Crowdsourcing Brainpower

If you want to think outside the box, ask someone outside the box for their thoughts.

In 2007, a team of astrophysicists from Great Britain and the United States asked the public for help. They had gathered a million images of galaxies photographed by a telescope at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico and needed help classifying each one. Each image had to be classified by 20 different people to decrease the likelihood of an incorrect classification, and the scientists simply didn’t have the time or manpower to complete 20 million classifications on their own.

So they created Galaxy Zoo*, a user-friendly website inviting laypeople to classify a galaxy as spiral or elliptical, smooth or bulging, with arms or without. They thought it would take the public three to five years to finish the job. It took three weeks.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]The human brain is capable of analytical nuance in ways that computers aren’t.[/quote]

These efforts produced real science, resulting in the publication of nearly 60 scientific articles based on the Galaxy Zoo findings, making the project an especially successful example of “citizen science”—the participation of nonspecialists in the scientific process.

Though citizen science may appear at first to be a new phenemonenon, laypeople have long aided scientists in their investigations of the natural world. In the past, that often meant passionately curious laypeople acting as data collectors. They spied on birds through binoculars and took notes on characteristics and behaviors. They trained their backyard telescopes on the night sky and documented the celestial objects they spotted.

If you want to think outside the box, ask someone outside the box for their thoughts.

They still do at places like Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, where every year some 200,000 birders help report one million bird observations to eBird every month. More than 60 scientific papers have used Cornell’s citizen-science bird data since 1997.

But today’s citizen scientists are more likely to be data processors than collectors. Scientists are often overwhelmed by the sheer amount of data they’ve been able to collect thanks to technological advances. There are simply not enough hours in the day—or graduate students in a university—to process and analyze, let alone understand, it all. And the human brain is capable of analytical nuance in ways that computers simply aren’t.

Since Galaxy Zoo’s big success, millions of citizen scientists have answered the call for crowdsourced brainpower. Galaxy Zoo spawned an entire “Zooniverse” of citizen science projects in a range of fields: space, climate, humanities, nature, biology, and physics. You can hunt for planets, transcribe ancient Egyptian scrolls, identify animals in the Serengeti and help researchers find a cure for cancer, among many other projects.

These citizen science endeavors have produced real findings, which have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals and popular science magazines, including Scientific American, Discover, and National Geographic. These publications act as a bridge between the work scientists do and an intellectually curious public, many maintaining up-to-date online lists of intriguing research projects.

Countless universities and research institutes have launched citizen science projects, as well. SciFinder is a good place to find many of them. Founded by Science Cheerleader Darlene Cavalier, the site links to 1,000 projects. A good number are more participatory than analytical, but nevertheless intriguing.

Want to combat zombie flies that are parasitizing honey bees? Try ZomBee Watch. Interested in honing forensic anthropologists’ ability to determine the age of a skeleton by its teeth? Check out the Dental Arcade Game. It’s too late for you to swab your cell phone or your shoes and send the microbial samples up to the International Space Station for analysis through Project Merccuri Microbes in Space!—it blasted off March 30—but at least you can still play Genes in Space.

What benefits does citizen science have? For one thing, it can develop scientific literacy in the public. Either out of ignorance or sheer opportunism, too many people deny essential, well-established, undeniable scientific truths about the way our world works, from evolution and climate change to vaccines. Increasing scientific literacy can lower the chance that the average person will be uninformed.

For another, it can save scientists money. Research funding has nose-dived in the past decade; for work to continue, the money gap must be closed somehow. As Ars Technica reported, a recent study found that Zooniverse space researchers have saved $1.5 million thanks to public participation.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Increasing scientific literacy can lower the chance that the average person will be uninformed.[/quote]

But as Ars Technica also reported, the same study found that while many people sign up for new citizen science projects, a significantly smaller amount stick around for the long haul. Most participants drop out almost immediately. Much of the work is being done by a core group of dedicated citizen scientists: 10 percent do 80 percent of the work.

And yet the proliferation of citizen science projects continues. Citizen science has become so popular that leading institutions devoted to public engagement with science formed the Citizen Science Association to nurture citizen science projects across the world—and develop best practices for designing them.

In February, the organization held its inaugural conference in San Jose, California in association with the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting, the preeminent annual science conference in the United States. In attendance were some 650 participants from 25 countries. In his opening remarks, Rick Bonney, the director of public engagement in science at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, said, “We’re here to nurture what might be a revolution” in answering science’s—and society's—big questions.

In his keynote speech, evolutionary biologist Chris Filardi, of the American Museum of Natural History, outlined how citizen science is changing the way scientific questions are framed and who is involved in asking those questions, which is in turn transforming science. He noted that citizen scientists frequently uncover insights that expose the obvious. They can see things scientists might overlook due to their narrow focus. That is, if you want to think outside the box, ask someone outside the box for their thoughts.

Crowdsourcing our collective brainpower, it turns out, is pretty good science.

Illustrations by Brian Hurst *The author has previously explored Galaxy Zoo for TIME Magazine.