Crowdscience

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Description

By Ludovico Ristori:

"The term Crowdscience (that is, the science of people) has recently become a very popular term. It means that people (a nineteenth-century term that perhaps should be replaced with the term “citizens”), by actively taking part in research, can enable discoveries, that would otherwise not be possible with traditional media – for the mental, computational and economic resources they require. It also assumes that first-person participation in scientific projects is one of the few ways to not be relegated on the sidelines of democracy in a society permeated at all levels by scientific and technological knowledge.

As for the origin of crowdscience, some individuals focused on astronomy – with the [email protected] experience back in the 1990s and the collaboration of nearly 3 million people to the study of space signals – others on other most disparate topics. A sure thing is that nowadays there exist a wide variety of crowdscience portals focusing on a wide range of fields.

Neurosciences and especially neuroinformatics have their very own crowd versions. Among these, there is a case that is currently quite successful on the internet: the company Backyard Brains, founded by two students of the University of Michigan, Gregory Gage and Tim Marzullo." (http://www.digicult.it/news/backyard-brains-neuroscience-for-fun/)


Examples

By Jeffrey R. Young:

"Alexander S. Szalay is a well-regarded astronomer, but he hasn't peered through a telescope in nearly a decade. Instead, the professor of physics and astronomy at the Johns Hopkins University learned how to write software code, build computer servers, and stitch millions of digital telescope images into a sweeping panorama of the universe.

Along the way, thanks to a friendship with a prominent computer scientist, he helped reinvent the way astronomy is studied, guiding it from a largely solo pursuit to a discipline in which sharing is the norm.

One of the most difficult tasks has been changing attitudes to encourage large-scale collaborations. Not every astronomer has been happy to give up those solo telescope sessions. "To be alone with the universe is a very dramatic thing to do," admits Mr. Szalay, who spent years selling the idea of pooling telescope images online to his colleagues.

Today, data sharing in astronomy isn't just among professors. Amateurs are invited into the data sets through friendly Web interfaces, and a schoolteacher in Holland recently made a major discovery, of an unusual gas cloud that might help explain the life cycle of quasars—bright centers of distant galaxies—after spending part of her summer vacation gazing at the objects on her computer screen.

Crowd Science, as it might be called, is taking hold in several other disciplines, such as biology, and is rising rapidly in oceanography and a range of environmental sciences. "Crowdsourcing is a natural solution to many of the problems that scientists are dealing with that involve massive amounts of data," says Haym Hirsh, director of the Division of Information and Intelligent Systems at the National Science Foundation. Findings have just grown too voluminous and complex for traditional methods, which consisted of storing numbers in spreadsheets to be read by one person, says Edward Lazowska, a computer scientist and director of the University of Washington eScience Institute. So vast data-storage warehouses, accessible to many researchers, are going up in several scholarly fields to try to keep track of the wealth of information.

Persuading scientists to fully embrace the age of big data, though, will require a change in academic reward structures to give new currency to papers with more authors than ever and to scientists who spend their careers crunching other peoples' numbers.

"The culture shift is the sharing of data," says Mr. Lazowska. "And the astronomers have led the way." (http://chronicle.com/article/The-Rise-of-Crowd-Science/65707/)


Galaxy Zoo

By Jeffrey R. Young:

"a Web site that invites anyone to help categorize images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

It's called Galaxy Zoo, and it's led by Chris Lintott, an astronomer at the University of Oxford.

Just click "classify galaxies" on the Galaxy Zoo Web site, and a picture from a telescope appears, along with questions including "Is the galaxy smooth and rounded?" and "Does the galaxy have a mostly clumpy appearance?" Visitors must register and complete a short tutorial before their results are counted. Each image is shown to at least 10 different people to try to cut down on erroneous classifications. If 80 percent of the crowd agrees on a classification of an image, it sticks. Otherwise, the image might go through the whole process again.

"It's not some fun game online while the scientist do the real work," says Mr. Lintott. "I hope visitors are learning that science is not just something done by people in lab coats in some underground bunkers. Science is something people can get involved in."

The number of volunteers surprised the organizers. "The server caught fire a couple of hours after we opened it" in July 2007, he said, burning out from overuse. More than 270,000 people have signed up to classify galaxies so far.

One of them is Hanny van Arkel, a schoolteacher in Holland, who found out about the site after her favorite musician, Brian May, guitarist for the rock group Queen, wrote about it on his blog.

After clicking around on Galaxy Zoo for a while one summer, she landed on an image with what she describes as a "very bright blue spot" on it. "I read the tutorial and there was nothing about a blue spot," she says, so she posted a note to the site's forums. "I was just really wondering, What is this?"

Her curiosity paid off.

Scientists now believe the spot is a highly unusual gas cloud that could help explain the life cycle of quasars. The Hubble telescope was recently pointed at the object, now nicknamed "Hanny's Voorwerp," the Dutch word for object.

Astronomers have published papers about the discovery, listing Ms. van Arkel as a co-author. "Don't ask me to explain them to you, but I am a co-author of them," she says with a laugh.

Now other disciplines have approached Galaxy Zoo to find out how they can use the approach." (http://chronicle.com/article/The-Rise-of-Crowd-Science/65707/)

Gene Wikis

By Jeffrey R. Young:

"Astronomy is just one of many disciplines being reshaped by a data explosion. Bioscientists have found that decoding entire genomes also meant cultural shifts for their profession. Again, persuading professors to take the time to share proved to be a challenge.

A case in point is a project to create a genetic road map using the same wiki platform that supports Wikipedia.

It started under the name of GenMAPP, or Gene Map Annotator and Pathway Profiler. Participation rates were low at first because researchers had little incentive to format their findings and add them to the project. Tenure decisions are made by the number of articles published, not the amount of helpful material placed online. "The academic system is not set up to reward the sharing of the most usable aspects of the data," said Alexander Pico, bioinformatics group leader and software engineer at the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease.

In 2007, Mr. Pico, a developer for GenMAPP, and his colleagues added an easy-to-edit Wiki to the project (making it less time-consuming to participate) and allowed researchers to mark their gene pathways as private until they had published their findings in academic journals (alleviating concerns that they would be pre-empting their published research). Since then, participation has grown quickly, in part because more researchers—and even some pharmaceutical companies—are realizing that genetic information is truly useful only when aggregated.

"There's a sort of a call to action in the biology community right now toward sharing data in usable formats and usable ways," says Mr. Pico. But he admits some in the field are still skeptical that sharing will become the norm." (http://chronicle.com/article/The-Rise-of-Crowd-Science/65707/)


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