Squinting for science

Crowdsourced science projects (aka human-directed computing) relying on gaming communities are nothing new. One of the first projects I can remember is from 2010 when a group developed a game in order to predict protein structures.

The willingness of strangers to help out with these kind of tasks is a huge thing for scientists. Very often we are faced with tasks which are important but so time consuming that it is difficult to catch up while still having to do experiments. This usually results in huge backlogs of unanalyzed data. Add this to the lack of fund needed to hire help and the immense publication pressure scientists are under and you can see that this system is not sustainable. Ironically, analyzing the data would often help identifying necessary experiments and exclude those which are not worth performing.

In the past labs used to hire undergrads for these tasks. They get the precious experience for their CV and the lab gets free labor. I heard of a scientist who went a step further and started a company in China which does nothing but trace shapes on electron microscopy images. The demand is there, though I doubt that the average lab would be able to afford this service. Not sure about companies though.

Anyway, when CCP announced Project Discovery, a collaboration with the Human Protein Atlas, people got excited. Eve players would participate in identifying the localization of cellular structures which in turn helps with the characterization of the protein. Scientists would finally be able to comb through stacks of data within a relatively short amount of time. Simply put: Eve players would try to figure out where certain proteins can be found within a cell. Knowing the location of a protein you a lot about its role. For those who prefer to know the real world application: Knowing where to find a protein and what it does will help understand diseases and how to address them. If you know that tires belong under a car you will understand why a car is not moving when you find the tires on top of the car.

I was very excited when Project Discovery (PD) started and I believe that the implementation was fairly well done, considering that this was Terra Nova for both sides. What I found very discouraging is the fact how badly PD communicated with the player base. While they had set up a subreddit, a forum post and a Twitter, they were kind of weak in motivating and encouraging their participants.

From my experience people are much more involved when they actually understand what they are doing and what comes out of it. PD chose to go the path of least resistance and released rather uninspiring updates about the latest findings, most of them which got ignored because many players didn’t know that there was a dedicated subreddit. I would have hoped for more interactions, AMA with participating scientists, reports about where this data actually came from, anything which would make the player feel as part of a team instead of feeling like another F1 monkey. There wasn’t even a final goodbye post when the project ended. At least none I was aware of. No summary of what has been achieved, no future outlook, nada. What kind of collaboration is that?


Now CCP is starting another round of PD, this time providing support for the search of exoplanets. Players get to decide whether a drop in signal intensity might indicate the transition of a planet past a sun. So far, I like it. It is still the first week, so there are lots of bugs which need to be addressed but I can see myself playing the game once in a while. What I really hope is that CCP will add a magnification feature to the window. So far it can be quite a pain for me to properly place a marker (bad eye sight) and I often find myself squinting at the monitor trying to make sure that I am doing it right.

I really hope that the communication with the players will be better this time. CCP has recently shown again that they have lost their ability to properly talk with us and I hope that PD is not picking this bad habit up.