New online technologies can unleash the power of crowds for science and emergencies

8 May 2013, Geneva, Switzerland - At a workshop on citizen cyberscience held in April 2013 at the University of Geneva, a novel open source software platform named was officially launched. The platform, which has already attracted thousands of participants during several months of testing, enables the rapid development of online collaborative science applications by both amateur and professional scientists. As the landing page explains, the platform is about “online assistance in performing tasks that require human cognition, knowledge or intelligence such as image classification, transcription, geocoding and more.” Things computers can’t do, but humans with computers can.

Applications currently running on Crowdcrafting range from classifying images of magnetic molecules to analyzing tweets about natural disasters. During the testing phase, some 50 new applications have been created, while 50 more are under development. The Crowdcrafting platform is a joint initiative of the Citizen Cyberscience Centre (CCC), a Geneva-based partnership launched in 2009 by UNITAR, University of Geneva, and CERN, together with the UK-based Open Knowledge Foundation, which promotes the creation and sharing of open data on the web. In addition, the Sloan Foundation has awarded a grant to the initiative for the further development of the platform.

There are already many citizen science projects that use online volunteers to achieve breakthrough results, in fields as diverse as physics and astronomy. These projects often involve hundreds of thousands of dedicated volunteers over many years. Crowdcrafting fills a valuable niche in this rapid expanding field. The objective of Crowdcrafting is to make it quick and easy for professional scientists as well as amateurs to design and launch their own online citizen science projects.

“By emphasizing openness and simplicity, Crowdcrafting is lowering the threshold of investment and expertise needed to develop online citizen science projects,” said Guillemette Bolens, Deputy Rector for Research at the University of Geneva. “As a result, dozens of projects are under development, many of them in the digital humanities and data journalism, some of them created by university students, others still by people outside of academia.”

A notable example occurred after tropical storm Pablo in the Philippines in late 2012 when volunteers from the Digital Humanitarian Network used Crowdcrafting to classify thousands of tweets about the impact of the storm, in order to more rapidly filter information that could be useful to emergency responders. Before that, UNOSAT had used volunteer computing to accelerate impact assessment mapping during the Libyan crisis. “We are excited about how Crowdcrafting is assisting the digital volunteer community worldwide in responding to natural disasters. The UN pays increasing attention to technologies able to involve youth and citizens in solving globalized issues,” said Francesco Pisano, Director of Research at UNITAR, which hosts UNOSAT, the UN centre of excellence for satellite analysis.

“Crowdcrafting is also enabling the general public to contribute in a direct way to fundamental science,” said Gabriel Aeppli, Director of the London Centre for Nanotechnology (LCN). A case in point is the project Feynman’s Flowers, in which volunteers use Crowdcrafting to measure the orientation of magnetic molecules on a crystalline surface. This is part of a fundamental research effort aimed at creating novel nanoscale storage systems for the emerging field of quantum computing.

Commenting on the underlying technology, Rufus Pollock, founder of the Open Knowledge Foundation, said, “Crowdcrafting is powered by the open-source PyBossa software, developed by ourselves in collaboration with the CCC. Its aim is to make it quick and easy to do "crowdsourcing for good" - getting volunteers to help out with tasks such as image classification, transcription, and geocoding in relation to scientific and humanitarian projects."

Francois Grey, who played a leading role in the launching of the CCC, said, “Our goal now, with support from the Sloan Foundation, is to integrate other apps for data collection, processing and storage, to make Crowdcrafting an open-source ecosystem for building a new generation of browser-based citizen science projects.”

The CCC is a partnership established in 2009 by the University of Geneva, UNITAR, and CERN, to promote the use of citizen science on the web as an appropriate low-cost technology, in particular for researchers in developing regions. The Shuttleworth Foundation is the founding sponsor of the CCC. IBM, the Open Society Foundations, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation are currently project sponsors.

Images (top to bottom): Screenshot of one of the active projects on the Crowdcrafting platform; PyBossa is the open-source software used by the platform; example of crisis imagery for which UNOSAT has used volunteer suport from the crowd; Dr Grey speaks at one of the CCC events gathering volunteers programmes and experts.