This is not real grass. And that’s not a real comment, either.
Most stories written about online crowdsourcing discuss the philanthropic aspects of people around the world pitching in on a task, like helping out in a study or identifying photographed objects for the blind. Sure, the microtasks are usually tedious, but they need humans to do them and they provide an income stream, albeit a small one, to people who have no other way to make a livelihood. It’s all good, right?
Well, as it turns out, there are other, darker tasks that only humans can do. Specifically, writing spam comments, participating in online discussions to promote brands, making new social media profiles specifically to skew the conversation on a particular topic, and other, similar practices that UC Santa Barbara professor Ben Zhao calls “crowdturfing.” (That’s a portmanteau of “crowdsourcing” and “astroturfing,” the process of faking grassroots involvement.) As detailed in an ArXiv paper, Zhao and colleagues found that this “evil crowdsourcing on a very large scale” consumes the vast majority of business on crowdsourcing sites: On the second-largest such site in the US, ShortTask, 95% of the transactions were crowdturfing (the largest, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which actively roots out such tasks, had 12%). Zhubajie and Sandaha, major Chinese crowdsourcing sites, turned out to be 88% and 92% ‘turfing tasks, with more than a million dollars paid for crowdturfing each month on Zhubajie alone. Read More
Is that an alpha or a beta?
Sometimes you need a little help from your friends. Taking a leaf from reCaptcha‘s book, archaeologists from the Egypt Exploration Society and Oxford University have taken a voluminous store of ancient Egyptian papyri online in a bid to have web users transcribe the fragments, which come from a lost city known to its inhabitants as the City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish.
What’s the News: America’s intelligence agencies are in the business of predicting the future, using limited amounts of information to divine world events. But even expert analysts and sophisticated algorithms can make mistakes.
That’s why IARPA—which takes on high-risk, high-reward research projects (read: awesome longshots) in US intelligence—is turning to crowdsourcing, reports Adam Rawnsley at Wired.com’s Danger Room. Applied Research Associates will launch an IARPA-backed website this Friday to test whether those of us without security clearances can point the clandestine services in the right direction.
What’s the News: When personal genotyping service 23andMe was founded in 2006, most people were understandably focused on the benefits and the dangers of knowing your chances of getting an incurable disease. But a major part of the company’s business plan was eventually leveraging their users’ information to explore the genetic basis of disease.
With more than 100,000 people now in their database, 23andMe has been turning that into a reality. They’ve just published their first paper focusing on the origins of disease, pinpointing two new areas of the genome involved in Parkinson’s.
With VizWiz, the blind can take a picture, ask a question, and get an answer back from a real person in seconds.
What’s the News: With the web as their eyes, the blind will able to read menus, identify canned foods, and tell whether that park has any free benches without having to walk over. That’s the vision of a team of computer scientists behind an iPhone app called VizWiz, which lets people take a photo of whatever’s perplexing them, record a question like “What denomination is this bill?” and send it off to real people online who’ll respond in a matter of seconds with “That’s a 20.”
What’s the News: British scientists searching for signs of climate change in banded snail shells have completed one of the largest evolutionary studies ever, a massive survey across 15 European countries. Their research associates? More than 6,000 snail-hunting volunteers.
With Luis von Ahn’s reCAPTCHA, users help
correct distorted words in digitized books.
What’s the News: Nothing…yet! But word is that Luis von Ahn–the Carnegie Mellon professor behind the clever projects reCAPTCHA and ESP Game–is bringing his crowdsourcing know-how to bear on the problem of web translation. With Duolingo, a project his lab has been working on for the last year and a half, people learning new languages will serve as translators. How well will that work? It remains to be seen, but according to von Ahn, a private beta version should be launching in several weeks.
One cannot look at a single storm, flood, or drought and say conclusively, “climate change caused that.” But what researchers are attempting to do lately is climate change risk assessment—figuring out how much more likely severe events may become as our world continues to warm up. Two new studies in Nature today try to do just that with heavy rains and flooding, saying definitively that warm temperatures make these events more likely.
More-localized weather extremes have been harder to attribute to climate change until now. “Climate models have improved a lot since ten years ago, when we basically couldn’t say anything about rainfall,” says Gabriele Hegerl, a climate researcher at the University of Edinburgh, UK. [Nature]
Hegerl and climate researcher Francis Zwiers were authors on study number one, a broad-based look at how much humans are contributing to intense precipitation events in the Northern Hemisphere. The simple physics of it makes sense: warmer air can hold more water. To show a link, however, the researchers pulled together a half-century of rainfall records, which they compared to the results of eight different climate models.
Richard Allan, a climate scientist at the University of Reading in England who was not part of the study, called the method employed by Zwiers “very rigorous.” He added, “There’s already been quite a bit of evidence showing that there has been an intensification of rainfall” events across the globe. But until now “there had not been a study that formally identified this human effect on precipitation extremes,” Zwiers said. “This paper provides specific scientific evidence that this is indeed the case.” [Washington Post]
August has been quite the success story for the use of crowdsourcing—farming out work to willing humans or bored computers—to make scientific discoveries. Last week a study showed how citizen scientists helped unravel the structure of proteins by playing a video game. Today, a study in Science documents a newly discovered pulsar—newly discovered by the computers of amateurs, that is.
This find was the first of its kind for Einstein@Home, a project that uses the downtime of a network of volunteer computers to hunt for gravity waves and radio signals. (The more famous SETI@Home uses computer free time to seek out alien signals.) The idling PC of Chris and Helen Colvin of Ames, Iowa, detected the signature of the pulsar now called J2007 for short, which was confirmed by a computer in Germany owned by Daniel Gebhardt.
Today DISCOVER blogger Ed Yong reports on a project called Foldit, in which citizen scientists playing a slick computer game helped to unravel the complex structure of proteins, and in doing so got the game into the prestigious journal Nature.
There are plenty of great ways for non-professional scientists to help out scientific projects. DISCOVER previously brought you the ways to donate your computer’s free time to projects like SETI@home and Stardust@home. But what if you want to use your own brainpower in the aid of science? That can be arranged, as there are plenty of more active ways to contribute to crowdsourced science.
1. Mapping the place where Genghis Khan was buried
This summer archaeologist Albert Yu-Min Lin led an expedition to Mongolia in search of the lost tomb of Genghis Khan—but not before putting out the call for a little help.
Lin’s team provided high-resolution satellite photography of the area they plan to survey. On the mission’s website, volunteers can sign up to scan the images for anything that could help the team on its quest: roads, rivers, or perhaps even the outlines of where long-gone structures once stood centuries ago.
2. Amateur Martians
As we noted yesterday with the Spirit rover’s apparent demise, the rovers and orbiters NASA has sent to Mars have been a smashing success. The only problem is, those robot explorers have sent home more data than NASA’s people can map on their own.
You can help: Play “Be a Martian,” a game set up through the Jet Propulsion Lab. Players earn points and badges by finding the most interesting martian craters for study, or by matching up high-resolution images of the red planet’s surfaces to wider photos taken from above—thereby improving maps of Mars.