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By John Toon

Crowd science is making possible research projects that might otherwise be out of reach, tapping thousands of volunteers to help with tasks such as classifying animal photos, studying astronomical images, and counting sea stars in photos. Also known as citizen science, these efforts to involve ordinary people in research have attracted interest from policymakers, scientific agencies, and others.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences takes a comprehensive look at this trend, finding common threads in projects hosted on Zooniverse, now the most popular crowd science platform.

“We are seeing projects that couldn’t be done before, and we are seeing them done on a massive scale and at a fast speed,” said Henry Sauermann, an associate professor in the Scheller College of Business at Georgia Tech. “However, these are not conventional laboratory research projects going online. It’s not a substitution of crowd science for conventional research projects.”

Though a few crowd science projects require technical knowledge from contributors, most expect little more than the ability to follow simple instructions — reporting what animals are doing in photos, for example.

“The key is to translate the complicated science into something that’s easily done by people who don’t need to understand the scientific details,” explained Sauermann.

Though crowd science is attracting considerable interest, it’s actually not a new idea. Ornithologists have used amateur birdwatchers to count populations of different species and report their locations. What’s new is access by the general public to masses of scientific images and data made possible by the broad reach of the Internet and personal computers.

With support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Sauermann and co-author Chiara Franzoni from the Politecnico di Milano in Italy studied seven of the projects hosted on Zooniverse. During 180 days, volunteers contributed 129,500 hours of labor worth $1.5 million.

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John Toon

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