A PopTech collaboration: Sarah Fortune & Lukas Biewald

Last year, Sarah Fortune came to PopTech looking for a solution. The 2010 PopTech Science Fellow and researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health had hit a wall in her research on Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. She needed a way to analyze streams of images of the bacteria -- as quickly and cheaply as possible -- or one line of her research would stall.

“I thought maybe we could crowdsource it,” she recalled yesterday in front of a packed house at PopTech 2011. “So I asked onstage, ‘Is there an app for that?’ Unbelievably, someone in the audience called out and then made it happen.”

That someone was Josh Nesbit, a 2009 Social Innovation Fellow, who connected Fortune to Lukas Biewald, co-founder of CrowdFlower, an Internet-based crowdsourcing company. The rest, as they say, is history.

CrowdFlower was built on the observation that there’s lots of work to be done and lots of people with short periods of idle time to do it. The company breaks up large digital projects, such as image processing, into parts and distributes them to “workers” around the world. It keeps tasks fun that could become repetitive and mundane in time, but, more importantly, it speeds the work up.

CrowdFlower had never been used in the service of biology or medicine before Fortune’s project came along, so the partnership initiated a whole new avenue of business. “There’s a monetary cost to hiring graduate students to do this kind of work, but there’s also a time cost. That actually slows down science,” explained Biewald. “This work literally took us a few hundred hours, which is actually slow compared to what we do for most of our clients.”

But what excites Fortune and Biewald most about their collaboration is that it demonstrates the potential for crowdsourcing to democratize basic science and the joys of discovery. Here at PopTech, we’re most excited to have been the catalyst.

Image: Kris Krug

Rate this post:

  • Meh.
  • Love it!
  • Community Rating: 8
Click and drag above to vote.