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17000 Volunteers Contribute to a PhD

You have to take risks. We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we allow the unexpected to happen. Paulo Coelho

Photo by Lennart Tange

Doing a PhD is laborious, hard, demanding, exhausting… Your thesis is usually the result of blood, sweat and tears. And you are usually alone. Well, what woud you say if I tell you that a researcher got helped by more than 17 thousand volunteers?

Yes, you’ve read it right: more than 17 thousand people have helped Alejandro Sánchez to do his research, publishing his thesis as a result and getting the best possible mark: cum laude. Amazing, right?

But how this happened? How did he managed to involve such a big crowd? I mean, most people think science is boring, tedious, difficult, add here your adjective… However, this guy managed to get 17 thousand people from all over the world to help him on:

Best part? They did it because they wanted to help. No money involved! Just pure kindness.

In other words, the unexpected happened, and thanks to sharing his work and also asking for help for his research -studying light pollution on cities- he managed to achieve the unconceivable: involving more than 17 thousand people on scientific research.

How this started? Well, let’s start from the beginning.

The beginning: laying down the ideas

This adventure started in 2014, in London, UK. I was participating at the Citizen Cyberscience Summit and Alejandro was there because someone told him to learn more about Crowdcrafting.

At the summit there was a workshop where scientists and hackers joined forces to create new citizen science projects. Wait, let me explain first what’s citizen science so we can enjoy the trip later on (like this kid, I promise).

Citizen science is the active contribution of people who are not professional scientists to science. It provides volunteers with the opportunity to contribute intellectually to the research of others, to share resources or tools at their disposal, or even to start their own research projects. Volunteers provide real value to ongoing research while they themselves acquire a better understanding of the scientific method.

In other words, citizen science opens the doors of laboratories and makes science accessible to all. It facilitates a direct conversation between scientists and enthusiasts who wish to contribute to scientific endeavor.

Now, with this idea in our minds let’s get back to Alejandro’s research.

At this workshop Alejandro told me that he was studying light pollution on cities. He and his team realized that the astronauts from the International Space Station take pictures of the earth with a regular camera. Those pictures are then saved in a big archive. However, there are some issues:

  • The pictures could be from cities at night or day.
  • They take selfies too (who doesn’t?)
  • The moon, stars and Aurora Borealis are also pretty, so they photograph them too.
  • The archive does not have any order or filter, everything is mixed in there.

In summary, he needs pictures at night of cities (sharp and without clouds) but the archive is a mess. The archive has too many different photos and possible scenarios that algorithms cannot help him to classify them (or at a later stage geolocate them). However, you and me are pretty good at identifying cities at night with a glimpse, so we decided to create a prototype in Crowdcrafting.

The first project was Dark Skies. We had the first prototype in a few hours and we basically asked people to help us to classify the pictures in different categories:

  • City at night
  • Aurora Borealis
  • Stars
  • None of these
  • Black
  • Astronaut
  • I don’t know

The project was simple and fun. I remember enjoying a lot classifying beautiful pictures from the ISS. It make me feel I was an astronaut, and I loved that feeling so we share it with our friends and colleagues.

We really believed on the project, specially Alejandro, so he invited me to meet his PhD advisor and his colleagues. We met and studied how we could improve it. As a result two new projects were born in the next months: Lost at night and Night Cities ISS

The small announcement that became huge

After a lot of work, Alejandro thought that the projects were good enough to send them to NASA and ESA. Alejandro wrote a press release and share with them what we were doing.

In the beginning we thought that they will ignore us, but something happened. It started like a tremble. With a tweet:

Then, almost one month later NASA wrote a full article about the project and tweeted about it:

That was the spark, as since that moment everything exploded! The project was covered internationally by the press. Media like Fox TV, Gizmodo, CNN, share the project and invited people to help.

Thanks to this coverage, in just one month we were able to classify more than 100 thousand images. One day Crowdcrafting servers stored more than 1.5 answers per second! We were like this:

The calm after the storm

As with any press coverage after a few weeks everything went back to normal. However, lots of people kept coming and helping the projects from Alejandro.

Over a year we kept fixing bugs, adding new tasks, answering questions from volunteers, sharing progress, etc. In July Alejandro defended his thesis with all this work. Amazing!

From my side I’m so happy and proud about it for two reasons. First, while the thesis has been presented, the projects keeps going.

At the time of this writing the Dark Skies project has classified almost 700 images in the last 15 days. Amazing!

The other two projects have less activity, as those projects are more complicated. Lost at Night has located more than 200 photos on a map, and Night Cities ISS has geo-referenced almost 25 pictures.

Secondly, because this is the very first thesis that uses PYBOSSA and Crowdcrafting for doing open research. I’m impressed and I think this is just the beginning for many more researchers doing their research on the open inviting society to take part on it.

The future? Well, Alejandro has launched a Kickstarter campaign to get financial support to keep running the research his doing. If he gets the financial support more data will be analyzed, new results will be produced and it will help to keep running Crowdcrafting and PYBOSSA. Thus, if you like the project help Alejandro to build the most beautiful atlas of earth at night!