When humanity is facing dangers, whether they’re age-old ones or newer hazards (usually self-inflicted…) we always look to the scientists. They have the know-how, the insight and the tech to save us all; we rely on them to keep us safe and healthy.
However, the internet and big data revolutions are changing everything and now scientists are starting to rely on us, the citizens, to help them.
The rise of citizen science is allowing researchers to make big strides, simply because thousands – maybe even millions – of regular people can contribute information and insights.
Crowdsourcing cell analysis
Probably our oldest foe is a disease. When human life expectancy was a lot shorter, these diseases tended to be bacterial or viral in nature, but with people living longer, other types of diseases like cancer start to creep in. This is when we have to start looking at our own cells for the source of the problem.
London’s Crick Institute has recently launched its Etch a Cell scheme, which encourages citizen scientists to look at images of cells, tissues, and molecules to mark out and identify areas and structures of interest to researchers.
These features can be turned into 3D images – the Crick already uses 3D image analysis software from companies like Bitplane.com to compile and examine multitudes of photos from electron microscopes.
Faults or deformities in the nuclear envelope can be signs of, or lead to, a number of serious diseases. The fact that lots of people are delineating the nuclear envelope means that there are slight differences in the lines; differences of opinion, almost.
These differences are useful in themselves as they can also be used to analyze the variability, which in turn helps machines to determine whether an individual pixel is likely to belong to a particular structure or not.
Creating a buzz
Humanity’s most prevalent foe is certainly the mosquito and it seems it may take a swarm of willing volunteers to tackle this most numerous of pests.
For thousands of years malaria has been our single biggest killer and more recently we have had Dengue fever, West Nile fever and now Zika to contend with. Malaria alone is responsible for around half a million deaths each year.
There are many fronts in the war on mosquitoes, and crowdsourcing information on the distribution of the most troublesome species is a newer one.
Researchers at Stanford University have developed the Abuzz platform, which can identify the species of mosquito by the characteristic sound of its wingbeat.
Each species’ sound signature differs slightly and the Abuzz platform – to which volunteers can send recordings via their smartphones – can work with recordings of just 0.20 seconds in length.
The beauty of this method is that a recording can be uploaded and identified by algorithms in seconds, helping to create a pinpoint-accurate distribution map.
Stanford’s Prakash Lab, which developed the platform, is working on an app so that citizen scientists all over the world can help to monitor the spread – or recession – of disease-transmitting varieties. This, in turn, allows targeted elimination programmes to become more accurate.