Using humanity and big data to solve problems

“Pattern Recognition” by Lachlan Hardy is licensed under CC BY 2.0

There are many things humans are great at. One of them is pattern recognition, the ability to see something in large amounts of data, pictures or text that stands out.

We are great at spotting things in an otherwise fairly uniform image. We can spot a galactic blob in a mass of white dots or a real word in a page of letters. We can even t8k3 a r@nd0m jumbl3 0f numb3r5 and l3tt3r5 and m@k3 s3ns3 of it (I’ll stop that now).

The human mind is a beautiful and wondrous thing. It can do so much, more than we even know at the moment. It is the most incredible computer ever created.

Imagine what can be achieved if you can get a dozen, a hundred, a thousand or even tens of thousands of human minds working together to spot patterns. You could make incredible new discoveries, find things never previously understood or spot things never seen before.

Zooniverse Galaxy 3D project

That is one of the ideas behind the Zooniverse project. It is “the world’s largest and most popular platform for people-powered research”.

Researchers create a project, say for example to try and find galaxies in star pictures. They explain what to look for and ask questions to help in identification. Then the volunteers go at it and classify as many pieces of data as they feel they can get through.

You have as many people as possible classify random pictures and hopefully you then get a verifiable piece of data — say a dozen people saying “yes that blob is a galaxy, it’s this type of galaxy”. You can then point a telescope (of whatever kind works best) at that galaxy to verify that data and save random searching time verifying something that might not be there.

It’s been used for old documents, looking for species, finding particles and of course more galactic searches.

The Hunt for Planet 9

Zooniverse says: “The major challenge of 21st century research is dealing with the flood of information we can now collect about the world around us. Computers can help, but in many fields the human ability for pattern recognition — and our ability to be surprised — makes us superior.”

I’ve classified a handful of items myself and with the thousands of other volunteers the researchers behind the projects are able to generate real science, real data and make discoveries that might otherwise have taken decades.

With the help of volunteers Zooniverse is pushing the boundaries of understanding at a rate much faster than would ever have been possible in the past.