Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Power of the People

The Power of the People, Dave Munger, Seed Magazine, 12/22/10

"Some of the most influential scientists in history, from Franklin, to Lavoisier, to Mendel, weren’t formally educated in their fields of study. They just took an interest, and started conducting experiments, sometimes in their own back yards. But more recently, the specialized tools of science have put new discoveries out of reach for ordinary people. Now that dynamic is beginning to change again.

The internet has spawned a fantastic explosion in science that allows non-experts to actually participate in science by interacting with scientific data itself. I wrote about several such projects last year. Now, in just the past week, two new public tools for analyzing data have been unveiled, from two very different fields of study.

First, the Zooniverse project has released its newest endeavor, called The Milky Way Project. One of the astronomers working on the project, Sarah Kendrew, explained how the project works on her blog last week. Users from among the hundreds of thousands registered with Zooniverse log in to their accounts and are shown images of the Milky Way from the Spitzer Space Telescope. Their job: To identify regions known as “bubbles,” areas of gas and other debris that appear to be arranged in nearly-spherical structures."


"But the Milky Way Project was upstaged a bit last week by another project that allows anyone to dig deep into data of a different sort: a significant percentage of the entirety of books that have ever been published. The project’s founders are calling it “culturomics,” and their first journal article on the topic was published last week in Science. The research has been discussed extensively on blogs, but the best way to experience the work might just be to visit the tool Google developed that allows anyone to see a cross-section of a vast dataset: the Books Ngram Viewer. Type in any word (or several words or short phrases separated by commas), and you’ll instantly be presented with a graph showing the how frequently that word has been used over the past two centuries. Here’s the graph I made for macaroni and spaghetti, showing that macaroni was the more popular term until about 1950, and spaghetti was essentially unheard of before 1880."


"Projects like Zooniverse and Google’s Ngram Viewer represent crowd-sourcing on the grandest scale yet achieved. What I’d like to see next is an analysis of the crowds who are using these tools. What words do people look up? What methods do they use to identify galaxies and bubbles—and how long do they persist at it? The answers to these questions may, in turn, lead to even more powerful tools—and a greater understanding of our world."

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Here's an example that I tried of the Books Ngram Viewer. I searched for two words that I think should go together: innovation and commons:

You can see that the word commons has been dropping for a long time, and innovation has been rising. Interesting. Don't know what it means but it's another cool tool.

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