Friday, April 12, 2013

Citizen Science and the Suggestion Box Problem

Citizen Science is about tapping the energy and knowledge of everyday people to advance our understanding of the world.  This is great when we talk about organized projects that provide the public specific tasks or ask very specific questions.  But how do we get to the next level?  How do we answer the biggest questions and find the most creative solutions?

It all revolves around the Suggestion Box problem.

I've stolen this idea from the business world but I think the analogy works.  All companies want to improve and keep their costs low.  One way to do this is through plentiful input from workers.  But "culling the wheat from the chaff" and identifying the few good ideas from the numerous bad ones is much tougher.  A great example is in this Forbes article.

Imagine a company looking to reduce costs in their factory asks their workers for their best ideas.  Each person takes a slip of paper and over the course of the day writes down every idea they have for saving money.  After a week they all place their ideas in a suggestion box for management toreview.  Now put yourself in the manager's place.  Going through all those ideas many will be poorly conceived, expensive to implement, overly ambitious, or just plain bad ideas.  You want to throw these out.  But somewhere there is a fantastic idea so you wade through them all until the perfect one rises to the top.  In a small firm with ten people that is easy to do.  But make it 50, 100, or 10,000 people and it quickly becomes quite difficult.

Putting it back in science terms, we are all looking for the next Einstein....a brilliant patent clerk with a head brimming full of ideas ready to upset our entire understanding of the Universe.  But even if this person exists, how will we find him?  We can't just have him publish articles in physics journals to be noticed....he has no idea where to submit or have the ability to write an article that will pass peer review.  He can't go to the press since they'll just dismiss him as a quack.  And he can't necessarily create a new invention or create a huge demonstration...his insights are theoretical and aren't actual devices.  How do we get that idea discovered?  That's what I'd like to find out.

For starters I'm looking at research papers in a number of fields (including business, economics, sociology, politics, etc.) to see what insights already exist.  I also know of some smaller-scale examples from the citizen science world that should help.  But before I start writing about you have any ideas?  Tell me your best insights or show me some papers where you think some good ideas exist.  Let's get those thoughts bubbling up and test the whole process in the comments below.