Google’s Dead Sea Scrolls is latest crowdsourcing project

October 7, 2011

Up close, the green dollop of paint shows streaks of white, notes of brown. The turquoise line beside it reveals hints of yellow. Zoom out to follow the single brush stroke that mixed black and dark blue that forms one edge of the window in Vincent van Gogh’s “The Bedroom.”

To examine the masterpiece, art students could make the trek to Amsterdam to the Van Gogh Museum or they could head over to the Google Art Project, which hosts high-resolution images from 17 museums worldwide.

For the religious scholar, seeing the fragile animal skin written on between the third and first centuries BCE now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, would have required a trip to Jerusalem until the scrolls went online last month as a project between Google and the Israel Museum.

While Google touts these projects as part of its mission to make all the world’s information available online, the scrolls’ existence in digital form serves a secondary purpose: allowing amateur detectives to seek clues that elude scholarly academics.

The posting of the scrolls for the masses is the latest example of academic crowdsourcing, inviting the usually anonymous community of people online to contribute know-how, money or work to a given project. And scientists, journalists and academics have begun to recognize the value in that crowdsourced knowledge, turning to the community to unlock some of the most persistent mysteries of the world.

Last month, gamers solved a puzzle AIDS researchers had struggled with for years. In a September article in the science journal Nature, University of Washington scientists reported that they had been working to understand an enzyme that may play a role in the spread of the HIV virus, but its molecular structure eluded them.

The group built an online game called FoldIt that helps would-be scientists break down the structure of proteins. Players try to align the proteins structure in different shapes. As more than 236,000 people played and sifted through the vast number of possibilities, the computer program recognized more stable structures. Players could build off of one another’s findings. When two anonymous players deduced the correct structure for an HIV protein, scientists called it “remarkable,” adding that the discovery could help design new drugs.

NASA has also sought out amateur astronomers for help exploring the universe. More than 250,000 people have signed up with Galaxy Zoo to help filter through the images captured by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

Journalists are also turning to online investigators for help sifting through government documents. A number of publications, The Washington Post included, asked for help finding information in cables released by WikiLeaks and in Sarah Palin’s e-mails. Last week, ProPublica released a new tool, DocDiver, that lets readers annotate documents in a type of real-time footnotes.

And what will the masses contribute to unlocking the secrets of the nearly 1,000 Dead Sea Scrolls? That may just be a question for the ages.

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