Economics of crowd-sourcing under spotlight

The science of giving: Dr Joe Cox

The science of giving: Dr Joe Cox

A team headed by an economist at the University of Portsmouth has won £750,000 to establish why people give up their time to help scientists better understand some of the biggest mysteries, from searching for the cure for cancer to trying to understand the galaxies that fill our Universe.

Dr Joe Cox, of the Portsmouth Business School, will lead a team from Oxford, Manchester and Leeds Universities and colleagues from Portsmouth’s world-leading Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, to find out more about the people who volunteer to help online science projects.

The grant for the three-year project was awarded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) as part of the Research Councils UK digital economy theme.

Dr Cox said: “Hundreds of thousands of people all over the world are giving their time to help find a cure for cancer, or to better understand the nature of the Universe, or patterns of global warming, but we don’t yet have a detailed understanding of the processes that drive these initiatives, which are more complex than they may first appear.

“The growth of the digital economy has dramatically affected the ways people interact with each other and engage in different activities, but little is known about the changing nature of volunteering and crowd-sourcing in this context.

“This grant will allow us to formulate new economic models to explain the choices, motivations and behaviours of digital volunteers.”

The project will also investigate ways in which volunteering can be optimised and sustained through strategic interactions and interventions on the part of the managers of these resources.

Dr Cox will be working with Dr Karen Masters of the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at Portsmouth to study the Zooniverse (www.zooniverse.org), a highly successful and diverse cluster of online citizen science and crowd-sourcing projects inspired by the success of Galaxy Zoo (www.galaxyzoo.org) and now includes more than 20 projects including  Cell Slider (www.cellslider.net) and Seafloor Explorer (www.seafloorexplorer.org). Volunteers on these initiatives give up their time to interpret and classify data of scientific interest, ranging from images of distant galaxies to weather patterns and cancer cells.

Dr Masters is project scientist for Galaxy Zoo.

She said: “We hope this grant win will help us to understand how to improve the volunteer experience on Zooniverse projects so that people can feel confident they are contributing to real science when they spend time on our sites, and also gain the maximum enjoyment from the experience.”

Dr Cox said: “Technology has made it possible for the average person on the street to make a real contribution towards our understanding of the universe, the modelling of climate change and the development of a cure for cancer.

“Our research will show how these initiatives can encourage more people to volunteer, as well as enhancing the depth of their engagement, which will help to push the boundaries of scientific knowledge and create significant social value.”

The findings will be of “considerable interest” to web communities and the broader voluntary sector, he said, and is likely to also have significant implications for commercial projects that make use of crowd-sourcing, such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

The research partners include Dr Chris Lintott, Oxford University, Dr Anita Greenhill, University of Manchester, and Dr Gary Graham, University of Leeds.

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