Thursday, April 23, 2015

Citizen Science Business Model: Bounty Hunter

At CitSci2015 I proposed a collection of business models that support, and benefit from, the work of citizen scientists and the reasons these are so important.  For the next few months I will be explaining each one in much more depth along with the current state of the market, obstacles to expanding connections to citizen science, and unexplored niches in each market.  These are needed to both help citizen scientists reap some rewards from the value they create, as well as convince firms to invest resources in developing tools to help the entire field grow.  To everyone's mutual benefit.  

Previous: Educator

This Week: Bounty Hunter
Next: Organizer (Coming Soon)

I've been thinking about citizen science bounties for a long time.  Back in 2011 I wrote an initial article talking about their definition and basic potential, hoping this would kick start some new thinking.  Much of that thinking is still valid and has been incorporated here.  But while people sent me some great ideas I have not seen it take off in the field yet.  Still not sure why.  Either way, there are still many great opportunities for both citizen scientists and for businesses wanting to work with them.

What I'm thinking of is very similar to, but distinct from, some of the innovation awards that groups like the Ansari XPrize and U.S. Government's site have offered.  Those are all focused on achieving a specific technical goal or development of a process.  And they are also quite large endeavors with precise rules on how the goal should be accomplished.  They may be somewhat loose rules, but they are still somewhat prescriptive in how to accomplish the goal.  

The bounties I'm thinking of are different by focusing on discovery, not creation or puzzle-solving.  They reward accomplishment of a specific tangible goal but are usually smaller in nature or more precise.  They also often involve more "brute-force" or trial-and-error searching as compared to innovative or creative puzzle solving. The example is an award to people who can find a particular rare bird, sight the first flower of a certain type to bud in spring, or discover an asteroid that will pass within a certain distance of Earth.  So it rewards a very specific discovery that is not a technical feat in and of itself, though building of tools to aid the discovery (such as building the proper telescopes of automating bird call identifications) may involve significant technical work. 

Historically people have used these types of bounty prizes to accomplish scientific goals but they haven't been popular recently.  Some of the more illustrative examples of bounty prizes I've seen are the Electronic Frontier Foundation Cooperative Computing Awards for finding the largest prime numbers.  The group offered prizes of up to $250,000 to the first person to discover a certain type of prime number.  There were no rules on how to do it, or what should be done with the number.  All the group required was someone to prove that the number was a Mersenne Prime and of the certain length.  This type of bounty-hunting is well-suited for distributed computing approaches that could crunch huge sets of numbers by brute force until the sought-after number was found.  And that's exactly what the GIMPS distributed computing project did to win the two most recent EFF bounties.

On a similar note, there is another concept that I also put into the bounties category.  These again focus on meeting a simple, tangible goal, but are used to reward progress or effort on a per-unit basis.  Again, nothing is being created here.  Instead we are rewarding someone who performs a scientific analysis task ten times, or collects three samples of a certain specimen, devotes 100 hours of computing time, identifies 200 uncharted Mars craters, or tracks the pollution in ten different streams.

Looking around I've seen a few examples of this so far but nothing major, and nothing active right now.  The closest I've found is the Cosmology@Home, a distributed computing project trying to model the current universe from various hypothetical starting points.  To encourage participation researchers offered a prize to the person whose computer model came closest to reality by a certain date; there was not a monetary prize but the winner would be mentioned in scientific articles about the work.  The most widely-known version may be's Mechanical Turk project.  Although not necessarily Citizen Science, it did provide bounties on a piecework basis for crowdsourced activities.  So people could be paid for writing ten web reviews, or transcribing a certain number of podcasts.  The private sector QMULUS Cloud Computing Platform also used this approach to encourage participation in an actual Citizen Science application.  Each month the company gave away gift certificates and free merchandise through a raffle to users of the system.  As a commercial entity they could afford to invest in these give-aways but there's no reason non-profit organizations couldn't do the same thing (ultimately I don't believe the QMULUS group was successful but that doesn't mean other firms can't be successful with similar ideas). There could also be many variations in the raffle entry for every work unit performed, or for per person using the system per month, or per participant in general.  There are many possibilities that could fit depending on the nature of the particular project.

Business Opportunities:
Much like "Solver: models, bounty models are great opportunities for companies interested in the Open Innovation benefits that come with asking the public for help on specific business problems.

One example is understanding protein folding...there are millions of potential ways a large molecule can be put together, but only one is the most stable.  So why not offer a reward to the person discovering the most stable shape using only knowledge of the molecular structure?  If the target chemicals are potential drugs or the cause of a disease, there is a lot of value in this work.  Researchers could provide the components of a key Malaria protein and offer $1,000 to the first person to identify it's shape.  Or provide the shape of an important AIDS protein and provide $5,000 to the person discovering a structure that will fit around it (thus neutralizing it's effect).

Bounty opportunities don't just involve one-of-a-kind discoveries. They can also be used to promote people finding more common items they wouldn't otherwise look for in an organized manner.  For example, a business operating in an environmentally sensitive area may want to encourage citizen scientists to survey the wildlife around a work site to show that environmental protections are working.  It can be expensive to constantly count the animals and plants in the area.  So they could pick some representative species (such as an apex predator) whose presence/lack of presence is correlated to how impacted to the area is, and then offer a bounty prize to whoever spots those animals near the firm's operations.  This rewards the citizen scientists doing the work, and since finding those species has economic value to the firm (by reducing their survey costs and protecting them from the costs of having caused pollution).  

Some people have started trying this model.  One example came up at CitSci 2015 in Tracy Lee's poster, "Unlikely Bedfellows: Industry, Conservation and Citizen Science in the Canadian Oil Sands".  A partnership put between a Canadian oil company (Cenovus) and the environmental non-profit Miistakis Institute created the Wild Watch program for tracking wildlife around some of their oil production facilities.  These facilities extract petroleum from the Canadian Oil Sands, a highly controversial activity due to its potential environmental impact.  Adding bounties as part of the reward mechanism encouraging citizen scientists to participate could potentially increase public participation greatly.

So these are my initial thoughts on bounties.  Right now there is a lot more promise with bounties than successful examples.  But hopefully we can help businesses and citizen scientists build them up together.


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