• August 22, 2014

One Researcher's Solution to the Data Deluge: Enlist 'Citizen Scientists'

One Researcher's Solution to the Data Deluge: Enlist 'Citizen Scientists' 1

Guillermo Cervera for The Chronicle

François Grey

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close One Researcher's Solution to the Data Deluge: Enlist 'Citizen Scientists' 1

Guillermo Cervera for The Chronicle

François Grey

Technology is flooding the world with data on a scale we've never seen before. At CERN's Large Hadron Collider, in Switzerland, for example, new data are generated at a rate of one gigabyte per second.

For François Grey, a physicist with a specialty in nanotechnology, the problem isn't too much information but not enough machines and human brains processing it.

Mr. Grey coordinates CERN's Citizen Cyberscience Centre, an informal group set up to promote the idea of recruiting the general public to give scientists a hand with all kinds of research. One focus of the group's work is the developing world, where resources to support science are often scarce. "Our particular focus is where the Web and the Internet take you beyond what could previously be done," Mr. Grey says. He's a professor of distributed scientific computing at Tsinghua University, which he describes as the Chinese equivalent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

THE INNOVATOR: François Grey, Tsinghua University

THE BIG IDEA: Invite members of the public to help analyze scientific data—and link their home computers into virtual supercomputers.

Lately he's been traveling the world as an ambassador for citizen cyberscience. "Scientists never have enough computing power," he says.

The solution is as close as your home computer, thanks to distributed computing. If scientists share processing tasks among hundreds or thousand of volunteers' machines, they create a virtual supercomputer.

One popular project, Galaxy Zoo, uses volunteers to tag hundreds of thousands of galaxy photos taken by the Hubble telescope. Foldit and Folding@home, which is run out of a laboratory at Stanford University, invite citizens to model protein-folding in a quest to understand diseases like Parkinson's and cancer. Climateprediction.net asks participants to help model earth's climate up until 2100. CERN's LHC@home provides software that runs simulations of particle collisions on volunteers' computers.

If doing particle-physics experiments on your laptop sounds like science fiction, consider how much computing has evolved. "Your Mac Air is more powerful than a supercomputer 10 years ago," Mr. Grey points out. "The potential of volunteer computing easily outstrips what you can do with supercomputers and data centers and so on, simply because there are so many computers out there."

In China, for instance, more than 100 million people have joined the Internet in the last 18 months. That's a lot of computing power.

The title of his Web site, Billion Brain Blog, sums up Mr. Grey's emphasis on spreading science far and wide. Although he's trained as a researcher, he has a longstanding interest in building bridges between the lab and the larger world. He spent several years at CERN in the IT department, working on science communication. That led to his current focus on citizen cyberscience.

Citizen scientists have existed for centuries. Astronomy and archaeology have rich traditions of amateur discovery. Computers make it even easier to tap into such enthusiasm. "They can do it at home," Mr. Grey says of today's citizen cyberscientists. "They don't need a telescope. They don't need to go off to Africa somewhere and start digging."

As computers and project organizers get more sophisticated, citizen cyberscience has begun to produce significant results. Mr. Grey has success stories at his fingertips. For instance, some of the results from climateprediction.net and Foldit have turned up in published reports in the journal Nature.

Like many projects, Foldit attracts volunteers through gaming language. The site's slogan is "Solve puzzles for science!" But its players take their protein-folding seriously, to the point where they will suggest new research strategies to the scientists in charge.

That kind of involvement can challenge certain notions of scientific professionalism. "The scientists who do this are still in a minority within their domains," Mr. Grey says. "The first reaction is, 'This isn't going to work, because these people don't know enough.'" But as he's quick to point out, "we get quite a long tail of talent" on the Internet. "Some grandmothers studied protein structure or are professional astronomers who have retired" and have a lot of time and enthusiasm on their hands. And volunteers are more likely to be motivated by enthusiasm than by a drive to rack up publication credits. "Publication has no particular value for them," Mr. Grey says. "Why waste time publishing when you could be out observing? One of the exciting aspects of this is when scientists start to understand there are other value systems for scientific discovery."

He does not expect citizen cyberscience to replace supercomputers and data centers. Some tasks will always require processors that stay online and talk at high rates of speed to each other. Nor does he think that crowd power will edge out the genius-in-the-lab model of scientific progress. But he predicts that, as it enables more breakthroughs, citizen cyberscience will evolve from neat sideline to necessary resource. "Volunteer computing can fill a larger portion of the computing needs as time goes by," Mr. Grey says. "It's similar to the argument of open access. Why are institutions paying huge amounts of money for computing resources they could get for free?"

François Grey speaks on "citizen cyberscience" at TEDxWarwick '09:

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