Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Crowdsourcing and open source: knowledge is a gift

Never before has so much information been given away by so many – from software and videos, to their own PCs, says Roger Highfield.

By Roger Highfield 9:50AM GMT 23 Nov 2010
It might not feel like it, but we are living in a golden age for generosity. That, at least, was the contention of the musician Brian Eno, when I heard him speak this month at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.
The occasion was the annual presentation of the Rolex Awards for philanthropy, given this year to remarkable individuals under 30 who are dedicated to improving life on the planet. Yet when Eno talked about an "age of generosity", he was not just referring to such traditional forms of do-gooding. He also meant the extraordinary generosity we show when it comes to the dissemination of knowledge – part of a remarkable trend made possible by the internet and the rise of "crowdsourcing".
Knowledge was once closely guarded, on the principle that "scientia potentia est" – "knowledge is power". Yet as Eno pointed out, giving your knowledge away is one of the best things you can do to enhance your reputation. He described how Salman Khan, an alumnus of MIT and Harvard Business School, discovered that he had an aptitude for explaining arcane subjects after a cousin in Dubai asked for his help. Since he gave up his job, his not-for-profit Khan Academy has produced hundreds of online videos for students worldwide, including Eno.

Khan is one example of a trend that includes the open source movement, which has given the world free software such as Linux, and open innovation, where many people from different disciplines can tackle the same problem simultaneously through a site called Innocentive. Indeed, as the scientific community is discovering, there is an army of amateurs out there, willing to donate their time and knowledge.
There's nothing new in this, of course. Enthusiastic amateurs have recorded birds, tagged butterflies, measured sunlight, spotted new supernovae, counted sunspots. photographed meteor trails, discovered comets, invented instruments and much more. But what is breathtaking is the scale of what is now possible. Simply by donating their PCs' spare capacity, users can join an armada of home computers, which expert software welds together into a virtual machine that can easily outperform a supercomputer.
This "distributed computing" is especially helpful when it comes to trawling through the tidal wave of data generated by modern science. The trend took off with the launch of SETI@home in 1999, which runs a free program that downloads and analyses data from a radio telescope in Puerto Rico, searching for evidence of alien signals.
Many more projects have followed to classify galaxies, study the Moon and Sun, evaluate protein structures and more. Even The Daily Telegraph joined in: five years ago, we explored a vast range of climate-change scenarios using a site called ClimatePrediction (www.climateprediction.net) This enabled tens of thousands of PC users around the world to download a special screensaver that ran a Met Office computer model. The verdict of the experiment, based on 100,000 participants and published in the journal Nature, suggested that a doubling of greenhouse gas levels from their pre-industrial state could cause more than double the maximum temperature rise that the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change then considered likely.
ClimatePrediction is still going, although it now focuses more on weather than climate – and elsewhere, too, the march of citizen science continues apace. Last month saw the launch of OldWeather (www.oldweather.org), which aims to record the weather information in handwritten Royal Navy logbooks from the First World War, to help build a more accurate picture of how our climate has changed over the last century.
And sitting before Eno in Lausanne was an award winner, Jacob Colker. He helped set up The Extraordinaries, a two-year-old social enterprise based in San Francisco. It has created a website, www.sparked.com, through which volunteers can offer their professional skills to help good causes they care about, from designing a logo to advising on the best place to sink a water well in Kenya. So far, more than 100,000 people have got involved, in a phenomenon Colker calls "micro-volunteering". How's that for an age of generosity?
Roger Highfield is the Editor of 'New Scientist'
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