Citizen cyberscience: the new age of the amateur

26 August 2011

How the audience can become part of the show in science.


The world of journalism has been turned upside-down in recent years by social media technologies that allow a wider range of people to take part in gathering, filtering and distributing news. Although some professional journalists resisted this trend at first, most now appreciate the likes of Facebook, Twitter and blogs in expanding the sources of news and opinion and accelerating dissemination: the audience has become part of the show.

Could the internet one day wreak the same sort of social change on the world of science, breaking down the distinction between amateur and professional? In the world of high-energy physics, that might seem unlikely. What amateur can really contribute something substantial to, say the analysis of LHC data? Yet in many fields of science, the scope for amateur contributions is growing fast.

Modern astronomy, for example, has a long tradition of inspired amateur contributions, such as spotting comets or supernovae. Now, the internet has broadened the range of tasks that amateurs can tackle. For example, the project GalaxyZoo, led by researchers at the University of Oxford, invites volunteers to participate in web-based classification of galaxy images. Such pattern recognition is a task where the human mind still tends to outperform computer algorithms.

Not only can astronomers attract hundreds of thousands of free and eager assistants this way, but occasionally those helpers can themselves make interesting discoveries. This was the case for a Dutch school teacher, Hanny van Arkel, who spotted a strange object in one of the GalaxyZoo images that had stumped even the professional astronomers. It now bears the name “Hanny’s Voorwerp”, the second word meaning “object” in Dutch.

GalaxyZoo is just one of many volunteer-based projects making waves in astronomy. Projects such as Stardust@home, Planet Hunters, Solar Watch and MilkyWay@home all contribute to cutting-edge research. The Einstein@home project uses volunteer computing power to search for – among other things – pulsar signals in radio-astronomy data. Run by researchers at the Max-Planck Institute for Gravitational Research, the project published its first discoveries in Science last year, acknowledging the names of the volunteers whose computers had made each discovery.

Crowdsourcing research

However, it is in fields outside those traditionally accessible to amateurs where some of the most impressive results of citizen-powered science are beginning to be felt. Consider the computer game FoldIt, where players compete to fold protein molecules into their lowest energy configuration. Humans routinely outperform computers at this task, because the human mind is uniquely apt at such spatial puzzles; and teenagers typically out-compete trained biochemists. What the scientists behind the FoldIt project, based at the University of Washington, have also discovered is that the players were spontaneously collaborating to explore new folding strategies – a possibility the researchers had not anticipated. In other words, the amateur protein folders were initiating their own research programme.


Could high-energy physics also benefit from this type of approach? Peter Skands, a theorist at CERN, thinks so. He has been working with colleagues on a project about fitting models to LHC data, where delicate tuning of the model parameters by eye can help the physicists achieve the best overall fit. Experience with a high-school intern convinced Skands that even people not versed in the gory details of LHC physics could solve this highly visual problem efficiently.

Volunteers can already contribute their processor time to another project that Skands is involved in – simulating collisions in the LHC for the recently launched LHC@Home 2.0 project, where 200 volunteers have already simulated more than 5 billion collision events. Such volunteer computing projects, like Einstein@Home, are not as passive as they might appear. Many of the volunteers have spent countless hours helping developers in the early alpha-test stages of the project by providing detailed bug reports. Message boards and a credit system for the amount of processing completed – features provided by an open-source platform called BOINC – add elements of social networking and gaming to the project.

The LHC@Home 2.0 project also relies on CernVM, a virtual machine technology developed at CERN that enables complex simulation code to run easily on the diverse platforms provided by volunteers. Running fully fledged physics simulations for the LHC on home computers – a prospect that seemed technically impossible when the first LHC@home project was introduced in 2004 to simulate proton-beam stability in the LHC ring – now has the potential to expand significantly the computing resources for the LHC experiments. Projects like LHC@home typically draw tens of thousands of volunteers and their computers, a significant fraction of the estimated 250,000 processor cores currently supporting the four LHC experiments.

A humanitarian angle

LHC@home 2.0 is an example of a project that has benefited from the support of the Citizen Cyberscience Centre (CCC), which was set up in 2009 in partnership between CERN, the UN Institute of Training and Research and the University of Geneva. A major objective of the CCC is to promote volunteer computing and volunteer thinking for researchers in developing regions, because this approach effectively provides huge resources to scientists at next to no cost. Such resources can also be used to tackle pressing humanitarian and development challenges.

One example is the project Computing for Clean Water, led by researchers at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The project was initiated by the CCC with the sponsorship of a philanthropic programme run by IBM, called World Community Grid. The goal is to simulate how water flows through carbon nanotubes and explore the use of arrays of nanotubes for low-cost water filtration and desalination. The simulations would require thousands of years on a typical university computing cluster but can be done in just months using volunteer-computing resources aggregated through World Community Grid.

Another example is volunteer mapping for UNOSAT, the operational satellite-applications programme for UNITAR, which is based at CERN. Although a range of crowd-based mapping techniques are available these days, the use of satellite images to assess accurately the extent of damage in regions devastated by war or natural disasters is not trivial, even for experts. However, rapid and accurate assessment is vital for humanitarian purposes in estimating reconstruction costs and rapid mobilization of the international community and NGOs.


With the help of researchers at the University of Geneva and HP Labs in Palo Alto, UNOSAT is testing new approaches in crowdsourcing damage assessment by volunteers. These involve using statistical approaches to improve accuracy, as well as models inspired by economics where volunteers can vote on the quality of others’ results.

There are hundreds of citizen-cyberscience projects engaging millions of volunteers but the vast majority supports researchers in industrialized countries. A large part of the CCC activities involve raising awareness in developing regions. With the support of the Shuttleworth Foundation in South Africa, the CCC has been organizing a series of “hackfests”: two-day events where scientists, software developers and citizen enthusiasts meet to build prototypes of new citizen-based projects, which the scientists can then go on to refine. Hackfests have already taken place in Beijing, Taipei, Rio de Janeiro and Berlin, with more planned this year in South Africa and India.

The topics covered to date include: using mobile-phone Bluetooth signals as a proxy for bacteria, tracking how air-borne bacterial diseases such as tuberculosis spread in buildings, monitoring earthquakes using the motion sensors built in to laptop computers and digitizing tables of economics data from government archives. Because the “end-users” – the citizen volunteers themselves – participate in the events, there is a healthy focus on making projects as accessible and attractive as possible, so that even more volunteers sign up and stay active.

At such events, when asked what sort of rewards the most engaged volunteers might appreciate for their online efforts, one striking response – echoed on several occasions – is the opportunity to make a suggestion to the scientists for the course of their future research. In other words, there is a desire on behalf of volunteers to be involved more actively in the process that defines what science gets done. The volunteers who propose this are quite humble in their expectations – they understand that not every idea they have will be useful or feasible. Whether scientists will reject this sort of offer of advice as unwanted interference, or embrace the potentially much larger brainpower that informed amateurs could provide, remains to be seen. But the sentiment is clear: in science, as in journalism, the audience wants to be part of the show.


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