring this new, interactive way of research into practice. We could never have done it on our own.”
Recently, the Dutch researchers presented their work to the Australian team that came up with the idea of CoastSnap. “They really liked the way in which we have extended the project. The creator of the project said: the way in which you operate, that is the holy grail of how we originally envisioned the project. That is a great compliment obviously.”