The term “crowdsourcing” has been flitting around the Internet in recent years to describe how users can come together to help solve a problem. It has evolved into sites like Kickstarter – and “crowdfunding” — where people go to raise money for a project from the masses.
And now, biochemists are looking outside their labs to the Internet for help in their research. Science is now being crowdsourced.
Hector Postigo, associate professor of media studies and production at Temple’s School of Media and Communication, and Casey O’Donnell, assistant professor of telecommunications, information studies and media at Michigan State University, have received a $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to research how science is using the Internet, and the knowledge of their fellow humans, to help with their work.
Experts and laymen alike can visit a website to engage in a scientific problem that is constructed like a game. Through play and trial and error, the gamers are helping the scientists decipher the structure of proteins and nucleic acids.
“The research is important because it shows that communications systems that center ‘flow’ and ‘play,’ two concepts from creativity studies and ludology (the study of games), foster creative thinking, which might be the moment when we are at our smartest,” he says. “Crowdsourcing, critiques notwithstanding, has the capacity to tap into collective thinking, collaborative creativity and play.”
At the core of their research, Postigo hopes to discover how the presence of non-scientists impacts the process of scientific experimentation. But they are also looking into the games themselves and how they are designed to keep players interested and continue to assist in the science.
Game asks players to ‘fold’ proteins
On the site fold.it, gamers create protein structures, which allow scientists to predict how to target them with drugs.
“The more we know about how certain proteins fold, the better new proteins we can design to combat the disease-related proteins and cure the diseases,” the site explains. “We’re collecting data to find out if humans’ pattern-recognition and puzzle-solving abilities make them more efficient than existing computer programs at pattern-folding tasks. If this turns out to be true, we can then teach human strategies to computer and fold proteins faster than ever.”
The key to keeping users coming back is the creation of a successful gaming structure, Postigo says, noting fold.it’s use of forums, player profiles and high score chart.
“The research can impact innovation studies, creativity studies, education and science,” Postigo says. “Based on findings, we might be able to develop discovery and creativity paradigms for complex scientific systems that tap play and creativity as effectively as they might tap expertise.”