Conversations in Citizen Science: Alberta Chu of FaceTopo, a project to crowdsource face data!

By acrall | September 7, 2016 9:21 am

The beauty of citizen science is that it gives non-professional researchers the chance to get up close and personal with science. But when SciStarter interviewed citizen scientists this summer, they learned that the number one reason volunteers quit a project was because the scientists never replied to them. Think about all of your experiences collecting data from your backyard, analyzing images of spring online, and learning about new topics in science: have you heard from the scientists you’re helping? Would you like to?

FaceTopoIn our new series, “Conversations in CitSci,” we speak with the people behind the projects. Last time, we connected with Kay Havens of Project BudBurst about using citizen science to track plant data. Today we’re chatting with Alberta Chu, filmmaker and director of a brand-new citizen science project called FaceTopo.

Interview with Alberta Chu of Facetopo
By Sarah Dunifon

What is FaceTopo, and where did the project come from?

FaceTopo is a citizen science project to map the world’s faces. The idea for FaceTopo hatched from conversations and research for a documentary film I was working on about genetic privacy and the bio-art/hackerspace movement. Individuals can now get their genomes “done” by companies such as 23andMe, and learn about their ancestry and a few genetically-influenced traits. While my husband, a molecular biologist, was an early adopter (he was among the first people in the world to have his entire genome sequenced), I am more reluctant in these matters. Around the same time, through his work with genetic syndromes, my husband learned about facial morphology. Scientists who specialize in faces, called facial morphologists, often work with doctors to define genetic syndromes in terms of identifiable facial attributes. Of course faces are genetic, you see that in family resemblances and identical twins, right? Which brings us to the big question we are asking with Facetopo: could faces (e.g. facial morphology) in fact function as a proxy for genetic information? It’s a wild idea, but with FaceTopo we are building a citizen science project to crowd-source face data and begin to answer this question.

The key challenge is: how can we accurately collect and analyze a huge amount of 3D facial data? Dentists and orthodontists have real 3D cameras that shoot while moving around your head, but we thought it might be valuable to build that functionality into a smartphone app so that anyone with a smartphone could do it. We didn’t know if it was even possible, but I jumped into the worlds of 3D gaming and iOS app development to see what I could do. For the past 2 years. I’ve been working with programmers to create and test the FaceTopo App, which is available for free in the iTunes App store. Now I’m hard at work getting the word out about FaceTopo – we need thousands of diverse faces in order for FaceTopo to work!

What do you enjoy most about your role?

As a filmmaker and content creator, I’ve been telling stories of creativity at the interface of art and science, and FaceTopo is a new branch of this interest. I love that FaceTopo users may be able to learn something about themselves, and possibly use FaceTopo to map out their family history, ancestry, and ethnicity.

How do your previous experiences affect how you approach citizen science?

I studied biology and art history in college. While my first job was working in a biology lab, I soon moved out of the laboratory and into science communications to work on popular television science programming for TLC, the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, PBS, etc. I realized that my passion was in exploring the intersections of science and art, and in showing general audiences science in unexpected places. My goals are to inspire international audiences to wonder, create, and invent and I realized I don’t really need a background in science for that.

When I think about my work in making documentaries, it is a way for me to stay inspired, to be around the things I love and the most fascinating people in the world. Now with FaceTopo, instead of only documenting the stories of others creating at the intersection of art and science, I feel I’m taking part in the innovating. I feel that I’m actually creating something that has the potential to have a greater impact on more people and help grow the citizen scientist community.

What have the beta users taught you about how citizen scientists will interact with the project?

So far we have seen different levels of citizen scientists. It’s tricky because users expect apps to be quick and easy, but with FaceTopo a little work and time (under 10 minutes) is required to ensure that high quality data is collected. The more careful a user is when making their FaceTopo, the more accurate their facial correlations will be. Users are welcome to retake their selfies as many times as they like, until they “get it right”.

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With FaceTopo, scientists will determine if facial morphology can function as a proxy for genetic information. Photo Credit: Max Pilling (CC BY_ND 2.0)

What would you tell people who may be interested in contributing to Facetopo?

I know since we’re still technically in Beta, we’re asking users to take a leap of faith in giving us their face data, not knowing what they’ll get in return.

There is a benefit to being one of the first 1,000 FaceTopo users. When we have our first 1,000 users, we plan to create a visualization of faces where the branches of more mathematically similar faces are closer to each other on the tree. If you are one of the first 1,000 users, your face data will be used to build the “Face Tree” and you will be able to see your face and also your “Face Family,” comprised of your nearest neighbors on the Face Tree. If you join FaceTopo after the first 1,000 users, you will still be able to see how your face correlates with the Face Tree, however your face won’t be integrated into it. Periodically we will update the Face Tree with new data.

What discoveries do you think you might uncover with Facetopo?

Research in this area advances human understanding of the genetics of facial morphology and bring us closer to understanding how genes influence the way we look, as well as understanding our genetic heritage. As scientists set out to better understand the genetic basis of variation in human facial features, it is our hope that the FaceTopo project may help by providing scientists with the facial morphology datasets needed.

One of the identified face genes, PAX3, is also known to be altered in a complex human disorder known as Waardenberg Syndrome, which affects hearing, skin pigment, and bone formation, as well as face shape.  A second face gene, PRDM16, has also been implicated in heart disease.  Perhaps in the future, scientists will be able to identify other face genes having influences on health/behaviour. To conduct this research, both genomic and facial morphology data will be needed, which is where FaceTopo comes in.

How can people get involved in the project?

FaceTopo is looking at adult faces, so it’s for high school students and up (ages 14+). Anyone under age 18 needs parental consent to join. To join the FaceTopo community, you just install the App – it’s a free download on both the iTunes store and Google Play.

If you had one “ask” of the readers, what would it be?

Don’t delay folks! The sooner FaceTopo gets to 1,000 users the sooner we can analyze the data! Make a FaceTopo today and tell your friends about it too! Look for FaceTopo’s App’s 2.0 release in late fall 2016. After that, the fun will really begin with FaceTopo’s 3.0 web release where Users will be able to login to their account and perform their own analytics, compare their face to others, connect with their  ‘face family,’ and create a FaceTopo visual family tree. Follow FaceTopo on social media to stay up on our news!


Want more citizen science? Check out SciStarter’s Project Finder! With 1100+ citizen science projects spanning every field of research, task and age group, there’s something for everyone!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Citizen Science
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