It’s fun to hate the masses, but sometimes they leave you amazed. The crowdsource/citizen science phenomenon can be powerful. I heard a few pretty cool examples last week in the session I took part in at the Ecological Society of America meeting in Portland.

IS THERE REALLY ANY BRAIN POWER IN THIS GROUP OF SCHMUCKS? Hate to admit it, but apparently yes.



Who knew that average people, combined together, could be so smart and helpful? I saw a few impressive examples last week in the excellent symposium I took part in at the Ecological Society of America meeting in Portland titled, “Growing Pains: Taking Ecology into the 21st Century.”

First, there was Stephanie Hampton, of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, who talked about how quickly the various local citizen science groups throughout the Gulf of Mexico last year were able to give a snapshot of the condition of seabirds following the Gulf oil spill. If you think back to 30 years ago when the government, with it’s limited resources, was THE source of such information, you can see how far we’ve come. There was no way the government agencies could have so quickly assessed the state of the seabirds across such a broad region. It was a case of the amateurs being more effective than the experts.

Then Alexandra Swanson of the University of Minnesota told about the rather stunning Serengeti Live project where volunteers get to analyze their photos for them. They have an array of 225 cameras set up in a grid on piece of the Serengeti snapping photos round the clock producing over a million images. Who has the time to analyze so much data? Volunteers, that’s who.

On their website people can volunteer to take on a stack of photos, looking at them for the presence of mammals (elephants, wildebeets, hyenas, etc.) and reporting what they see. They get a little bit of training first, then set to work, helping them plow through the superabundance of images.

Does this sort of “crowd-sourced” effort work? Is it reliable? Is it a bunch of amateur garbage?



What’s happened in recent years, kind of starting with the realization that Wikipedia ends up being as accurate as Encyclopedia Brittanica, is that there is indeed great knowledge among the masses, where the individual limitations are overridden by the staggeringly large sample sizes.

If you want a great and dramatic demonstration of this, read the article in the July 9 issue of The New Yorker about TED conferences. The author uses a speaker on “crowd sourcing” as the central thread of the story. The speaker brings a live ox on stage during his talk, inviting web viewers to text in their guesses on the weight. At the end of the talk they present the average of the 500 guesses, which is 1,792 pounds. The actual weight is 1,795 pounds. Assuming we can believe that craziness (and given the recent feats of disgraced New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer we should probably be cautious), that’s pretty crazy!

Lastly, I attended a biomedical symposium last year where I met Jamie Heywood, who gave a riveting talk about what has become his life’s work, creating a website called Patients Like Me (here’s his outstanding TED Talk on it). His brother died of Lou Gehrig’s disease (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), but in the struggle to keep him alive, Jamie created a website for people with the disease which eventually morphed into Patients Like Me which now has over 150,000 people dealing with a wide range of illnesses. On the website the patients create their own personal profiles, sharing huge amounts of details about the medicines they are taking and the outcomes.

The result of the website is an enormous crowdsourced data base that in most cases far surpasses what doctors are capable of. For example, in the case of Multiple Sclerosis, they have over 20,000 patients. Which means if you have the disease and your doctor prescribes a drug, you can ask him how well it’s worked with the dozen or so patients he has who are taking it, or you can go to this website and look at the totaled, up to the minute results of the 20,000 people with MS who are sharing their knowledge on the drug.

The site is so powerful it ends up revealing enormous numbers of errors committed by doctors who simply don’t have the time or interest to keep up on the latest developments with various diseases and drugs. It’s amazing.

Bottom line, it is indeed a new era we have entered into. Or at least that’s what I heard was the finding of a recent poll of one thousand respondents, which means it must be true.