People have the power, again

GCN Insider | Trends and technologies that affect the way government does IT

MISSION ON MARS: NASA has had help investigating the red planet.

Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

The network effect is a powerful one, open-source enthusiasts tell us. Open your project to the world and you'll get more volunteers to help than you could ever hire. Good thing NASA, with its mission of exploring the frontier of space, has plenty of fascinating projects to lure helpers.

In 2001 Bob Kanefsky, a software engineer at NASA
Ames's University-Affiliated Research Center, found how powerful the network effect could be. He started the Clickworkers project, a pilot where home volunteers identified and categorized craters in images of Mars. The results helped determine the ages of the different regions of Mars.

'I was inspired by [email protected],' Kanefsky told GCN recently, referring to a successful distributed computing project that scans swaths of extraterrestrial radio frequencies for signals from other lifeforms. 'Not only did they receive a staggering amount of donated computer power, but there also seemed to be a substantial minority of volunteers who seemed to want to do more than just install [the SETI program] on their computers and let it quietly run. It occurred to me that many people would have been happy to personally inspect the graphics the screen saver was drawing.'

With little publicity, Kanefsky attracted a group of about 1,000 Clickworkers, who, using only their browsers and a Javascript extension, would go on to identify over 90,000 entries from images captured by the Viking Orbiter. Kanefsky's software allowed users to click four points of a crater and have the software draw a circle around that crater. The results were sent back to a server program, written in Macintosh Common Lisp.

Soon Clockworkers will be ramping up again. The camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launched in 2005, will be sending images as part of the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment. Virginia Gulick, the education and public outreach lead for MRO HiRISE, will be overseeing the Clickworkers. The pictures will be of higher resolution than any before. Now if people would only volunteer to run payroll systems, too.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.


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