GalaxyZoo

Citizen galatic exploration at Galaxyzoo.org

The advent of the web and social media has brought with them the rise of distributed production as manifested in open source programming, citizen science, crowdsourcing of creativity, rise of the professional-amateur, and distributed manufacturing projects. These ah-hoc ventures have grown from their nascent roots to full-blown endeavors. Despite their occasion hiccups, these projects have been successful.  There’s no denying the great promise: thousands of curious and passionate individuals working together to get a job done whose participation is motivated almost completely by the human urge to create and participate. An untapped public waits to learn and share everything they can about the world around them. The public here does not include everybody – even the open source programming community is small – but each project appeals to a sizeable community/crowd nonetheless. Of course, the goal is to extend these endeavors to all interested individuals with minimal expenditure and maximum results.

The minimal expenditure is a relatively simple issue: most projects are driven by the inherent open format of the internet and provide a platform for citizen participation that is cheap, accessible, and (mostly) transparent. The results are more difficult to gauge, but nothing a little bit of computational magic cannot solve (read: I’m not going to discuss it here). The biggest challenge is choosing projects of an appropriate scale – or breaking large ones down into more manageable chunks – and user-friendliness that interested lay may participate easily with little or no training, while simultaneously sparking the desire to engage.

In terms of citizen science, these projects are easily envisioned for planetary science or birdwatching (links needed) – people dealing with stuff that can be understood with basic human intuition. Even the galaxy zoo project allows individuals interested in participating to screen through thousands of very simple pictures and to distinguish between galaxies in a very intuitive way. Life science projects – particularly those that deal with molecular and cellular biology – will be more difficult as they require more specialized training and understanding in abstract and often counter-intuitive models in order participate in the simplest experiments. In order to make these projects amenable for lay researchers, this will require visually meaningful presentation of data, access to the academic community, and especially open access to primary and review literature on the systems involved which are often obscure.

Despite the obvious difficulties, the benefits are clear: large scale resolution of highly complex problems in a cheap, efficient manner that maintains the public integrity of public science.

Some important issues need to be worked out – not just for citizen science, but also for distributed production as a whole. Please feel free to comment on solutions to these problems:

  1. Attribution – Everyone who is involved wants recognition. If we distributed the means of producing academic research, scientists would object, as they would be more likely to “get scooped” in their research.
  2. Funding – Where does the money come from? Where/to whom does it go? No-one wants to fund a “going nowhere” project, but without a little risk, there’s not likely to be any success.
  3. Incentives – Cui bono? Who benefits? And how? One aspect of this involves the balancing of intrinsic incentives (community, participation, passion, recognition) with extrinsic benefits (money, goods, services, etc).
  4. Structure – Should these projects be well-organized and structured, or ad hoc, done with little planning or organization? How should the rules be established?

If I were to summarize my own thoughts/opinions, I believe that a model similar to the Creative Commons licensing needs to be followed so that everyone can have attribution for what they’ve done. I think micro-funding (similar to the micro credit model) on a per-project basis would be advantageous. I think that the organization should strive to reduce most if not all extrinsic motivations in favor of more intrinsic one based off the human need for creative participation (read: game theory). Finally, I think that organizations should be more or less completely (task forces) ad hoc, but establish clear rules for participation for the duration of the organization’s existence.

I look forward to the discussion here, on facebook, or twitter.

Twitter: @h2oindio

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