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Crowdsourced Science

Science can sometimes feel like an abstract concept – something that happens in sealed-off labs full of people in white coats making impressive-sounding discoveries. But what if the workings of science can happen much closer than that? In your town, on your street… in your home? 

This isn’t about inviting teams in hazmat suits round for tea (unless you really want to), but instead the idea that science is something that we can all get involved with.

An ever-growing number of crowdsourced science projects are giving us the opportunity to participate in scientific research – by taking pictures, recording noises, logging data and playing games.

Organisations as big as NASA, CERN and AstraZeneca are even turning their scientific problems into public competitions, offering big money prizes to people who can find solutions where experts have drawn a blank.

There are any number of reasons to get involved with one of these projects – for fun, to support a good cause, or to earn some extra cash. What’s more, by opening up the scientific process, perhaps we can all get a more meaningful sense of the big questions scientists are trying to answer.

Watch my short video to find out more...

Freelancing for NASA (sort of…)

NASA aims to have astronauts living and working on the Moon by 2030. But to sustain a human presence there, we need to be able to harvest and move large quantities of the Moon’s resources – using its soil to construct buildings and mining for water hidden under its surface. The technology we would use for this kind of work here on Earth just won’t cut it in the dark, freezing, and zero-gravity lunar sphere.

NASA opened up this conundrum to the public, challenging “industry, students, small businesses, and garage inventors” to find a breakthrough.

Following the launch of the challenge in late 2020, NASA received 31 submissions. Six have now progressed to the final round with a $1 million prize awaiting the team whose prototype moon robot fares best when put through its paces at NASA’s test facility later this year.

The Break the Ice Lunar Challenge is just one example of how NASA embraces the power of crowdsourcing to drive innovation. It’s also currently running challenges to develop solutions for growing food and storing energy in space and for building small satellites capable of advanced operations beyond the Moon. 

Similar competitions have been running since 2005, offering up millions of dollars in prizes for anyone who can develop ‘revolutionary solutions’ to some of the space agency’s biggest challenges. This has led to breakthroughs in 3D printing, robotics, and an emerging new technology for converting carbon dioxide into sugar.

Opportunities to get involved in NASA’s work extend beyond the cutting edge of innovation. Anyone with an internet connection can support the search for new planetary systems by joining a citizen science project to sift through millions of images from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) telescope.

Strength in numbers

From the discovery of penicillin and X-rays to the invention of Velcro and the microwave oven, there’s a long history of innovations and breakthroughs coming from seemingly unlikely sources.

As David Epstein writes in his brilliant book Range (the inspiration for a previous iluli video), the most difficult and intractable problems can often be solved when they are opened up beyond the specialists in a narrow discipline. 

Platforms including Kaggle and Wazoku Crowd (which in 2020 bought out the open-talent community InnoCentive) make it easier than ever before for the likes of NASA, CERN and AstraZeneca to invite the wider public to solve problems that have stumped their huge teams of experts. These crowdsourcing exercises have had some notable successes.

When the Exxon-Valdez oil supertanker struck the Bligh Reef in the Prince William Sound, Alaska on 24 March 1989, it spilled almost 11 million gallons of crude oil. It was the biggest environmental disaster of its kind in US waters at the time, polluting over 1,000 miles of coastline and severely affecting wildlife. An estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals and countless salmon and herring were killed, and the effects were long lasting.

Almost two decades later, efforts to clean up the spill were still ongoing. The Oil Spill Recovery Institute (OSRI) turned to the crowdsourcing platform InnoCentive to overcome a problem that was puzzling experts – how to separate oil from water on recovery barges after they had frozen.

The winning solution came from John Davis, a construction worker who had no experience in the oil industry or recovery efforts. Davis applied techniques he had learned from building with concrete and, remarkably, it worked. 18 years on from the original spill, this breakthrough vastly improved the pace and depth of the oil cleanup.

Announcing the solution, OSRI research manager Scott Pegau said:

“If this Challenge were easily solved by the people within the industry, it would have been solved earlier. I’m fascinated to see that our winning solution uses related technology found in the concrete industry, we would never have found this through our regular [...] process.”

Elsewhere, crowdsource challenges have helped the charity Habitat for Humanity innovate technologies to give 750 million people access to clean water and protect millions living in at-risk homes from natural disasters.

The platform Kaggle, which specialises in AI and machine learning, has helped to make ships and boats safer by improving their navigation systems – the result of more than 3,000 people taking part in the platform’s Iceberg Classifier Challenge

Spotting walruses from space (and other opportunities)

If you’re feeling inspired, the good news is that there is no shortage of crowdsourced science projects to get involved with. Wazoku Crowd and Kaggle currently list more than 100 active challenges between them. The website SciStarter provides links to over 1,000 citizen science projects, with a big focus on helping scientists with data collection. Many of these can be done remotely from anywhere in the world. If gaming is more your thing, then CitizenScienceGames is the place to get started. Gamers can contribute to biodiversity research, help NASA classify coral reefs and even design new cancer treatments.

Here’s a few highlights:

1. Become a detective and spot walrus from space | WWF

Walrus are facing the reality of the climate crisis and we need to know more about how they are affected. Anyone can get involved in conservation science by searching for walrus in satellite images from space. More than 26,000 volunteers (known as Walrus Detectives) have participated in this World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and British Antarctic Survey (BAS) initiative, helping to track walrus populations and understand their changing environment by scouring millions of satellite images – all without further disturbing their natural habitat.

2. Map the changing coastline | CoastSnap

If ‘Walrus Detective’ doesn’t sound like the opportunity you’re looking for then how about beach scientist? CoastSnap is a worldwide citizen science initiative to better understand, track and predict changes to the coastline. Anyone with a smartphone can participate by taking and uploading photos, with knowledge built up over time through repeated photographs of the same spot. Beaches in several countries including the UK, US and Australia have official CoastSnap camera cradles dotted around to encourage people to take part, and ensure photos are taken from the same place.

3. Monitor light pollution | Pocket Science

Another project that can make a scientist out of anyone with an iPhone. The Dark Sky Meter app enables you to use your phone’s camera to measure the brightness of the night sky and update data in real time. It means that we can help scientists build a better understanding of light pollution, without the need for traditional, expensive light meters. Data is shared with the Globe at Night and Loss of the Night projects, which are aiming to raise awareness of the impact of light pollution.

4. Map the human brain | EyeWire

What if you could contribute to important neuroscience research just by playing a game? That’s the pitch for EyeWire, an online game developed by Princeton University's Seung Lab. Anyone can play – no scientific background is necessary – and the collective efforts of gamers are helping to map the human brain with a specific focus on the 3D structure of neurons. EyeWire has helped to chart previously unknown circuits and led to the discovery of six new types of neurons, which were named by players. 

Play it here:

5. Help crowdsource cancer treatment | Cancer Crusade

Developed in collaboration with Moffitt Cancer Center, Cancer Crusade is an interactive treatment simulator game that allows players to design treatment plans for virtual cancer patients. Data generated by playing the game is used to explore and improve cancer treatment methods, with the aim of finding new and effective therapeutic strategies. The game is available as a free download on Apple and Android devices.

Recommended links and further reading


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