On Crowdsourcing

Categories: funding
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Published on: February 7, 2013

On Monday the BBSRC launched a ‘Crowdsourcing’ call, the first of its kind in the UK. Up to £2M is available to support a number of crowdsourcing projects. The intention to submit deadline is 5 March, and the full proposal needs to be in by 9 April. 

Crowdsourcing has principally been used for mapping phenomena across large areas, like the ash dieback app launched in the UK last year, or using as many willing volunteers as possible to do something that would take a single researcher and his computer more than their lifetime to complete, from working out potential protein structures with Foldit to searching for aliens with SETI. I searched the web for examples of crowdsourcing, and most of the projects are built on one of these two themes. Despite this, the list I made of the crowdsourced projects I found demonstrates the scope and power of crowdsourcing. Barely any on the list are plant science, but all involve general concepts applicable to many disciplines. Think about if there’s anywhere in your research crowdsourcing could be of assistance. If you have an idea for a crowdsourcing project but didn’t know where to start to set it up, this is an excellent opportunity to kick-start it.


Crowdsourcing expertise

Mavandadi et al. (PLoS One. 2012; 7(5): e37245) prove that non-expert members of the public can learn to analyse microscopic images of red blood cells and diagnose malaria as well as medical professionals can.

The deadly E.coli outbreak in Germany in 2011 inspired a crowdsourcing genomics project which identified the toxic strain.

Open AshDieBack is a community project to sequencing and analysing the genomes of ash trees and ash dieback strains damaging them in the UK.

The Earth Microbiome Project is a communal, multidisciplinary effort to multidisciplinary effort to analyse microbial communities across the globe. Researchers can add their samples to the list for sequencing, or use the community guidelines for sequencing their own samples. Anyone who is capable and interested can contribute to the bioinformatics analysis.

A PhD student from Toronto used expertise from all over the world while carrying out a survey of fish diversity in the Cuyuni River, Guyana. His team had collected 5000 species of fish but could not identify them all – so he uploaded their photographs onto Facebook and let professional and amateur fish taxonomy experts work classify the species.


Crowdsourcing data collection

Users of the Ashtag app record occurrences of ash dieback, giving the Forestry Commission up to date information about the spread of ash dieback.

iNaturalist started life as a Masters’ project from three students, and now has a thriving community of contributors who share information on every kind of wildlife and natural environment. The information is an online encyclopaedia with geographical location built in, but the creators hope that if enough people record their observations, it will become a resource for scientists and land managers to monitor changes in biodiversity.

The Zoological Society of London’s InstantWild App is the crowdsourced part of a project monitoring threatened animal populations. App users are sent images of wildlife captured by motion sensor-triggered cameras hidden in natural habitats. Users classify the animal, saving the zoologists the time-consuming job of sorting through thousands of images.


Gamifying crowdsourcing

Foldit, the protein folding game, enables players to find potential protein structures. Seven papers have been published from Foldit so far.

A similar project is eteRNA, an RNA folding game – with the twist is that one RNA molecule per week is physically synthesised.

For a few molecular biology crowdsourcing games, see Genegames.org, which was set up by a high school student.


Crowdsourced processing power

3.5 billion molecules were screened for anti-cancer properties on computers all over the world while on ‘screensaver time’ in the Screensaver Lifesaver project that finished in 2002 (see also Nature Rev Drug Disc 1:551-555 (paywalled)).


Crowdsourced Information Portals

Wikipedia is the ultimate crowdsourcing effort, and it has spawned many off-shoots. One is Gene Wiki, an effort by the Su lab from the Scripps Research institute, which aims to write and maintain an up-to-date, community reviewed Wikipedia article for every gene in the human genome. There is a more general Molecular and Cell Biology WikiProject, which I’m sure we’ve all used at some point.

Amphibiaweb is a community effort to create an amphibian information portal, with a home page for every amphibian species in the world.

LitCloud finds interesting papers for individual users, based on the actions of all its users. For a far more detailed description, see their about page.


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