In this blog I'm going to show you how science can tap into the power of the crowd to analyze the mountains of data that our exponentially powered instruments are generating.
When I was a grad student at MIT, I had a chance to become friends with the Viking Mission's chief scientist, Dr. Gerald Soffen. Viking was the first Mars lander looking for signs of life on Mars. One of the shocking facts that Dr. Soffen shared with me was that over the decade after Viking 1 and 2 landed on Mars, NASA had only the capacity to look at and analyze just 1 percent of the data from those two missions. One percent!
It hit me back then that what we needed was a way for the data to be made available to the thousands, or even millions, of amateur scientists who would "kill" to have access to that data, to analyze it and perhaps to contribute to the science.
25 years later, that's exactly what Galaxy Zoo did.
I spoke recently with Kevin Schawinski, an astrophysicist who co-founded Galaxy Zoo when he was a graduate student at Oxford.
One of his projects was identifying elliptical galaxies, football-shaped transitional galaxies that are a sort of missing link in understanding galaxy formation.
It used to be that, in astronomy, a small team of people could look at photos of a few thousand galaxies and classify and catalog them relatively easily. But now, with a new generation of robotic telescopes scanning the skies constantly and producing millions of images, that's become next to impossible.
Schawinski himself had spent a week classifying 50,000 galaxies. "We'd extracted an awful lot of interesting science from this," he told me. But when he wanted to dig deeper and classify the million galaxies for which he and his colleagues had images, he knew it was an impossible task for one person.
"We hit on the idea of putting the images on a website and finding people, perhaps two or three amateur astronomers who'd be willing to help us," he explained. "Doing one of those back-of-the-envelope calculations, we figured it would take five years for the million galaxies to be classified."
So he and his colleagues decided to go ahead. They assembled a website, Galaxy Zoo, that they opened to the public.
Surprise: "Within hours of the site going live, we were classifying every hour more galaxies than I'd done in a whole week," he said. "And then more people and more people signed up." By the time Galaxy Zoo was turned off with the completion of the project a year and a half later, it had attracted 250,000 registered users.
What's more, the results were astonishing. The original goal of Galaxy Zoo was to have every one of the million galaxies looked at just once. It ended up that every galaxy had been classified over 70 times, Schawinski said.
"What you're really tapping into is the wisdom of crowds," he told me. "You end up with 70 independent measures of each galaxy, and you can do real science with it."
And out of Galaxy Zoo has grown Zooniverse, which we'll talk about in future posts. Why was this, and subsequent projects like it, such a success?
Schawinski and his colleagues asked the same thing. They worked with social scientists and sent out questionnaires and discovered that people's No. 1 motivation for participating in a project such as Galaxy Zoo was that they want to contribute to actual science. "They want to do something that's useful," explained Schawinski.
People want to contribute. "We'd hit an unmet need," Schawinski told me. "People wanted to do this."
That's a key to understanding the appeal of crowdsourcing: we want to feel that we contribute and that we make a difference.
In my next post, I'm going to talk about some of the things to be aware of when beginning a project like Galaxy Zoo.
NOTE: Over the next year, I'm embarking on a BOLD mission -- to speak to top CEOs and entrepreneurs to find out their secrets to success. My last book Abundance, which hit No. 1 on Amazon, No. 2 on the New York Times and was at the top of Bill Gates' personal reading list, shows us the technologies that empower us to create a world of Abundance over the next 20 to 30 years. BOLD, my next book, will provide you with tools you can use to make your dreams come true and help you solve the world's grand challenges to create a world of Abundance. I'm going to write this book and share it with you every week through a series of blog posts. If you enjoyed this post and would like your comments to make it into my book, head here to share your input and feedback. Top contributors will be credited within the book as a special "thank you," and all contributors will be recognized on the forthcoming BOLD book website. To ensure you never miss a post, sign up for my newsletter here.
