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Finding distractions on the internet is like finding hairs on a dog bed: you’re not likely to run out anytime soon. As self imposed isolation sweeps across the nation, Americans are quickly discovering how many Netflix series and Twitch streams they can tolerate in a day. But with things the way they are, merely being distracted is not enough for some. Humans are inherently social beings. As a social species we are often compelled to help our neighbors when they are in crisis. This leads us to an inconvenient paradox: how can we help each other when the best action we can take is stay six feet away?

As with most things in life, the internet is here to help.

 

People-powered research.

Scientists and researchers are living in an age where technology allows them to gather information on a scale unheard of in the past. As such, some studies have thousands if not millions of data samples to review. These sample sizes are too big for a small group of researchers to process, and too detailed to leave to a computer to analyze. This is where crowdsourced research comes in. This research method allows volunteers from across the world to donate their time and ideas to a project-regardless of their level of experience!

Zooniverse.org is one such site where volunteers can participate in several crowdsourced research projects. In HumBug, users listen to audio clips to identify the trademark sound of a mosquito's buzzing wings. This data is subsequently being used to program a device to monitor traffic in areas affected by malaria and other diseases spread by the mosquito, also known as the deadliest animal on the planet (it’s true!).

Bash the bug asks participants to visually compare bacterial cultures to measure the effects of antibiotics on samples of M. Tuberculosis. This kind of research is crucial in preventing a looming threat in the world of medicine: antibiotic resistance.

 

“Gamifying” Research.

Fold.it is a puzzle game with a purpose. Created by the University of Washington Center for Game Science and Department of Biochemistry, Foldit is a puzzle game where users “fold” protein structures, and are scored based on optimal design. As explained in “The Science Behind Foldit”: [K]nowing the structure of a protein is key to understanding how it works and to targeting it with drugs. A small protein can consist of 100 amino acids, while some human proteins can be huge (1000 amino acids)... Figuring out which of the many, many possible structures is the best one is regarded as one of the hardest problems in biology today and current methods take a lot of money and time, even for computers. Foldit attempts to predict the structure of a protein by taking advantage of humans' puzzle-solving intuitions.”

Some personal advice: do not be intimidated by all of the scientific exposition at the beginning of the game. The tutorial does an adequate job of explaining the game’s mechanics, but I needed to look up a guide to finish the “Control Over Clashing” level.

All of the programs mentioned in this article are completely free to use. Most Zooniverse projects have quick and easy tutotrials that can be completed in a matter of minutes. Your new life as a citizen science researcher is just a few clicks away!

 

Honorable mentions (an afternote):

Fighting disease is just one way crowdsourced research harnesses the power of the people. Lovers of literature may want to explore Distributed Proofreaders. Other Zooniverse projects let you hunt for asteroids through a space telescope, identify constellations from historical maps, or just count fish!