Academia is a world defined by its hierarchy. Unlike most career paths, if you enter the vocation of study then your avenue of advancement through the ranks is along a well trodden trail. Firstly, you get hold of an undergraduate degree, then a masters, followed by an arduous PhD and next would come the post doc with innumerable appointments to supersede . It’s a long – albeit extensively mapped – road to tenure and with each step comes a little more responsibility, you earn the privilege of becoming more intimately involved with the research.
Traditionally, the general public has little to no interaction or involvement with the world of scientific research – but now that’s on the change. Aided and abetted by worldwide broadband connections, it’s becoming much more fashionable and acceptable for researchers to embrace and use crowd-sourcing as a method of data collection.
“data on a never-before-achieved scale”
Researchers are turning to the public to ask for help with collecting their much prized data – and we, the lay men and women, are eager to lend a helping hand. The motive behind this growing “citizen scientist” movement is to source data on a never-before-achieved scale in the hopes that it might cast light on once hidden phenomena. A team of neuroscientists at MIT announced yesterday their latest results from Eyewire, a gargantuan crowd-sourcing effort, at the World Life Science’s Forum in Lyon, France. They are helped by over 50 thousand non-scientists with the collection of their data, which they’re using to create a roadmap of the human eye – one neuron at a time.
“we spend three billion hours a week playing online games”
In pursuit of data en masse, researchers have scrubbed Twitter, enabled amateurs to collect biodiversity stats, and now the MIT neuroscientists have bugled a call to arms in the gaming world. Jane McGonigal from the Institute For The Future has argued for years that online gamers are a neglected resource. One that if well exploited could prove to be immensely valuable to science and society. She says that we spend “three billion hours a week playing online games,” to say nothing of offline computer games. That might sound like an ungodly amount of time for humans to fritter away behind their screens – but McGonigal actually attests that we need to pump that up to about 21 billion hours a week by 2020 if “we want to survive the next century on this planet.”
These aren’t the ramblings of just some quirky academic, let’s hear her out, she actually has some pretty reasonable observations. Firstly, she says that we’re ready to collaborate and cooperate with one another in the gaming world in a way that we’re reluctant to do so in reality and that we have a more positive outlook online, usually actively believing that we will succeed with the task in hand. – Something that’s not all that common in the real world. Her take home message is that the more we play, the more we learn how to be better people – something that she says that tomorrow’s problem solvers need to be if they’re going to tackle big issues.
“If the Eyewire team wanted to move at anything faster than a snail’s pace they were always going to need a lot of help”
Eyewire, a project led by Sebastian Sung from MIT, is the fusion of both these ideas. It outsources data collection from the lab to the online gaming masses. They’ve taken samples of retina tissue from the back of the back of the eye and used a technique called serial block-face scanning electron microscopy to create a digital copy in 3D. But the 3D copy is a jungle of confusion and the computer can’t recognize where one neuron begins and the other ends. But it’s not too hard for humans to figure out. That’s where the gamers come in. Sung and his team needed to go through and individually discriminate between the mesh of cells but there are thousands upon thousands of neurones in the retina and their aim isn’t just to map the cellular highways of our eyes, they eventually hope to move on to the brain and optic nerve. If the Eyewire team wanted to move at anything faster than a snail’s pace they were always going to need a lot of help. “The only way to get data quicker was to open it up to citizen scientists,” Claire O’Connell from the Eyewire project tells The Connectivist.
“it doesn’t matter if you’re in Kenya or Kansas, this is a way of bringing science to the people”
So they created a game. It’s a sort of grown-up version of a coloring book, which sounds dull but it’s actually pretty addictive and strangely therapeutic. After a few training exercises – to make sure you’ve a good idea of where a neurone might begin and end – you’re coloring and charting the previously unmapped network of cells that sense the light waves that come into our eyes and then send the information to the brain where it’s translated into sight. O’Connell says that they wouldn’t have been able to map anything significant without the massive effort from the public, “we have over 55,000 players, it’s really taken off.”
The Eyewire project aims to understand the neurological makeup of the eyes, optic nerve, and brain – something that we know surprisingly litte about but O’Connell is particularly proud of the role they’re playing in the democratization of science, “it doesn’t matter if you’re in Kenya or Kansas, this is a way of bringing science to the people and allowing them to participate.”