Crowdsourcing - Be a Part of Something BIG!

Those who coined the term "Information Age" were certainly not kidding. We produce information and data at such a steep rate that it is near impossible to track and store it all. The major search engines like Google and Microsoft's Bing are scrambling to build new Data Storage Facilities just to keep up. According to the thought provoking video Did You Know, last year we produced 4 exabytes of information (that's 4 with 19 zeros after it). 

Now while this data includes YouTube videos and SPAM emails, it also includes new galaxies discovered in the heavens, potential new medications for AIDS, maybe radio signals from other planets. Yet, there are not enough professionals out there to look through all of the data and find what is useful and what it irrelevant.

Humans built computers so they could communicate, calculate, and simply do things faster. Now computers need humans to look intelligently at the data and interpret it. In 2006 Jeff Howe wrote an article in Wired Magazine called "The Rise of Crowdsourcing". A combination of crowd and outsourcing, it details a necessary new route for our species to work with data. According to Clay Shirky we have lots of free time (as a species), if useful projects are able to harness that free time we can collectively accomplish some great things.

To make this point clear, this is not an individual task but something that simply could not have been done easily or at all without the collective power of all of us. You and your students are capable of being a part of these projects. Some need active participation but some only need your computer's spare cycles (e.g. when you are not working on it). 

Here is a video from the Solve for X conference where one of the founders of Foldit (more info below) demonstrates how powerful crowdsourcing can be.

Some examples of crowdsourcing effectively serving a need are:
  • Ushahidi - Referred to in the Cognitive Surplus Video, allowed reports of violence in Kenya to be collected easily. This software was later Open Sources and used in the Haiti earthquake, and to know when road conditions are bad in Washington D.C.
  • Netflix - After you watch a video on Netflix, the site will recommend others to you. A couple of years ago, Netflix offered a one million dollar prize to someone who could improve the service. Groups stepped up and competed back and forth to best each other's algorithim.
  • Open Source - The philosophy behind open source is summed up in Linus' Law, "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow". This refers to Linus Torvalds who started the development of the Linux Operating System. Rather than have a few programmers working on software/hardware, the code is freely published so others can improve and modify as needed. This has proven to be extremely successful with the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox Browser, Open Office, and many more listed on my software recommendations page.

So what projects are available for you and your students to participate in? The number grows every day and spans all disciplines:
  • Guttenberg - An amazing site with lots of free literature available for download. But how did all of that literature get there? Through their Distributed Proofreaders program, you can sign up and review books that have been scanned or transcribed for typos or grammatical errors thus making more resources available to the public. LibriVox provides an opportunity to record books to audio.
  • Galaxy Zoo - This is fun for all ages. Telescopes are becoming more and more powerful and scientists cannot keep up with all of the new pictures coming in. After taking a brief training, you are provided the opportunity to classify what type of celestial object you are seeing a picture of (e.g. galaxy, star). The most famous instance of this was when a Dutch School teacher named Hanny van Arkel discovered such a unique object that scientists are still studying its nature. This object might never have emerged as relevant had it not been crowdsourced.
  • FoldIt - When was the last time you could say that playing a video game could win you a Noble Prize for science? Innovative thinkers at the University of Washington developed a game that made it fun to discover new proteins and molecule structures. This has led to greater understanding of protein folding and structure and can reduce the amount of research and development needed to create new cures for HIV/AIDS, Cancer, and Alzheimer's.
  • BOINC - Perhaps you want to contribute but just don't have the time, then BOINC is for you. Created at UC Berkeley, it allows scientists to run complex data analysis by using the combined computing power of humanity. 
    • For example, creating models of what could happen if our global average temperature increased by 1 degree is too difficult for any one computer, and super computers are expensive and at a premium for time. However, when you download the BOINC software to your computer, it will run the calculations when you are not using your computer (like a screensaver) and then send the completed data back to the scientists.
    • There are projects related to global climate change, the search for extra terrestrial life, prime number calculation and more. You don't have to do anything except download the software and let it do all the work. Note: this will not affect your work or privacy.
  • Brainrack - Companies post challenges and how much of a reward they are willing to offer. Then students submit their ideas and they are voted on by the community. The winner gets the prize money and an awesome resume/college application blurb.
  • Phylo - Support research in comparative genomics by playing this game simple enough for elementary students.
Maybe you are saying to yourself, "well this is amazing stuff but what has crowdsourcing done for me lately?" If that is you, then you might want to consider looking at crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter, where anyone can propose a project and ask the world to fund it through micropayments. 

Projects that individuals or groups were previously unable to do because of funding, are now happening. That is the fundamental lesson from crowdsourcing. Some might say the computer is taking away our humanity, but the combined power of our species connected by the Internet is making altruistic acts, discoveries, and creative expression more possible than ever before. When we choose to give our free time or resources to a worthy cause, we can make a huge difference.