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Volunteer thinking

It is not just computer power that is being harnessed but human brainpower too.

Volunteer thinking or distributed thinking is represented by various projects such as Stardust@Home, GalaxyZoo and FoldIt, where the collective efforts of citizen cyberscientists are helping to solve many global research problems.

Humans can carry out tasks that are usually unsuitable or extremely difficult for computers such as pattern recognition, proofreading and certain types of error checking.

Searching for galaxies far, far away
For the GalaxyZoo project, volunteers have been helping astronomers to classify the shapes of galaxies from images taken by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. This ambitious astronomy project is an international collaboration that is mapping a large section of the visible universe in unprecedented digital detail.

Amateur astronomers require just a little training to distinguish between different types of galaxies (spiral and elliptical) and can often do it more efficiently than computers. So far, more than 100,000 volunteers have classified over one million galaxies inside a few months—a task which would have taken a single professional astronomer several years to accomplish.

How can projects make sure amateur data is accurate?

Ensuring that what the volunteers do is scientifically valid is critical. Most of the projects, whether powered by processors or by brains, rely on independent validation of a result by several volunteers. In the case of Galaxy Zoo, each image is viewed by over 30 volunteers who collectively prove to be just as accurate as one professional astronomer.

Replication and having multiple volunteers do each task helps achieve a higher level of accuracy. There are also emerging technologies to assist with “volunteer thinking” projects to help people who want to get more actively involved in carrying out data analysis. A new open-source software platform called BOSSA is available from BOINC for volunteers with an easy-to-use web interface.


You can read more about ‘Volunteer Thinking’ and Citizen Cyberspace  in our weekly online publication. iSGTW is an international weekly online publication that covers distributed computing and the research it enables.