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2013 Spring Issue 3 (April 26, 2013)

Social Media and Citizen Science

April 28, 2013
By Claire Karban

Last week, events following the Boston Marathon bombings were covered by traditional media sources like newspapers and television, as well as social media sources like Twitter and Reddit. Social media sites like these are increasingly becoming part of the media in the U.S. as news shifts towards instantaneous delivery of information.

The pressures of such a fast-paced news cycle may have facilitated the all of the erroneous finger-pointing that occurred. “The New York Post” published a front-page picture of “suspects” who turned out to be innocent. “CNN” reported fiction in an attempt to be the first to break the story of an arrest. Some users on Reddit incorrectly identified potential suspects from user-uploaded pictures. This last mistake sparked a debate over the role of social media.

Social media is increasingly a very powerful tool, and its proper use in society is something worth thinking about. Are there situations when social media is completely inappropriate? Probably, and if this is true, is there any way to keep social media from chiming in to these conversations anyway? In an article in The New Yorker, Matt Buchanan writes that despite the success of social media in many situations, “it is still suited to a very particular set of tasks that can be solved by directed, yet highly distributed, parallel processing, whose proper functioning is predicated on having good information to process.”

Buchanan’s point is that users on Reddit assumed that somewhere, in one of the photos that they had access to, there was evidence to indicate a suspect. That assumption was simply false. I think Buchanan makes a good point, however there are examples of social media working surprisingly well, even in situations where we might not expect it.

Science is one place where social media is not the obvious choice. Like criminal investigation, scientific experiments have clearly defined sets of procedures that must be followed for validity. These procedures are checked in the peer-review process before publication. And yet, through creative and efficient ways, social media has been contributing to the fields of science.

The participation of non-experts in scientific studies is called citizen science. Many of the most successful citizen science projects have involved research with huge data sets, where the help of the millions of people on the Internet can be extremely useful. A great example of this is a project called Galaxy Zoo.

The astronomers behind Galaxy Zoo had a data set with one million images of galaxies. It would have taken a small research team, working alone, a prohibitively long time to go through all 1 million galaxies and classify them by sight. In a situation like this, astronomers often use a set of parameters as a proxy for classification. Relying on parameters allows huge data sets to be classified without a researcher needing to look at each image, but it is not as accurate as classification by sight.

So, the Galaxy Zoo team created a website where users could classify images of galaxies (go to www.galaxyzoo.org if you want to give it a try!). Using half a million members of the general public, the site was able to classify the entire Sloan Digital Sky Survey spectroscopic sample and all existing Hubble Space Telescope surveys (around 1.5 million galaxies in total), according to the project website.

In turning to citizen science, the project relies on users who do not have a motivation to do accurate work, nor do they have any expertise in galaxy classification. However, the site is successful because of the shear number of people who view and classify each image. The classifications have been shown to be as accurate as those done by expert astronomers. If this seems hard to believe, think about Wikipedia – enough people are contributing that the collective answers are accurate.

There are many examples of citizen science projects like Galaxy Zoo, and more are sure to follow as the number of people online increases and increased thought is given to the use of social media platforms. Without structure or caution on social media platforms, mistakes can be made. But the Internet can also be harnessed in interesting and creative ways to make real contributions in areas that at first may seem inappropriate places for “the crowd.”

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