Mapping is expensive. There are lots of accurate maps of London, but not nearly so many of Hanoi. You have to pay a lot of people to get a good map. Or you used to. Another way to get more information about a place is simply to ask the people who live there to help. Accordingly, Google announced a plan this summer to fill in the empty bits of their maps with information directly from their customers, which is to say, you and me and all the folks in Hanoi.
It’s a happy story. In fact, it’s becoming common to use crowdsourcing, to the point that I hardly notice feel-good stories about crowdsourcing anymore. Not to mention the fact that I’m not going to Hanoi anytime soon.
But here’s the thing. I was wandering around Home Depot the other day looking for either a rainspout or a store employee who could help me locate one. I could find neither. I might have spent days in there if a fellow customer hadn’t taken pity on me. That’s when I realized we need a crowdsourced approach to mapping out where to find things in Home Depot. Store staff be damned! You can never find them when you need them. I want to whip out my iPhone, punch in my desired hardware, and then see exactly what aisle it lives on.
I have no confidence that Home Depot could or would do this. But you and me? We could. We totally could.
I once heard an interesting story about a group of scientists that had written some improbably small thing on a metal platter, something like the IBM logo written in individual xenon atoms. And here’s what they learned: it was easy enough to write something tiny, but having written it, it took them several hours to find it again so they could image it for their press release. I love the idea of something being lost at the nano scale. It may be just at the tip of my tongue, but if it’s only a few angstroms wide, it’s as good as gone.
There’s a similar problem with astronomy research. We have, via programs like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, imagery that packs 120 megapixels into 1.5 square degrees of sky. How do you find the good stuff? If you can teach a computer to find good stuff, that’s great, but if not, you’ve got a real problem. That’s where the Galaxy Zoo project comes in. Web-organized volunteers are helping to classify galaxies, something that is, apparently, still very difficult for computers to get right. And every now and then people like the Dutch schoolteacher Hanny van Arkel find weird stuff that you can’t tell a computer to look for anyway, precisely because it’s unexpected. This is Hanny’s Voorwerp
I love the fact that there’s a green goblin in the sky named after a Dutch schoolteacher and volunteer astronomer. Also, it’s fun to learn what voorwerp means in Dutch.