TCD researchers enlist public help

Luke McGuinness

Online Science & Tech Editor

You may have previously heard of crowd-sourcing – gathering resources, services or content from a large group of people, in particular in an online forum. Coined in 2005, a mixture of “crowd” and “outsourcing”, the term applies to a range of activities spanning from crowd-funding, which is synonymous with companies like Kickstarter, to a general search for a missing person. In short, it means people coming to work together to solve a problem.

The concept has made a splash in the scientific world in recent years, and has seen scientists, academic experts and “normal” people come together to further scientific knowledge. Perhaps the most noticeable of these is Zooniverse, which is “home to the Internet’s largest, most popular and most successful citizen science projects” according to its website. Launched in July 2007, with only one project, it has grown exponentially, and now has more than 20 projects across five categories, including Nature and Space. The projects are produced and maintained by the Citizen Science Alliance, whose member institutions work to devise projects that make the most of the volunteers time and effort.

Many of the projects are classification based, and are designed to help scientists deal with and make sense of the vast amount of information they are sometimes confronted with. Contributors are shown an image and brought through a series of steps to help them classify what you see in it. For example, with “Snapshot Sergenti”, volunteers are used to help classify the animals in millions of pictures taken by motion sensitive camera traps. Identifying the animals colour, pattern, build, and tail are used to help you with the final classification, and you are also asked to count the number of animals present, and to see if there are any young with them. And if you get it wrong, it’s not a big deal – each image is shown to many people in an effort to get the most accurate result, employing a technique called “wisdom of the crowd”.

Recently, some of Trinity’s very own researchers went global on Zooniverse with a project entitled “Sunspotter”. They are asking for help from citizen scientists in ranking the complexity of sunspots, phenomena that occur due to magnetic activity on the surface of the sun. These cause a wide range of effects on Earth, known collectively as space weather, including the Aurora Borealis. Not all effects are as beautiful though. Solar eruptions can also disrupt GPS and electricity grids, damage satellites and put astronauts in danger. Led by the Dr Paul Higgins, of TCD’s School of Physics, the team hopes to publish a paper on the complexity of sunspots using an entirely new data set generated by volunteers. They are looking look at some of the unanswered questions that surround sunspots, such as whether they are born complex, or become more so as time passes. They turned to Zooniverse because, as advanced as computers are, they are not yet reliably able to discern the complexity of sunspots, and there is just too much data for the scientists to be able to go through alone.

For more information, or to contribute to “Sunspotter” or any other project, see

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