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 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.
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.
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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