How Crowdsourcing Can Solve Otherwise Intractable Real-World Problems

from the see?-it-can-be-useful dept

Although crowdsourcing is all the rage at the moment, there has to be a worry that this is just the latest fad in the world of technology, and will soon follow portals and the blink tag into justified oblivion. Occasionally, though, an application of crowdsourcing appears that seems to address a real problem in a way that would be otherwise intractable.

In the UK, the authorities have discovered that a deadly disease affecting ash trees has started to spread from the rest of Europe, where it has been destroying forests for some time -- in Denmark and Sweden, 90% of ash trees are affected. The challenge is to find as many of the outbreaks of the disease as quickly as possible, in an attempt to stop it spreading even more widely to the UK's 80 million ash trees.

That's an impossible task given the limited number of scientists and experts available, and the large number of forests scattered over a wide area. So researchers at the University of East Anglia have come up with the idea of enlisting the public using a smartphone app. Clearly, untrained observers would be unable to make reliable assessments of outbreaks directly. But what they can do is to photograph ash trees that look as if they might be infected (pdf), and send these images to experts who would then decide whether further action needs to be taken:

The free "Ashtag" app will make it possible for anyone to take a photo of diseased leaves, shoots or bark and send it remotely to plant pathologists to identify whether or not the tree isinfected.

As well as collecting photographic evidence, the app also uses geo-tagging software to give a precise location of infected trees -- allowing researchers and authorities to build up a picture of where the dieback is happening. This can then be used to target areas for culling to stop the spread of the disease.
As that points out, geotagging allows the individual photographs to be aggregated to form an overall picture of where the infection is concentrated in the country. That will permit action to be taken where it most needed, and will also provide a picture of how the disease is spreading. Crowdsourcing is really the only way to gather so much information from such a large area, so quickly, and on a continuous basis.

Other benefits of this approach are that it allows members of the public to become engaged with scientific work, and to contribute directly to the fight against this disease. Too often people feel alienated from the research they are paying for through their taxes, and frustrated that they can't do more to tackle an issue that concerns them. Crowdsourcing helps to tackle both problems.

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  • icon
    Just Another Limey (profile), 1 Nov 2012 @ 2:48am

    Not again...

    Thank you Techdirt; I haven't seen it yet on the BBC or regional UK news.

    I'm old enough to remember Dutch Elm disease, and how it affected our parks, avenues, woods etc in the 70's. We don't want to see this again. It's really good to see new approaches like this to time old problems.

    Hopefully it'll succeed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 1 Nov 2012 @ 5:11am

    I have but one concern: aren't we interfering with natural selection if we take active action to stop the natural spread of this disease? I mean, won't the surviving ash trees be more resistant to further diseases? Just a thought.

    More on topic, this sort of initiative should be wide spread. There are tons of ways to contribute with law enforcement, public health and other areas by using such system. Imagine a missing kid. Imagine if you could voluntarily take pictures of the streets and upload to a central server that would try to recognize the child or close matches to help finding him/her. Before you throw stones at me I KNOW this can be abused but it's just one example. Crowdsource is there and it can be put for good use!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 Nov 2012 @ 6:21am


      Dutch Elm Disease was first identified in 1921.

      No new elms have grown in the UK, outside the few protected areas where elms still remain uninfected, since the disease hit us in the 1970s.

      There aren't any resistant strains of elm. There aren't any resistant strains of ash, either, just areas that aren't yet infected, where the ashes haven't yet died.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Nov 2012 @ 5:32am

    Crowd Sourcing

    Although crowdsourcing is all the rage at the moment, there has to be a worry that this is just the latest fad in the world of technology

    Actually crowd sourcing has a long history in that astronomers have relied on the amateurs for general sky watching, and provide means for them to notify the professionals. Most comets and supernovae are first spotted by amateurs. The astronomers were the second group to take advantage of the Internet in SETI at home started in 1999, only key cracking has a longer history, it started in 1997.
    The astronomers have also used crowd sourcing recently for looking at photographs, in the galaxy zoo. project.
    The professional astronomers are good at giving credit to actual discovers, which helps to keep the cooperation going.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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