NEWS10 July 2014

How mobile gaming could cure cancer

News UK

UK — The scientific world has harnessed mobile gaming to encourage everyday citizens to examine large data sets.

“Let’s move from extracting data to extracting human energy,” said Tom Rowley, partner at Stripe Partners and co-founder of collaborative community Good for Nothing, in introducing the second session at the Market Research Society (MRS)’s Connected World conference.

Alongside Amy Carton, programme manager and ‘citizen science’ advocate, he presented his experience on how citizens can be encouraged to use their free time for social good.

According to Rowley (and the Economist), the amount of time people around the world have spent watching Psy’s Gangnam Style to date is equal to the time it would take to build 20 Empire State Buildings (or 4.5 Stonhenges). In quoting American economic consultant Clay Shirky, he explained that the world “has over a trillion hours of free time to commit to shared projects.” And when (as Alex Jenkins alluded to in the previous session) “robots come and take away some of our work,” this number will grow in the future.

So how can people be encouraged to use this time for good? Rowley outlined his key ingredients for engagement:

  • A big, transparent mission
  • Clear and passionate leadership
  • Opportunities for recognition
  • Scope for individual and collective learning
  • A framework for doing things

Existing collaborative work such as Wiknics (Wikipedia picnics), ‘clicktivism’ site Avaaz and the two hackathons per week that take place in London alone (according to Rowley), are all examples of projects that meet these criteria. And according to Carton, there are a number of projects involving everyday people that also fit this bill.

Citizen Science

Carlton explained that Charles Darwin, during his lifetime, received many letters from scientists around the world that helped informed his work on the theory of evolution. But, said Carton, Darwin also received letters from housewives, outlining things they had observed that they felt would be of use to him. These too contributed to his work, and represent one of the first examples of ‘citizen science’.

A modern example is Carton’s work with Cancer Research UK. This involved organising a hackathon whereby research data was released to the public in the form of Cell Slider, allowing everyday non-scientists to analyse cancer data in image form. It was found that not only did the citizen scientists closely match pathologists in terms of their ability to identify cancer cells and oestrogen receptor status, they also did it six times faster.

The next challenge was to examine gene data, and to do this, Google, Amazon and Facebook collaborated (for the first time ever) to produce a mobile video game app – Play to cure: Genes in Space – which, through an asteroid-destroying, substance-collecting spaceship game, has led to citizen scientists mapping 40 miles of DNA data in one month, and completing the entire dataset in three months.

“You must be authentic,” said Carton, in describing how to best engage people in these kinds of collaborative tasks. “Bring people along, and share your results.”