Crowdsourced Science


by Russ Ward (@russcward)

Can science becrowdsourced? Can medicine take advantage of the knowledge of the masses to leapfrog to advances? Can we use social media tools to cure disease?

These are (increasingly specific) questions about the utility of digitally shared intelligence to improve healthcare – sometimes called “citizen science (similar to “citizen journalism). While nobody is nominating Mark Zuckerberg for the Nobel Prize just yet, there are definitely signs that social science is paying off. Here are three.

Where it all began: SETI@home

The idea of taking computer power possessed by the multitudes and combining it for science probably dates back toSETI@home, a program first offered to the public in 1999 to donate their superfluous computing power to the search for intelligent life. Still active, the program works by distributing telescope data out for analysis.

Procrastination for science: Foldit

One of the original and best-known examples of crowdsourced medical science is the Foldit project. It takes the complex process of genome folding, and turns it into an online game. If human players can best computers in figuring out biologically “winning solutions, this can not only provide immediately faster answers, but can also help researchers teach computers those strategies in order to keep improving the pace of their work – whether assisted by computer or volunteer.

Global symptomatology: Health Tracking Network

While SETI@home and Foldit use crowdsourcing in a more detached fashion, using individuals resources to solve scientific puzzles, Health Tracking Network asks for your help by sharing your own medical information. High-level information about your cold or flu symptoms will, they hope, allow better predictions and tracking of these viruses and their paths.

There are certainly many naysayers for crowdsourcing in medicine – includingthis post by John Mack last year, in which he points out the risks associated with having patients “review their treatments.

However, there are other examples in which citizen science has sped up the time for experiments to be conducted (includingthis study on tuberculosis).

To me, the difference is an important one. On the one hand, exploiting volunteer or inexpensive human aptitude for completing small nonlinear tasks rapidly can clearly be efficient and effective. On the other hand, relying on anonymous opinions for quality analysis may not be such a great idea – but I dont think thats news to anyone whos been within ten feet of the internet.

Are you working on any projects that harness the power of the people – be they your clients, your patients, your healthcare professionals, or the public at large – to make medical science advance more rapidly, discover more broadly, treat more accurately or predict more closely?



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