A University of Glasgow data scientist has picked up a prize at the first annual Analysts Awards, administered by the Institute of Analytics (IoA).
The IoA is the professional body for analytics and data science professionals. The awards were created to celebrate data’s positive impact on business and society and were judged by a panel of data analytics and education experts.
Dr Colin Torney, a senior lecturer in the School of Mathematics & Statistics, has been named as the winner in the category ’Innovative Research and Application’ category for his ground-breaking work on ecological data analytics.
His research, which uses machine learning to investigate the movement and population dynamics of wildebeest herds in the Serengeti, will help inform decision-making around conserving and promoting wildlife in the face of human disturbance.
While there have been animal monitoring projects in the region, Dr Torney’s combines macro insights on animal behaviour with micro data at the level of an individual animal in migration.
Special collars were designed to monitor the GPS movements of wildebeest in real time and send information on animal location and behaviour over a radio network.
The data, combined with observational data from ecology experts in the field, have made it possible to uncover data markers of key wildebeest behaviours such as grazing, from data on head tilts, or running. By tracking changes in natural behaviour of the wildebeest when they enter areas with high human activity, ecologists hope to understand the threat disturbances, such as tourism, pose to local animal populations better.
Dr Clare Walsh, IoA Director of Education and a member of the judging panel, said: "Dr Torney has been studying the collective movement and population dynamics of animals using advanced machine learning and digital image processing to identify individual animals. While there has been work at the level of species identification in the past, the level of detail in this study, linking up properties and observations at a micro level, marks it out as a major step forward in the use of animal population studies.
"In terms of the technology used, he has had to combine different machine learning approaches to develop these solutions, working on very large data sets. It is valuable research and marks a way forward for all of us.
"The work is also valuable to us around the world, as a tool to accurately measure the impact of changing human activity on animal populations. We have, in recent years, invested heavily in the idea that data can save the world from the destructive impact of environmental change, largely because we’re not sure what else to try at this point.
"For all these reasons, we selected Dr Torney as our worthy winner because he is breaking through that barrier of more detailed insights to make the best decisions."
Dr Torney was nominated by his colleague Prof Dirk Husmeier, Chair of Statistics at the University of Glasgow.
Dr Torney said: "I’m proud to have been chosen by the Institute of Analytics to receive this award.
"Data science offers us opportunities to see the world in new ways and can help us to make better-informed decisions across a wide range of topics.
"I’m pleased that my work has helped to support decisions about the ecology of a critically-important part of the world, and I look forward to continuing to find new ways to learn more about patterns of animal movement and behaviour in the years to come."
The Institute of Analytics (IoA) is the leading global body for Analytics & Data Science professionals. The Institute is a not-for-profit with a mission to promote data literacy, ethical data practice and evidence-based decision making to transform business and society, and a commitment to help members stay ahead of the curve of digital reform to thrive in the data age.
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