4:11pm

Tue March 11, 2014
All Tech Considered

Evolved Science: Crowds Can Catalog Bugs Faster

Originally published on Wed March 12, 2014 7:55 pm

The next evolution of science is not happening in a lab, but in a basement in a rural Florida county. Thanks to online crowdsourcing, thousands of non-scientists can visit a site called Notes From Nature and lend a hand to university researchers cataloging their collections, from bark to bugs.

Bill Stinson, one of those non-scientists, sits at his PC, looking at a picture of a plant he found on Notes From Nature. Stinson's task is to parse the information on an index card associated with each record and then enter the data into nine fields.

Stinson is a member of the Florida Native Plant Society, and has completed more than 50 entries for Florida State University's herbarium, a giant repository of plant species native to the Southeast U.S.

There are more than 5,000 people just like Stinson — all contributing to science one keystroke at a time.

FSU biology professor Austin Mast runs the lab, which contains some species so rare they're only found in a few locations.

The non-scientists who contribute their time to Notes From Nature catalog much faster than his researchers could, Mast says.

"We in the herbarium had databased about 76,000 of our specimens in the last 10 years," he says. "It took 10 days to get through that many on the Notes From Nature site."

Science is no longer as reliant on singular minds like an Einstein or an Aristotle, says Rob Guralnick, one of the website's founders and the zoology curator at the University of Colorado's Museum of Natural History. Contributions like Stinson's are increasingly important.

"We've kind of passed through that phase of our understanding of how to know the world and the ways that one person can transform our understanding of science," Guralnick says. "Now, a lot of the questions that are most challenging and vexing that are left on the table are really about collective intelligence."

More than 210,000 specimens are housed in rows of green metal cabinets at FSU. Inside are stacks of color-coded folders with a variety of plant specimens.

There's a lot of time and work left, with about a billion specimens in collections like this in the U.S., and an estimated 10 percent of those databased, Mast says.

"We have a 900-million-specimen backlog," he says.

Stinson is ready to transcribe another entry. What pops up next resonates with him.

"This particular collection comes from my home county, Walton County," Stinson says.

He's participated in crowdsourced science before, but most of it was passive. Stinson allowed someone in the world to harness his computer's processor to calculate tough problems when he wasn't using it.

Stinson grew up walking out his back door into the woods. Now, even on the days he can't get outdoors, he can help to preserve nature.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're going to hear about another piece of science research that once took years but can now be accomplished in just days. It turns out that thousands of non-scientists sitting at home computers may be as useful as a single Einstein. And we can thank online crowdsourcing for that. Stan Jastrzebski of member station WFSU in Tallahassee explains.

STAN JASTRZEBSKI, BYLINE: The next evolution of science isn't happening in a lab. It's in a basement in a rural Florida county. Bill Stinson sits at his PC, looking at a picture of a plant. It was given to him by a website called Notes From Nature. The site helps university researchers catalog their collections using public help. Stinson's job is to parse the information on an index card attached to each record and enter the data into nine fields the site tracks.

BILL STINSON: First thing that they want here is the country and then the state.

JASTRZEBSKI: Stinson isn't a scientist. He's a member of the Florida Native Plant Society and has completed more than 50 entries for Florida State University's herbarium. It's a giant repository of plant species native to the Southeast U.S.

FSU biology professor Austin Mast runs the lab, which contains some species so rare they're found only in a few places. They're housed in rows of green metal cabinets. Inside are stacks of color-coded folders with a variety of plant specimens.

AUSTIN MAST: It's interesting to look through here. You've got pine cones and you've got branches and you've got pieces of - what looks like pieces of bark and other sorts of flowering parts of the plant that might otherwise drop to the ground.

JASTRZEBSKI: These cabinets house more than 210,000 specimens. Mast says these non-scientists who contribute their time to Notes From Nature catalog much faster than his researchers could.

MAST: We, in the herbarium, had databased about 76,000 of our specimens in the last 10 years. It took 10 days to get through that many on the Notes From Nature site.

JASTRZEBSKI: Rob Guralnick is the zoology curator at the University of Colorado's Museum of Natural History and one of the website's founders. He says science is no longer as reliant on singular minds like an Einstein or an Aristotle, and contributions like Stinson's are increasingly important.

ROB GURALNICK: You know, we've kind of passed through that phase of our understanding of how to, you know, know the world in the ways that one person can transform our understanding of science. Now a lot of the questions that are most challenging and vexing that are left on the table are really about collective intelligence.

JASTRZEBSKI: And Mast says there's a lot of time and work left.

MAST: There are about a billion specimens in collections like this in the United States, and estimates suggest that there are only 10 percent of those databased. So we have a 900-million specimen backlog.

JASTRZEBSKI: At Bill Stinson's house, he's ready to transcribe another entry. What pops up next resonates with him.

STINSON: As it happens, this particular collection comes from my home county, Walton County.

JASTRZEBSKI: He's done crowdsourced science before but most of it was passive. He'd allow someone in the world to harness his computer's processor to calculate tough problems while he wasn't using it. But Stinson grew up walking out his back door into the woods. And now, even on days he can't get outdoors, he can help preserve nature.

STINSON: If you don't have any kind of clue about what it is, you can't see any real point in protecting it. It looks like something to use rather than something to understand.

JASTRZEBSKI: There are more than 5,000 people just like Stinson, all contributing to science one keystroke at a time. For NPR News, I'm Stan Jastrzebski in Tallahassee, Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.