About Citizizen Science

This blog is a summary of various news items and pointers on how scientific research is being transformed by new web 2.0 tools, web services and Service Oriented Architectures (SOA). Not only will this transform science through the development of cyber-infrastructure and eSceince but it will enable greater participation by students and the general public in the scientific process in the analysis of data and control of instruments

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The age of Citizen cyber-infrastructure

[For more examples of citizen cyber-infrastructure please see http://citizen-science.blogspot.com/. Some excerpts from iSGTW--BSA]
Opinion - The age of citizen cyberspace

Using LHC@home, particle beam dynamics can be studied with volunteer computing. Image courtesy CERN
(Fran├žois Grey, one of the key people behind the founding of the present-day iSGTW and a frequent contributor to these pages, argues that with volunteer computing, we are about to embark upon a new era of “citizen science.”)

….PrimeGrid, is tackling a host of numerical challenges, such as finding the longest arithmetic progression of prime numbers (the current record is 25). Professional mathematicians now eagerly collaborate with Rytis to analyze the gems that his volunteers dig up. Yet he funds his project by selling PrimeGrid mugs and t-shirts. In short, Rytis and his online volunteers are a web-enabled version of a venerable tradition: they are “citizen scientists.”
There are nearly 100 science projects using such volunteer computing. Like PrimeGrid, most are based on an open-source software platform called BOINC (see 15 October 2008 iSGTW, “Reaching for the Exa-scale”) with volunteer computing. Many address topical themes, such as modelling climate change with ClimatePrediction.net), developing drugs for AIDS with FightAids@home, or simulating the spread of malaria with MalariaControl.net. (See 7 May 2008 iSGTW, “WISDOM unplugged: Malaria drug-leads graduate to the wet lab”)

Fundamental science projects are also well represented. Einstein@Home (iSGTW 14 May 2008) analyzes data from gravitational wave detectors, MilkyWay@Home simulates galactic evolution, and LHC@home studies accelerator beam dynamics. Each of these projects has easily attracted tens of thousands of volunteers.

A new wave of online science projects, which can be described as “volunteer thinking,” takes the idea of participative science to a higher level. A popular example is the project GalaxyZoo, where volunteers can classify images of galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey as either elliptical or spiral, via a simple web interface. In a matter of months, some 100,000 volunteers classified more than 1 million galaxies. People do this sort of pattern recognition more accurately than any computer algorithm. And by asking many volunteers to classify the same image, their statistical average proves to be more accurate than even a professional astronomer.

Going one step farther in interactivity, the project Foldit is an online game that scores a player’s ability to fold a protein molecule into a minimal-energy structure. Through a nifty web interface, players can shake, wiggle and stretch different parts of the molecule. Again, people are often much faster at this task than computers, because of their aptitude to reason in three dimensions. And the best protein folders are usually teenage gaming enthusiasts rather than trained biochemists.

Who can benefit from this web-based boom in citizen science? In my view, scientists in the developing world stand to gain most by effectively plugging in to philanthropic resources: the computers and brains of supportive citizens, primarily those in industrialized countries with the necessary equipment and leisure time. A project called Africa@home, which I've been involved in, has trained dozens of African scientists to use BOINC. Some are already developing new volunteer-thinking projects, and the first African BOINC server is running at the University of Cape Town.

A new initiative called Asia@home was launched last month with a workshop at Academia Sinica in Taipei and a seminar at the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing, to drum up interest in that region. Asia represents an enormous potential, in terms of both the numbers of people with internet access (more Chinese are now online than Americans) and the high levels of education and interest in science.

To encourage such initiatives further, CERN, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research and the University of Geneva will establish a Citizen Cyberscience Center on 2 July. This will help disseminate volunteer computing in the developing world and encourage new technical approaches. For example, as mobile phones become more powerful they, too, can surely be harnessed.
There are about one billion internet connections on the planet and three billion mobile phones. That represents a huge opportunity for citizen science.