The Wisdom of the Crowd is What Science Really Needs

In a world where technology allows for global collaboration, and in a time when we’re finally championing diversity of thought, there are few barriers to getting the right people together to work on some of our most pressing problems. Governments and research labs are attempting to apply this mentality to science through what is known as ‘Citizen Science’ – research conducted in part by the public (amateur scientists) in partnership with the professionals. 

The concept of Citizen Science is brilliant: moving science forward, faster, by utilising the wisdom and volume of the crowd. At this year’s FutureFest – Nesta’s annual innovation festival – ‘people-power’ was a common theme when it comes to building the future. 

For example, John Loder – Nesta Health Lab’s Head of Strategy – shared the success of Dementia Citizens, an app for people suffering Dementia, allowing them to record their thoughts, which is linked up to researchers looking for trends to inform treatment. By growing the user base, Dementia Citizens is providing scientists with ample quality data. 

Nesta Health Lab's John Loder explains the process of creating the Dementia Citizens project, and why people-powered health is the future.

Nesta Health Lab's John Loder explains the process of creating the Dementia Citizens project, and why people-powered health is the future.

But Citizen Science goes beyond working directly with people with specific data to share. Zooniverse – the home of Citizen Science online – lists hundreds of projects which anyone can get involved with to help advance science. From mapping the galaxy and looking for comets, to seeking out Australian wildlife and helping computers understand animal faces, the projects span across many subjects. 

But when you dig deeper into the tasks being asked of these Citizen Scientists, you find that – really – it’s a simple data capture activity. There’s no skill involved other than engaging your eyes to see and fingers to click and type. It’s not the wisdom of the crowd which is being tapped into. 

You could argue that people are interested purely in being a part of important research – which of course is true for many – but it misses the point that scientists are simply missing out on a great resource of intellect at their fingertips.

There has been a rise of crowdsourced solutions over the last few years. rLoop is an organisation formed over Reddit to propose a Hyperloop transportation capsule; Techfugees is a Global community of technologists who team up to propose and build solutions to problems facing the increasing numbers of refugees around the world; and XPRIZE is an open competition offering winning teams large sums of money and support to solve the global problems they select each year.

The difference between crowdsourcing and Citizen Science is that in the former, a high value is placed on ideas. There’s a general understanding that ‘two minds are better than one’ and that by empowering a larger, more diverse pool of people to engage with important and purposeful work, a better solution will be found faster. 

With Citizen Science, the mood is that of the public only being capable of playing hide and seek with pictures and completing menial, time consuming work that the scientists are simply too busy to do. 

We have lots of questions in science which are yet to be answered – so maybe the solution is to go outside the usual circles of knowledge to find them. Maybe by asking those not in the know what they think, we might just be able to see another perspective. There is so much untapped knowledge and wisdom out there – the science ecosystem must come down from its Ivory Tower and start making the most of it.