Monitoring the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is facing significant challenges and while the Australian Government is investing to improve water quality and monitor environmental change it is a costly enterprise.  GIFT researchers are responding to the urgent need to understand how ecological changes affect the aesthetic value and user experience of the Great Barrier Reef by drawing on information shared through social media and using the latest technology to process and interpret the data. This innovative research is contributing to new ways of measuring the human dimensions of the Great Barrier Reef.

Project funding: This project is funded through the National Environmental Science Program’s Tropical Water Quality Hub.

This ongoing project investigates the urgent need to better understand and monitor the aesthetic value of the Great Barrier Reef. Focusing on the fast-changing underwater systems of the Reef, the research utilises advanced technology (including eye tracking and heart rate measurement) to determine what environmental and experiential attributes contribute to aesthetic value. A Big Data platform using artificial intelligence is used to assess large volumes of visitor-supplied imagery and to map aesthetic value across space and time.


Coral reef systems are at the point where passive restoration measures alone may no longer viable to protect global reefs, and playing a more active role is necessary. Coral restoration or gardening is increasingly supported by governments and scientists, but research into the human dimensions of such interventions is lacking. We identified a total of 36 academic papers that have investigated aspects of ‘Human Dimensions of Coral Restoration Technology Adaptation’. A key finding is that the economics and scalability of active reef restoration are contested, and this is partially due to a lack of consistent and robust measures to evaluate success across sites. The literature suggests that coral gardening is most successful in developing economies, as well as in ‘house reefs’ neighbouring tourist resorts, due to the appropriate inclusion, participation and resourcing of local people and businesses.

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First Nations People and the Great Barrier Reef


Prof Susanne Becken, Prof. Noel Scott, Prof Rod Connolly and Prof Bela Stantic discusses a project on the aesthetic value of the Great Barrier Reef.

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As part of this project, a webinar was released on the Aesthetics of the reef, sharing results of the Measuring aesthetic and experience values using Big Data approaches project.

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This research sought to extract useful information from photographs provided by visitors to the Great Barrier Reef. Using eye-tracking technology, we first determined what people rate as beautiful. We then undertook a survey of 704 Australians to establish beauty rankings using over 2000 images.

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NESP TWQ 3.2.3 Fact Sheet

NESP TWQ 3.2.3 Final Report


Project 5.5 responds to the urgent need of understanding how ecological changes affect the aesthetic value and the user experience of the Great Barrier Reef, and how these could be measured and monitored in a cost-effective way. The research capitalises on two major trends, namely peoples’ ability and willingness to share large amounts of information through various online platforms, and rapid development in computing technology to store, process and interpret these data. The Round 5 Research Activity Schedules for January 2019 - December 2020 is available here.

Find out more about this project (video)

NESP TWQ 5.5 Fact Sheet

Update on Projects 5.5 & 5.6


The aim of this project is to develop and test advanced analytics techniques such as text mining, machine learning, predictive analytics, natural language processing, and data visualization to capture user experiences and potentially changing environmental conditions at the GBR.

In summary, the project findings will deliver an innovative basis for enhancing current management systems of the GBR by measuring experience value, expressed through visitors’ sentiment and emotions contained in social media platforms. An automated tool based on machine learning could be used as part of a long-term monitoring plan, possibly situated within or alongside the Social and Economic Long Term Monitoring Program (SELTMP) for the Great Barrier Reef.

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Many visitors to the Great Barrier Reef use social media to share their experiences and perceptions.  This research examines whether online data can be used for environmental monitoring purposes.

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Using big data for analysis: using twitter data to find out what people say about the reef can help with environmental monitoring.

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NESP 2.3.2 Project Factsheet

NESP 2.3.2 Final Report

Outputs – Great Barrier Reef monitoring through Big Data

Journal articles

Pert, P., Thiault, L., Curnock, M., Becken, S. & Claudet, J. (2020). Beauty and the reef: Evaluating the use of non-expert ratings for monitoring aesthetic values of coral reefs. Science Direct. Available here.

Dung, L., Scott, N., Becken, S. & Connolly, R. (2018 Under Review). Measuring perceived beauty of the Great Barrier Reef using eye-tracking technology. Submitted to Current Issues in Tourism.

Becken, S., Connolly, R.M., Chen, J. & Stantic, B. (2018 Under Review). A hybrid is born: integrating collective sensing, citizen science and professional monitoring of the environment. Ecological Informatics.

Kingsford, M.J.; Becken, S.; Bordehore, C.; Fuentes, V.L.; Pitt, K.A. & Yangihara, A.A. (2018). Empowering Stakeholders to Manage Stinging Jellyfish: A Perspective, Coastal Management, 46(1), 1-18, DOI: 10.1080/08920753.2018.1405326

Becken, S., Stantic, B., Chen, J. Alaei, A.R. & Connolly, R. (2017). Monitoring the environment and human sentiment on the Great Barrier Reef: assessing the potential of collective sensing. Journal of Environmental Management, 203, 87-97.

Alaei, A.R., Becken, S. & Stantic, B. (2017). Sentiment analysis in tourism: Beginning of a new research paradigm? Journal of Travel Research. Online:

Scott, N., Zhang, R., Le, D., & Moyle, B. (2017). A review of eye-tracking research in tourism. Current Issues in Tourism. DOI: 10.1080/13683500.2017.1367367

Conference papers

Becken, S., Connolly, R., Stantic, B., Mandal, R., Scott, N. & Dung, L. (2018). Using social media photographs to monitor changes in aesthetic value at tourist destinations. Full paper at II World Congress of Smart Tourist Destinations. UNWTO, 25-27 June, Oviedo, Spain.

Mandal, R., Connolly, R., Schlachter, T.A. & Stantic, B. (2018), Assessing fish abundance from underwater video using deep neural networks. International Joint Conference on Neural Networks -ICNN. 1489 – 1494. 978-1-5090-6014-6

Chen, J., Stantic, B., Wang, S. (2017). Connecting Social Media Data with Observed Hybrid Data for Environment Monitoring. International Symposium on Intelligent and Distributed Computing, (IDC ). DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-66379-1

Franciscus, N., Ren, X., Stantic, B. (2017). Answering Temporal Analytic Queries over Big Data Based on Precomputing Architecture. In: Nguyen N., Tojo S., Nguyen L., Trawiński B. (eds) Intelligent Information and Database Systems. ACIIDS 2017. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Volume 10191. Springer, Cham.

Chen, J., Becken, S. & Stantic, B. (2016). Citizen science – exploring tourists’ observations on micro blogs as a tool to monitor environmental change. Full paper. University of Surrey Tourism Conference: Making an Impact: Creating Constructive Conversations, Guildford, UK, 19-22 July, 2016.

Other outputs

Becken, S., Connolly, R., Stantic, B., Scott, N., Mandal, R. & Le, D. (2018). Monitoring aesthetic value of the Great Barrier Reef by using innovative technologies and artificial intelligence. Report to NESP Program. Reef and Rainforest Research Centre Limited, Cairns.

Becken, S., Alaei, A., Chen, J., Connolly, R. & Stantic, B. (2017). The role of social media in sharing information about the Great Barrier Reef. Report to NESP Program. Reef and Rainforest Research Centre Limited, Cairns.

Becken, S., Stantic, B., Connolly, R. (2017). Tweet streams: how social media can help keep tabs on ecosystems’ health. The Conversation, August 14, 2017. Infographic: Environmental monitoring using social media. Videos and updates: and and Singularity Hub: “Big Data Is Helping Us See Environmental Problems in a Whole New Light”. 23 Jan 2017