Crowdsourcing: Improving the Quality of Scientific Data through Social Networking

Below is a recap of a public symposium I recently attended. It was organized by the Board on Research Data and Information National Research Council.

Crowdsourcing is a straightforward concept – rally people around a cause or concept and get them to contribute their thoughts, observations, and insights. The term is widely attributed to Jeff Howe in a June 2006-Wired magazine article. It is everywhere:

  • People have monetized it –  CloudCrowd, Innovation Exchange
  • People have helped people with it – Katrina PeopleFinder Project, Ushahidi (Swahili for “testimony” or “witness”)
  • People have influenced people – FlipperTV (2007) and McCainpedia (2008) (The Democratic National Committee – both)

And…..scientists and researchers have been using it for generations to acquire scientific data.

Interesting (recent) Historical Note

One of the earlier documented records of scientific crowdsourcing was through an organization from the U.K. called Mass Observation. Early in 1937, three young men got together to create an “anthropology of ourselves” – a study of the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain. In an effort to achieve their goal, the group set out to encourage a national panel of volunteers to reply to regular questionnaires on a variety of matters.

A team of paid investigators went into a variety of public situations: meetings, religious occasions, sporting and leisure activities, in the street and at work, and recorded people’s behavior and conversation in as much detail as possible. The material they produced is a varied documentary account of life in Britain. As time progressed, the emphasis shifted away from social issues and towards consumer behavior. In 1949, Mass Observation registered as a company and now boasts a deep repository of British behaviors.

The Little Guy Wins Big

Going back further (back being the mid-1500s); people started offering monetary rewards to solve the problem of measurement of longitude at sea. This was a huge issue – an estimated 2,000 Britons died in the Scilly Naval Disaster (1707). How? They were lost. In the English Channel. Ouch. The Longitude prize was an open competition attacked by many notable scientists – Galileo, Halley, Werner, and Newton. A clockmaker and carpenter from England, John Harrison, amassed all data that had been generated by others to solve the problem and eventually won the prize.


The Human Genome Project is more recent example of scientific crowdsourcing through social networking with work completed at laboratories as part of publically funded projects in the US, parts of Asia, and parts of Europe.

SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was solved through the formation of a collaborative multicenter research project that helped the rapid identification, sequencing, and testing of the coronavirus.

NOAA, aside from being generally amazing, is doing some REALLY AMAZING work with a site called NOAA is not just engaging the public in climate science, but exploiting crowdsourcing to digitize and analyze climate data. After digitizing historic documents, users get the chance to decode handwriting (something that machine cannot do very well) for NOAA and learn about what happened in the past by reading the ship logs, user accounts and so on. When a citizen becomes a volunteer in a project like this, you get participatory science.

The World Wildlife Fund is mapping the future of Virunga forests with the Moabi crowdsourcing system. PatientsLikeMe is crowdsourcing information about illnesses and treatments so others can learn about what they are going through and find support from similarly afflicted individuals.

The list of modern day crowdsourcing goes on and on. Here is a brief list of some current projects:

The sky is the limit (check out the DARPA Balloon Hunt – ha ha) with crowdsourcing.

(If you need even more examples of crowdsourcing, there is a mammoth list here)

Event Details:

Crowdsourcing: Improving the Quality of Scientific Data through Social Networking

Organized by the Board on Research Data and Information National Research Council



Roberta Balstad, Columbia University and BRDI Vice-Chair, Gregory Phelan, State University of New York at Cortland, Scott Hausman, NOAA National Climatic Data Center, Leo Bottrill, World Wildlife Fund, David Clifford, Manager of Public Policy and Government Affairs, PatientsLikeMe, Michael Keller, Stanford University and BRDI Member



  • Thank you for this recap! nn”Andu2026..scientists and researchers have been using it for generations to acquire scientific data”. I totally agree. Social media has become a medium for scientists, researchers and even citizen scientists to share their knowledge and collaborate with other experts around the globe. One recent example was Devin Bloom’s utilization of Facebook while he and other biologists were on a scientific expedition to the remote jungles of Guyana. Know more about his story at