Revolutionary Measures

Saving the planet with Facebook

Phathological form of twigs of Fraxinus excels...

There was a big surge in interest around gamification a few years back. Essentially improving the user experience and getting people to do things that weren’t that interesting by turning them into a game, it never really made it into the mainstream.

But now a new twist to gamification promises not to enhance the user experience but to actually help improve the world around us. Researchers at the Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Centre in Norwich have come up with a Facebook game that will help in the fight against ash dieback, the fungus that threatens to wipe out Britain’s 80 million ash trees.

Players on the Fraxinus game have to match sequences of genetic letters represented by leaf shapes, helping sort genetic information into matching sequences and therefore pinpointing genetic variation in either the tree or the Chalara Fraxinea fungus that causes ash dieback. Those samples that don’t match will be flagged for further investigation to see if the genetic variation is linked to potential immunity to the fungus.

Of course harnessing the power of distributed computers is nothing new. Projects such as the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) use the idle time of home PCs to crunch data as part of the effort to find alien life.

However what is different here is that Fraxinus actually uses human intelligence, rather than just our IT. We’re actually a lot better (and faster) at recognising patterns than computers are, so the research effort relies on our skills to fight ash dieback. Obviously putting the game on Facebook provides a scalable, global platform that can be accessed by millions – and also gives a welcome boost to the profile of the research efforts at the same time.

It is early days to see if Fraxinus takes off, but it would be good to see other researchers adopting a similar approach – involving the crowd in their work doesn’t just help get it done quicker but it also makes it more real to people. Rather than science being something done by people in white coats it is all around us that we can all take part in. Being able to say that you’ve helped solve a scientific problem gives extremely powerful bragging rights for your status updates, compared to the norm. My only concern is timescales – research takes years and the attention span on social media is measured in seconds and minutes. So scientists need to break their work into bite sized chunks with defined goals if they are to engage with those on Facebook and Twitter. This can be easier said than done, but the benefits to individual projects and the scientific community could be enormous. Let’s hope that Fraxinus is the first of many games that do wider good.

August 14, 2013 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments