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Crowd-sourced science: powerful new science tool

24.01.2012, Age: 3530 days

Crowdfunding, crowdcreation, crowdvoting, crowd wisdom, are different ways to involve large groups of people in solving particular problems. Crowdsourcing is rapidly becoming a very powerful addition to the toolbox of many scientists. The growth of social media, and particularly networks such as COSIS.net, is giving crowdsourcing a strong boost. (Updated 24 Jan 2012.)

Crowdsourcing has been applied in a very wide range of activities, from the Katrina PeopleFinder Project, to journalism, urban planning, government problem solving, buddysourcing, social bookmarking, web-based idea competition, to artistic projects. The latter include crowdfunding of books and films (e.g. The Age of Stupid, a 2009 British film by Franny Armstrong) and Indie Screenings. A spectacular example is the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, joining 101 musicians from 33 countries. Wikipedia, itself a good example, gives further examples of crowdsourcing projects.

Examples in science include applications in:

Astronomy: Galaxy Zoo, a citizen science project that lets members of the public classify a million galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Palaeontology: the Open Dinosaur Project.

Genetics: EteRNA, a game in which players attempt to design RNA sequences that fold into a given configuration.

Ornithology: the Christmas Bird Count by the Audubon Society.

Biodiversity: the Earthwatch project, one of the biggest citizen-science projects ever, collected information that  will help researchers to understand how climate change is affecting forests

Historical science: FamilySearch Indexing, creating searchable digital indexes for scanned images of historical documents.

Legal science: Juratis, where users may ask and answer questions on any (US) legal matter.

The Open Source Science Project is a platform for academic researchers seeking to develop, finance, and conduct basic research projects.

The advantages, particularly of web-based crowdsourcing, are great: problems can be investigated relatively fast and at low cost, a larger reservoir of expertise and knowledge can be tapped than would otherwise be possible, the results are owned by a large community thereby facilitating the wide dissemination of scientific ideas to the general public. However, the quality of the data collected by crowdsourcing may require special attention.

Updated 24 Jan 2012: This week, Nature Biotechnology publishes a report of of a successful collaboration od scientists and gamers. See Nature News: Victory for crowdsourced biomolecule design. "Players of the online game Foldit guide researchers to a better enzyme." "An enzyme designed by players of the protein-folding game Foldit was better than anything scientists could come up with."

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