Scientists crack crowdsource code

Anyone can play EyeWire and in the process participate in mapping the 3D structure of neurons. (

Anyone can play EyeWire and in the process participate in mapping the 3D structure of neurons. (

Trained or not, humans are still better than the best machines at processing complex data.

Wanted: Astronomers, neuroscientists, papyrologists. No experience required. Interested in the stars, but don't want to study science? Want to make a contribution to scientific knowledge without any understanding of maths? Whether it's astronomy or neuroscience, the quantity of data is growing exponentially and researchers are hard-pressed to keep up, so the number of internet-based citizen science projects is growing.

"Computing is becoming more sophisticated … [but] humans are still much better at processing the information in complex data, such as images, videos and the like," says Lucy Fortson, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota and project manager at the Citizen Science Alliance (CSA), a collaboration between a number of universities, including Oxford University and John Hopkins University.

Its projects use "internet-based citizen science projects to further science itself" with the public as its collaborators, it says.

Fortson says: "We are entering an era of millions of images from one astronomical instrument alone, and it is impossible for a small group of humans to keep up with the image characterisation."

Here are the Mail & Guardian's three favourite citizen science projects:

Mapping the retina:

At first glance, EyeWire seems like a simple colouring-in game, but it is trickier than it looks. Neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are attempting to map the neurons and synapses in the brain, known collectively as connectomes.

They are starting with the retina, and have turned it into a 3D colouring-in game.

It can get quite competitive, with an international leader board to show the best mappers.

As EyeWire says on its website, "Anyone can play and you need no scientific background. Over 80 000 people from 130 countries already do. Together we are mapping the 3D structure of neurons; advancing our quest to understand ourselves."

Deciphering ancient texts:

A hundred years ago in Egypt, two researchers stumbled upon what had been the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus. Thousands of years ago, the site had been a garbage heap; today, it is a treasure trove of papyrus scraps.

Oxford University's Ancient Lives project aims to decipher these texts through pattern recognition. In tutorials, you are shown how to measure the size of the characters and find the Greek symbols they most closely resemble.

"The papyri belong to the Egypt Exploration Society and their texts will eventually be published and numbered in the society's Greco-Roman Memoirs series in the volumes entitled The Oxyrhynchus Papyri," the project says.

Classifying galaxies:

Scientists estimate that there are more than 150-billion observable galaxies in the universe, but as equipment gets more sensitive, that number is sure to increase.

To classify them, the few hundred astronomers in the world would have to spend every waking minutes classifying all the galaxies that have been found.

At the end of GalaxyZoo's first year in 2007, "more than 50-million classifications were received by the project during its first year, contributed by more than 150 000 people", it says.

You look at pictures of galaxies and classify them according to their shapes, whether they are spiral galaxies or smooth or a particularly bright star.

What is great about this project is that you can learn about the stars and galaxies as you go along, as well as chat with other citizen scientists about what you've found. 

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