“Astronomical Find by Three Average Joes” was the title of a news item that accompanied a major discovery about pulsars, published in Science in 2010. The discovery was due to a project called Einstein@home which involves volunteers and their computers helping to analyze data from radio-telescopes.

It was a catchy title, for sure. But it was also profoundly misleading. Terms like “average Joes”, “general public”, “ordinary citizens” and “the man in the street” fail to capture the skills and passion that many volunteers bring to citizen science projects. For similar reasons, I’m averse to the term “crowdsourcing” in the context of citizen science, with its connotations of cheap labour and menial tasks.

Crowdcrafting vs. Crowdsourcing

It’s been exactly a year since I tweeted the term crowdcrafting as a better description of what volunteers do in citizen science projects, which distinguishes them from participants in commercial crowdsourcing platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk and Crowdflower. At about the same time I stopped blogging, unconvinced that my posts were serving any useful purpose.

A lot has happened in a year. Crowdcrafting has gone from being just a word, to a rapidly expanding open source platform for citizen science. I’ve been started teaching crowdcrafting in various guises at NYU’s ITP - the Centre for the Recently Possible. I’ve helped launch an EC project called CItizen Cyberlab that explores precisely the sort of volunteer-based learning and creativity that distinghuishes crowdcrafting from crowdsourcing. And I’ve started writing a book about crowdcrafting with ITP alumnus Yasser Ansari, the founder of Project Noah.

For these reasons, as well as a trickle of positive feedback about prior posts, I’ve decided to revive this Billion Brain Blog. Over the next days and weeks, I’ll be explaining what I mean by crowdcrafting and how much it differs from common perceptions of crowdsourcing.

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Part of this exercise will be descriptive – looking at projects that illustrate crowdcrafting well and interviewing people who are outstanding proponents of the concept. Part of this will be prescriptive – exploring how far crowdcrafting can go in theory and in practice, and what this might mean for the future of citizen science.

A good place to start is by summarizing how I stumbled on the crowdcrafting concept in the first place. This is not one of those stories of individual struggle and inspiration. Rather, and quite fittingly, this is the result of many people and ideas converging together. Scientists often like to talk about serendipity, which is basically just a fancy word for a lucky discovery. But the metaphor that comes to my mind is collage: pasting together a coherent picture from random parts. And the driving force for this collage, as I’ll describe in my next post, was a Fellowship from the Shuttleworth Foundation.

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* When I wrote the title for this post, I was thinking of the famous quote by Newton about seeing further, because he was standing on the shoulders of giants. I could also remember reading somewhere that the quote was actually a jibe at a short-statured rival. I assumed that must have been Leibniz.

So I looked up the term in Wikipedia. There I learned, to my surprise, that Newton had in fact cribbed the quote from an old saying about dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants, first recorded in the 12th century. The rival that Newton might have been poking fun at was Hooke, not Leibniz, although the Wikipedia entry makes it clear that there is no consensus on this. And it goes on to point out that Nietzsche was against the idea behind this quote, arguing that only giants could see far, dwarfs (aka ordinary professors of philosophy) just oversimplifying everything to match their humble mental abilities.

It’s fitting that I learned all this thanks to the combined wisdom of Wikipedia contributors and editors, many of whom no doubt spent countless hours tracking down this quote and its various origins. Nietzsche notwithstanding, I believe we live in an age where, thanks to the Internet, we can all see further by sitting on the shoulders of average Joes. And what we learn from the perspicacity and perseverance that volunteers bring to initiatives like Wikipedia, as well as myriad citizen science projects, is that no Joe is really average.