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#CrowdCloudLIVE After each episode's WORLD premiere in April, show host, producer, and people seen on the show participated in post-premiere roundtable discussions. Viewers like you listened in, asked questions, and were able to dive deeper into the power of Citizen Science.

Watch the recorded Facebook Live events now. Discover more about how Citizen Science is revolutionizing the ways we gather, analyze, and utilize the data that fuels scientific research, discovery, and community action.

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Smartfin: Stoked for Science
Surfers are Cool
Q&A with Andy Stern

My name is Andy Stern and I am the Executive Director of the Lost Bird Project and the Founder of Smartfin, one of our initiatives.

How did Smartfin get started?

The idea came to me years ago when I was talking to an oceanographer. His research was about trying to determine sea levels for the last 2,000 years. We had a conversation and he said, "You should talk to surfers. They're the ones who really know the oceans." I was thinking sea levels at the time, but then I saw a map of the eastern seaboard of the United States and along the coast there was ‘fuzziness’. It was a map of ocean chemistry. I was told that the fuzziness along the coast was because there was a lot of good, precise data far out in the ocean, but that along the coast there was a data gap. That's because there are two ways that they get ocean data. One is via satellites and the other is with deep ocean buoys. Satellites don't have the special resolution to isolate the nearshore, and deep ocean buoys are not deployed at the nearshore.

Lead engineer, Benjamin Thompson, tests the sensors made in the workshop.

Surfers are at the nearshore and climate change is making dramatic changes in the ocean. In fact, the ocean may be the most significant part of climate change. Knowledge of the ocean will help us best predict what our environmental future holds. But we don't live in the ocean, we live on the coasts. I reached out to the surfer community in San Diego, and found Benjamin Thompson, now our chief engineer. I said, "Hey, Benjamin, can you make a surfboard fin that measures ocean chemistry?" He brought a team of engineers together and three years later, we had Smartfin.

What does the Smartfin do, and what is its ultimate purpose?

Smartfin is a surfboard fin. It is identical to any surfboard fin you would buy on the shelf of a retail store. Looks the same, feels the same, weighs the same, rides the same, but it measures ocean chemistry accurately. Sandwiched between the fiberglass of the fin is very cutting edge technology and electronics that measures ocean pH, salinity, temperature and wave characteristics very precisely. Once a surf session is complete, the data is wirelessly transmitted through an app on your phone, up to our servers where it is then processed and made available and accessible to the scientific community throughout the world.

I think of Smartfin as a citizen science project. When citizens are invited to participate, especially in data acquisition like Smartfin, you can acquire enormous amounts of data for next to nothing, and often the data cannot be obtained any other way. I'm hoping the data will support ocean research and inform us about the oceans.

The Smartfin sensor measures chemical properties in the ocean while surfers do what they do best: shred waves!

For the citizen, I think there are potentially a lot of benefits. One is that data, for most of us, is pretty abstract and doesn't evoke emotional understanding and connection. It's cold, and we can understand it, but it doesn't have any juice to it. When you're out there acquiring it as a surfer, and you come back and see on your phone, "Thank you, Andy, for 2 hours and 27 minutes of data acquisition. You've contributed to understanding our oceans." You feel engaged and it makes the science more accessible.

The citizen, in this case the surfer, is asked to engaged with the ocean in a new way. The ocean is not only a cool playground, but also a fragile and critical part of the Earth's environmental system.

Right now there is warming of the oceans off the coast of the Western United States. The warmth has given rise to out-of-control algae growth. The algal blooms then make a toxin which is eaten by shellfish and already, in Washington state, Oregon, and northern California, shellfish fisheries have had to close. Oyster farms are extremely sensitive to pH. There is a direct relationship between near shore parameter measurement and healthy coastal ecosystems. The scientists are eager for this information.

What makes surfers good citizen scientists?

I've spent three years getting to know the surfer community, and they are an amazing group of people. They're healthy, they're influential among the public, they're compelling. Surfers are cool. Surfers are sexy. Over 130 million people worldwide follow pro surf competitions. There's something about surfing that is compelling, that just resonates like some kind of dream. It's pretty magical going out and riding a board that weighs almost nothing in these enormously powerful manifestations of nature.

Steph loves surfing for science.

They're a tribe internationally. There's tremendous loyalty among the surfers. They love the ocean. Jacques Cousteau said, "People protect what they love." Surfers love the ocean. I think that's a lot of the motivation for them stepping up as citizen scientists. Ten years ago, surfers cared about one thing only: are the waves good? They wanted to preserve the surfing breaks so that their children could surf. That has dramatically changed. I think surfers, and many of us, are now connecting to a much larger community. Ocean acidification is not directly affecting surf breaks right now. But many scientists say eventually the coral reefs that generate some of the best waves in the world will degenerate due to ocean acidification. That's probably a generation, or two, in the future.

What is the trajectory for Smartfin’s development?

We've had as many as 30 engineers working on the project. About six months ago, we had a device that we put through testing in a Scripps lab. We used salt baths of varying degrees of pH, temperature, and salinity, and it performed well. Now, the challenge is to do the same exact kind of validation in the surf zone. The surf is a rough place. There's an enormous amount of movement, mixing, and violence. We're working with Scripps to validate the precision and accuracy of our data.

My hope is that the Scripps lab will give us the thumbs up, "Yes, Smartfin does what you claim it does. It works well. This is research grade data. It will be useful to advance our understanding of the oceans.” Then, the next step will be to start geographical distribution, first to the southern coast of California where we are and then, eventually, worldwide. It's inexpensive enough that it makes worldwide distribution possible. We are not planning a tech startup, a for profit entity. This will be driven by donations. This will never be a fin next to other surfboard fins on the shelf of a retail surf shop. It will be always distributed in the context of environmental concern and community.

Chad Nelsen of Surfrider can't wait to distribute Smartfin across the globe.

How will Smartfin benefit from partnering with organizations like the Surfrider Foundation?

Surfrider is very excited about it. They're the biggest surf organization in the world. Hundreds of thousands of members and chapters organized with leaders in each of those locations worldwide. One idea is to use those chapters as hubs for distribution, and have people passionate about Smartfin at each of those places managing its distribution and the community.

Why do you care about collecting data for climate change?

I now work full time to raise environmental awareness, but I've spent my entire adult life working as a neurologist. I've been a professor of neurology at the University of Rochester. My passion is about human health. That's what I've spent my whole life addressing and that is exactly what I'm addressing now through raising awareness about climate change. The way I see it now is mounting an adequate response to the threat of climate change to human health would be the biggest preventative medicine intervention in the history of man.

We depend on the oceans for our health. The lab we're working with studies coral reefs, which are degrading and decalcifying because of acidification. Approximately one billion people on Earth depend directly on coral reefs for their living and their sustenance. This is not abstract. Coral reefs aren't a symbol. They're real. There are very well respected marine biologists who are predicting there will be no fish in the ocean by 2050. The plankton in the oceans makes 50 percent of the oxygen that we breathe. The population of plankton is down 40 percent, so a connection to the ocean for human health is symbiotic and beyond.