Tuesday, August 3, 2010

More Crowdsourcing Confusion

There's an article today at the NYT about the Stardust@Home project which shows some of the clouded thinking and definitions around "the crowd."

So far, they've found three of the ones they are looking for in their aerogel, and each is apparently about 1/25,000 of an inch big. Wow. Go, science!

But, there's either a lot of empty aerogel or a lot of space dust of types they aren't looking for in their aerogel (the article isn't quite clear), so they needed help finding what they were looking for. The scientists threw it out to people on the Internet, which is where the article goes a bit off the rails.

So, the scientists have...
Help from an army of amateur researchers.
Are these people the crowdsourced people, or interns? It's not clear. I think it's the crowd, but the crowd isn't "amateur researchers," although one hopes to find such people in the crowd.

The scientists turned to non-experts around the world to sift through thousands of images.
That's fine, but if all the "non-experts" are doing is looking at pictures, well, pretty much every sighted human being is an expert at that. That's one of the things we are built to do, our survival depends on it (although these days, historically speaking, blindness is not as big a drawback as it was when we were in pre-history), we are in fact experts at it. They may not have PhDs in astronomy, but to look at a picture and determine some factors about it (angle of dust particle, I believe), you don't need to have a PhD in astronomy.

Interspersed test images allow the researchers to check how well the dusters [the people on the Internet who are looking for space dust] are doing.
So we have them, but we can't quite trust them, although to be clear this is probably more of a visual quality check than a moral one, and it is one that scientists often take anyway with data (speaking as a scientist, we like data checks, it makes our data and results better).

The first presumed interstellar particle — actually two distinct pieces — was found by a Canadian duster, Bruce Hudson, who retired as a carpenter and groundskeeper after a stroke. Mr. Hudson said he had looked through 25,000 images, spending as much as 5 to 10 hours a day at it.
That isn't just a guy from the crowd, that's a pretty dedicated person! Most of the crowd isn't like this. But that's the often-overlooked point about the crowd, you don't want the crowd, you want the people in the crowd who might want to help, and distinguishing them ahead of time is difficult. It's easier to let them self-identify by giving them the opportunity to do so.

The person who found the second particle said,
“Although I spend my working days in front of a computer solving problems and verifying designs, I found it was quite relaxing to look through the photos and concentrate on the visual images.”
They're looking at images. If you have a working visual system, you're an expert.