Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How crowd sourcing can solve a 50 million year old mystery

A rare fossil of a worm, or perhaps the tongue of an alien?
More probably a root and some leaves from McAbee

So, in keeping with my vow to keep the posts a little different I present project #928. On a recent trip to the McAbee fossil beds I realized there is a serious problem facing paleontologists. I mean besides having to fit the word paleontologist on a business card. The real problem is the huge number of specimens that they need to muscle their way through to find the gems. There are literally tons of fossils in the area and it would be next to impossible for one team to review, catalog and collate all of the data associated with even a relatively small collection.

So my solution is brilliant (if I may use such an adjective and still remain my modest self) and surprisingly simple - which, while out of character for me, makes the adoption of the process much more likely. I say "employ crowd sourcing".

So, in a nutshell, or whatever they had for nut shells 50 million years ago, the solution is this: photograph all of the fossils in the collection at high resolution and record where in the stratum the fossil came from. The idea is to build a three dimensional matrix so one can approximate the forth dimension (time) for where these fossils existed relative to one another.

Step two is to serve up the fossils via the internet for people to analyze and catalog for the researcher. Field guides, and computer tools could be built into the system to help the amateur paleontologist with the task at hand - as well, pattern recognition could be built into the software so the computer could pick out ginkgo leaves and the like.

The paleontologist could, taking a break from redesigning his business cards, review the data from the crowd and quickly hone in on fossils that are being flagged as having items worthy of review. As well, an elaborate reconstruction of the environment as it existed at the time of the fossils could be built - the relative number of plants over a huge sample size could help with the reconstruction of how the ecosystems worked back in the day.

One day, a forward thinking paleontologist will come up with the same idea, and probably win a Nobel prize for it, but you my kind reader, will remember that you actually heard the concept here first.

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