Monday, November 7, 2011

The power of crowdsourcing

I am sure alot of people do not realize that scientists are slowly tapping into the power of the masses. I have known the use of online computer games in helping to solve protein structures by David Baker's Lab at University of Washington, and protein folding problems at Stanford. Ed Yong of "Not exactly Rocket Science" has an extremely good post on one of the latest developments at Foldit. Recently, I have come to know personal genomics projects that extended from the minds of the public too.

You submit your genomic information to them and get it analysed FOC and/but also get it publicized online. People might be concerned about privacy issues but more often, the submitters know about the risks and are not unduly concerned. Notably, the Dodecad Ancestry Project and Eurogenes Genetic Ancestry Project have garnered a substantial number of volunteers in their analyses (order of 1000s). This is a good number for a peer-reviewed publication!

In a way, it sounds ironic that the general population pays taxes to fund these genomic projects, pay scientists/clinicians etc to do the jobs they do, and end up having a part of the useful results being generated from the public themselves.

Closer to heart, it brings up two concerns:
1) Informal bioinformatics is on the rise. With the advent of Web 2.0 and the Semantic Web, it is here to stay. Probes the question: What becomes the value of bioinformaticians?

Healthy competition breeds higher-quality academic/industry bioinformaticians; you basically have to prove you are better than the layman or just the technical-savvy people out there. Set ourselves apart by depth and breadth.

i.e. They are here to stay. Deal with it...

2) Church argues that better access to high-quality data could help this kind of informal bioinformatics to flourish, enabling computer-savvy people to make important contributions to genomics, just as they have with online businesses such as Facebook. "It didn't take that much training to become a social-networking entrepreneur. You just had to be a good coder," he says. With bioinformatics, "I think we're in a similar position." -----

I am particularly concerned about George Church's comment. I am a fan of his work. This might be misconstrued but a great scientist of our times making comment on your profession on being "just a good coder" (AKA with little sense of biology) hit a raw nerve. The acceptance of the scientific community on bioinformaticians has been ambivalent. With this public encroachment into our ambit, this is simply unnerving: What am I doing in grad school doing all these?

EDIT 11/8/11: Kaggle pays you to crunch numbers! An article describes this.

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