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Crowdsourcing Science Speeds Research Through Piles of Data

by Michael Keller

Scientists in fields from astronomy to biochemistry are tapping into the analytical power of groups to complete research that would have been too time consuming to pursue years ago.

By getting a helping hand from legions of online volunteers who work through images and project-related puzzles—an approach called citizen science—researchers are able to tackle and create massive volumes of data. The crowdsourcing effort has already shown dividends in scientific discoveries, published peer-reviewed journal articles, changes in public policies and increasing public interest in the sciences.

“It’s a form of collaboration between professional researchers and the public on outstanding topics of inquiry,” says Andrea Wiggins, a Cornell University and University of New Mexico postdoctoral fellow who studies public participation in data-intensive scientific collaboration. “It’s a phenomenon where machines are helping humans do scientific tasks that the machines can’t yet do well enough because these tasks require human cognition.”

At home, making science
 
At one website called Zooniverse, amateurs interested in space, the Earth’s climate, nature and health can participate in active research programs. At the Andromeda Project, anyone can hunt for some 2,500 stellar clusters, collections of hundreds to millions of stars that were born at the same time from the same cloud of gas. At Snapshot Serengeti, users can help University of Minnesota wildlife researchers by looking through sets of pictures taken by camera traps. An easy-to-use interface helps identify large animals that show up in the pictures.

The public can help astronomers classify galaxies on Galaxy Zoo, which has employed hundreds of thousands of volunteers to sort millions of galaxies since the project began in 2007. “With so many galaxies, we’d assumed it would take years for visitors to the site to work through them all,” the team says on the site, “but within 24 hours of launch we were stunned to be receiving almost 70,000 classifications an hour.”

(A screen capture of the Snapshot Serengeti project that asks the public to classify animals on the African savannah for wildlife research.)

These few examples limit volunteer research assistants to categorizing pictures that they see, a great help for massive amounts of data that needs sorting, yet just a basic job. Other citizen science projects like EteRNA and Foldit go further, asking users to design molecules of RNA and proteins, respectively, in a game format. Players solve increasingly complex puzzles and win points that feed the competitive spirit. The best molecules they create are actually synthesized in a lab for further study.

Past and future

Interested amateurs and hobbyists have improved some areas of research for centuries, contributing to data collection and identification. Ornithologists use crowdsourced bird counts to understand the distribution and movement of species. Backyard meteorologists take weather readings using a range of equipment and contribute to an international surveillance system.

The National Audubon Society has been holding its Christmas Bird Count for 113 years, with the latest starting just last week and continuing through Jan. 5, 2013. During last year’s survey, more than 63,000 people in Canada, Latin America, the U.S., the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands counted and identified almost 65 million birds.

“The longest running Citizen Science survey in the world, Christmas Bird Count provides critical data on population trends,” the society writes. “Tens of thousands of participants know that it is also a lot of fun.”

A University of Queensland researcher says there is even more than amateur birdwatchers can do. Using Web-based science platforms, they can bolster data on species and their habitats to help improve information quality and save research money.

“Aided by the Internet, the popularity and scope of citizen science appears almost limitless, with more than 400 volunteer survey schemes around the world for birds alone, equating to an average of US $8 million per scheme in volunteer time investment,” conservation biologist Ayesha Tulloch said in a university release. “For citizens, the motivation is to contribute to ‘real’ science, public information, and conservation. For scientists, citizen science offers a way to collect information that would otherwise not be affordable.”

Citizen science investigator Wiggins expects more researchers in diverse fields to adopt the method. “More and increasingly complex projects will launch using this technique going forward,” she says. “I also expect to see more grantmaking for projects that want to use this approach because it’s becoming a proven method. There is data showing you can get high quality, accurate data that researchers are starting to rely upon.”

There are still major hurdles, especially for scientists who would like to use Web-enabled citizen science projects to collect data around the world. “Bandwidth is a nontrivial access constraint,” Wiggins says. “It would be great if we could have the public collecting data for agricultural studies in Africa, for instance, but it can’t be done right now.”

But as mobile devices become more powerful and ubiquitous, networked science will launch into even more ambitious projects in the wider world. A rudimentary view of what’s to come might be at Project BudBurst’s Floracaching mobile game. In it, players seek out trees and plants in their communities and use a GPS- and camera-assisted app to make a report about whether it is blooming. This data is helping scientists better understand climate change by analyzing shifts in seasonal blooming.

“These projects are motivating people to contribute science to issues they care deeply about,” Wiggins says. “And more and more, these citizen science projects aren’t just about public outreach and science education—they’re about helping complete high quality science that’s advancing human knowledge.”

Top Image: Screen capture of the EteRNA game interface.

Michael Keller is the Managing Editor of Txchnologist. His science, technology and international reporting work has appeared online and in newspapers, magazines and books, including the graphic novel Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Reach him at mkeller@groupsjr.com.

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