Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units Program: Massachusetts
Education, Research and Technical Assistance for Managing Our Natural Resources

Clarfeld, L., A. Sirén, B. Mulhall, T. Wilson, E. Bernier, J. Farrell, G. Lunde, N. Hardy, K. Gieder, R. Abrams, S. Staats, S. McLellan, and T. Donovan. 2023. Evaluating a tandem human-machine approach to labelling of wildlife in remote camera monitoring. Ecological Informatics 77:e102257


Remote cameras (“trail cameras”) are a popular tool for non-invasive, continuous wildlife monitoring, and as they become more prevalent in wildlife research, machine learning (ML) is increasingly used to automate or accelerate the labor-intensive process of labelling (i.e., tagging) photos. Human-machine hybrid tagging approaches have been shown to greatly increase tagging efficiency (i.e., time to tag a single image). However, those potential increases hinge on the extent to which an ML model makes correct vs. incorrect predictions. We performed an experiment using a ML model that produces bounding boxes around animals, people, and vehicles in remote camera imagery (MegaDetector) to consider the impact of a ML model's performance on its ability to accelerate human labeling. Six participants tagged trail camera images collected from 12 sites in Vermont and Maine, USA (January–September 2022) using three tagging methods (one with ML bounding box assistance and two without assistance). We used a generalized linear mixed model to examine the influence of ML model performance and tagging method on tagging efficiency. We found that ML bounding boxes offer significant improvement in tagging efficiency when labelling data compared to unassisted tagging. Additionally, the time taken to label with bounding boxes was not statistically different from an unassisted tagging approach. However, we found that gains in efficiency are contingent on the ML algorithm's performance and that incorrect ML predictions, particularly the 4.2% false positive and 3.6% false negative predictions, can slow the tagging process compared to a non-hybrid approach. These findings indicate that although practitioners usually forgo the production of bounding boxes when selecting a data labelling process due to the increased effort, ML bounding box-assisted tagging can offer an efficient method for labeling. More broadly, ML-assisted data labelling offers an opportunity to accelerate the analysis of trail camera imagery, but an assessment of the ML model's performance can illuminate whether the hybrid-tagging approach is ultimately a help or hinderance.