By Tarun Wadhwa
Tarun Wadhwa is a Research Fellow with Singularity University studying how exponential technologies can be used to solve public policy problems.
If your favorite soda is Diet Dr. Pepper, the chances are that you'll be supporting Mitt Romney. Pepsi drinker? You're most likely voting for Barack Obama. If you drink Mountain Dew, you probably don't care either way.
These types of conclusions may seem simplistic and superficial, but both campaigns are betting that they will be the key to deciding who the next President of the United States is.
It's more than what you drink, what you shop for, who your friends are, what websites you visit: all reveal clues to your political leanings. Campaigns have entered the era of "Big Data"--they target voters based on scraps of information they gather from unlikely places.
Thanks to the rise of mobile technology and social media, the number of records collected by data brokers on voter behavior has tripled--from 300 pieces in 2004 to more than 900 pieces today.
Campaigns care about your personal life
Voters used to be the ones obsessing over details of a candidate's personal life. Now the tables have turned. Campaigns research the personal lives of the voter.
Micro-targeting, a technique that delivers ads based on the personal traits of a voter, was once considered impossible. But in 2004, it was recognized for helping George W. Bush defeat John Kerry. Now it is used by almost every campaign.
Because of the intricacies of our electoral system, a relatively small group of people ends up deciding the outcome of elections. In the 2000 Presidential campaign, hundreds of millions of dollars was spent on reaching just 7 percent of voters--fewer than 8 million people. Even a small advantage in mobilizing potential voters in a swing state can determine the difference between a win and a loss.
In this election cycle, more than $3 billion dollars has been spent on broadcast-television advertising, which has remained the dominant form of political communication for the last fifty years. But times are changing. Television purchases are no longer as effective as they used to be. A study showed that 88% of voters with DVRs skip ads and that 45% use something other than live TV as their primary mode for viewing videos. These proportions are even higher in younger demographics.
The next frontier: digital behavioral advertising
Just as television advertising revolutionized the field in the 1960s, this election will likely mark digital-behavioral advertising as the next frontier in voter outreach.
As a nation, we are already divided along partisan lines. We access different media, each with its own messaging and focus. Now we will receive different messages depending on who we are. Zac Moffatt, digital director for Mitt Romney's campaign, said to The New York Times that "two people in the same house could get different messages," and that "not only would the message change, the type of content would change."
In an article for Stanford Law Review, Daniel Kreiss, a journalism professor at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, explains how this can have negative long-term consequences for democratic participation. With so much sensitive personal information in so many hands, there are risks of data breaches and unauthorized disclosure.
Citizens may hesitate to engage in political discussion on line for fear of being tagged and put into a marketing database. And the high cost of political data and consulting activities may make it difficult for less affluent candidates to compete effectively. Perhaps most worrying, campaigns may "redline" an electorate (by ignoring voters who won't be sympathetic to their views because a model deems them unworthy of investment).
Political targeting - what's next?
Sophisticated modeling and targeting will become commonplace at every step of the political process. NGOs, interest groups, and candidates for local office will be the next to adopt these methods.
United in Purpose, an evangelical Christian non-profit, is currently using such technology to assign points to voters based on whether they like NASCAR or fishing, and whether they are on anti-abortion or traditional marriage lists. If these voters have a score of over 600 points, they are considered "serious about their faith". They will be contacted if they have not registered to vote.
Many voters would be surprised to learn that their interactions with both campaigns are being recorded and analyzed using technology similar to what Target uses to determine whether teenage girls are pregnant. When voters do learn what their candidates are doing, as many as 86 percent want this to stop. They regard it as an invasion of privacy. Yet these types of activities are legally considered political speech, so there are hardly any restrictions in place.
What is most worrisome is that there is no easy way to opt out of these databases, or to limit what information is collected about you, or how it is used. Sadly, we can't "de-friend" or "unfollow" the politicians.
This material published courtesy of Singularity University.