Thursday, October 6, 2011

Dive Deep with NASA and Practice Finding Life

A Citizen Science trend I've recently noticed are the increasing numbers of projects asking participants to analyze scientific images.  These projects take advantage of the large numbers of citizen scientists that can perform visual-identification tasks much bettter than computers can.  Although machines can help us automate picture collection,  they aren't very good at understanding what is captured in the picture.  That's where the human eye comes's still the best at recognizing patterns.

The Zooniverse projects are a great example.   Many of the scientific images needing analysis come from space missions and Earth-bound telescopes and these projects crowdsource analysis of those images in a wide variety of ways.  Some, such as PlanetHunters, are looking for other planets as part of NASA's grand search for life.  And that's where the MAPPER (Morphology Analysis Project for Participatory Exploration and Research) comes in...another piece in the grand search for extra-terrestrial life but based right here near home.

This project is testing ways to improve detection of microbialites, a type of rock created by bacterial deposits on its surface.  The theory is that these formations may be common on any planet with a bacterial history, so looking for these rocks on other planets may guide us to potential clues for life.  On Earth most microbialites are at the bottom of cold lakes.  So NASA has sent expeditions to two Canadian lakes to scan the entire lake beds and map where the microbialites form.

The first part is nearly done...robotic subs and scuba divers have taken all the images needed from the lakes.  Now they need our help analyzing and interpreting the data.
Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Visit the MAPPER web site and view the Slide Show Tour to learn more about the project. 
  2. Once you are ready to get started, click on "Sign Up Here" to create an account.  All you need to provide is your full name, an e-mail address, and a password.  That's it.
  3. Once logged in click on the interactive tutorial designed to teach you everything you need about the system.  In it you will learn to only tag clear photos that are not fuzzy and not blocked by the camera equipment, see examples of the various tagable items are (e.g., dark sediment, trees, trash, microbialites, rocks, algae, etc.), and practice how to use the tagging system.  As you can see below it's really quite simple.  The system will also take you through a number of test pictures where you'll see the newly-acquired photo analysis skills and will be graded on how well you identified features in each one.
  4. Once the five-minute tutorial is done you are ready to start!  Just click on "Tag Photos" and get to work.  As you complete more pictures you will get more points in the ongoing completion contest, and will receive new types of photos as you get more experience with the system.
Photo Courtesy: and
Currently NASA and it's partners have surveyed two different lakes for this project, Pavilion Lake and Kelly Lake.  While they have many photos that need analyzing the number is not infinite.   I expect this phase of the project may end after a few months once all the data analysis is complete.  So what are you waiting for?  Get out there and start tagging!


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