Clickworkers - NASA Needs Your Help!

Posted by Connie French on Aug 2, 2009 6:10:53 AM

Can you identify the picture to the left?  If not, can you at least draw a circle around the round image in the lower half of the frame?  If so, you can become a NASA "Clickworker" and help map the surface of Mars.

Here's how it works - volunteers are given a small photo of the surface of the planet Mars, and asked to click the perimeter of visible craters.  The user then submits the information - translated by the system into latitude, longitude, and diameter numbers - to the NASA database. A training example with 7 known craters gives accuracy feedback as each crater is marked.  Upon request, it can give hints, or even demonstrate where to click on the next crater.  A second task, estimating the age of the crater, is a bit more complicated, though the user is given examples and detailed instructions about how this is done.  With several clickworkers marking the same craters, NASA is able to gain a consensus comparable to what might be found by a single expert in the field.

The project is the second phase of an initiative that was launched in 2001, the results of which are now on the agency's web site and were published in a paper titled "CAN DISTRIBUTED VOLUNTEERS ACCOMPLISH MASSIVE DATA ANALYSIS TASKS?".  The stated objectives of the project were to determine:

(1) Are people interested in volunteering their free time for routine scientific work?
(2) Does the public have the training and motivation to produce accurate results in a scientifically important

The answer came quickly - within 4 weeks there were over 800 participants and 90,000 crater marking entries.  This was faster even than the original spacecraft had sent back information.  But what about the results?  An analysis of the data, superimposed onto data collected by NASA scientists, showed some extraneous "noise", but proved consistent with the scientist's findings.

Not having much experience working with NASA, I was happy to see that the scientists behind the projecct demonstrated a sense of humor appropriate to the occasion, including the following in the original FAQ:

Q. Is this a big NASA project?

A. No, it's a tiny little NASA project. The web site and database were created and are being maintained by one engineer working part-tme, advised by two scientists who spend even less time on the project. It's a pilot study sponsored by the NASA Ames Director's Discretionary Fund. Depending on what we learn from this, it's possible that more ambitious projects along these lines will be attempted, once we know the idea works.

Give it a try - and the next time someone asks what you've been up to, you can say "I've been doing a little work for NASA."

Topics: Innovation Insights

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