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The Power of Many – The New Era of Citizen Science

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Category : Blogs

Last month, it was reported in the news that a group of amateur astronomers taking photos of pretty lights in the sky have in fact discovered a new type of sky phenomenon. These lights are similar to (but not the same as) an aurora.  As all readers will know, an aurora is caused by the interaction of a stream of charged light particles escaping the Sun and the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere. However, the new lights (which have been affectionately named by the amateurs who discovered them as “STEVE”) are not caused by the interaction of solar particles with the Earth’s magnetic field.

The lights were discovered by Eric Donovan from the University of Calgary in Canada who spotted the feature in photos shared on a Facebook group. The photographers were calling it a proton arc but he knew it couldn’t be one as proton auras are not visible (of course). Following his interest, the European Space Agency (ESA) then sent electric field instruments to measure these light phenomena.

If you are interested in astronomy there is more detail about these lights available at the click of a button.  What is particularly interesting from a digital point of view is how in this instance social media linked amateurs with experts in a positive way to lead to a new discovery.

While we may groan about the numerous holiday photos which populate Facebook, the positive impact of social media interactions like Facebook is how quickly and easily the average person can disseminate information directly to a big group of people (and if it goes viral this can be to a very big group of people).

In the same way, the Internet allows a new age of citizen journalism and amateur scientific research the like of which we haven’t seen arguably since the Enlightenment, when new planets were regularly identified by gentlemen astronomers across Europe. It’s creating a vast pool of information sharing and data harvesting, which could reveal interesting insights if we can make sure that we are able to analyse these correctly and efficiently. Even in terms of customer insight, many companies know that their customers comment on products and services in social media, but how many are truly harvesting that information?

And it’s not just social media that has this power to utilise the ‘power of many’ to create new insights. Another way in which this is happening is through the growth of distributed processing of data. You may or may not have heard of folding@home.  This project was set up by scientists researching cancer and genetic illnesses.

The scientists are starting to unlock genetic information using the combined computer programming power of many people’s computers. Using special ‘Folding@home software’ allows any person to share their unused computer power with the scientists to help them research even more potential cures – a bit like the old SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) screensavers that were very popular in the late 90s amongst internet devotees (does anyone else remember them?).

The software is free to download and doesn’t access any of that person’s private data or programmes. It simply utilises ‘spare’ processing power which may be small per person (or per computer) but when multiplied across the population can make a difference of years in the scientists’ ability to analyse complex genetic protein information. The next step on from this would be the possibilities of combined public processing power becoming available in a more general way to allow problem solving beyond the medical arena.

So, in this current data age, it’s not just the ‘experts’ who are involved in generating and manipulating large quantities of data to find an answer. It is becoming much more ubiquitous…though sometimes it is still helpful to have some experts to show the way.



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