Category Archives: Institute

EyesOnALZ project launches the first citizen science game to fight Alzheimer’s

Funded by a grant from the BrightFocus Foundation, HCI has been collaborating with Cornell, Berkeley, Princeton, WiredDifferently, and SciStarter to develop a platform for crowdsourcing the AD research being done at Cornell University.

Stall Catchers” will allow participants to look at movies of real blood vessels in mouse brains, and search for “stalls” – clogged capillaries where blood is no longer flowing. By “catching stalls” participants will be able to build up their score, level up and compete in the game leaderboard, as well as receive digital badges for their various achievements in the game.

Most importantly, the game will enable the crowdsourcing of promising Alzheimer’s research at the Schaffer-Nishimura Laboratory (Cornell Dept. of Biomedical Engineering).  There, recent breakthroughs have been made in understanding the role of reduced brain blood flow in AD, and reversing some of the Alzheimer’s symptoms, such as memory loss and mood changes, by targeting blood vessel stalls.

Stall Catchers has been built on the existing platform of stardust@home – one of the first volunteer thinking projects. Just as aerogel images were being studied in stardust@home to look for interstellar dust particles, in Stall Catchers a “Virtual Microscope” plays back vessel movies – images of consecutive layers of a live mouse brain. Participants analyze one microscopic vessel at the time, looking for signs of stalls.

The game, launched Oct. 1, 2016, is expected to remove the current analytic bottleneck of blood flow analysis in AD, and accelerate the research towards promising AD treatment candidates.

Crowdsourcing Alzheimer’s Research

Human Computation Institute is leading an initiative to develop an online Citizen Science platform that will enable the general public to contribute directly to Alzheimer’s Disease research and possibly lead to a new treatment target in just a few years.

It has long been known that reduced blood flow in the brain is associated with Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia.  However, new imaging techniques have enabled our Cornell-based collaborators to make important discoveries about the mechanisms that underlie this reduced blood flow.

These findings are suggestive of a new treatment approach that could reduce cognitive symptoms and halt disease progression.  However, arriving at a specific treatment target based on these findings requires additional research.  Unfortunately, the data curation required to advance these studies is very labor-intensive, such that one hour’s worth of collected data requires a weeks worth of annotation by laboratory personnel.   Indeed, the curation aspect of the analysis is so time consuming that to complete the studies necessary for identifying a drug target could take decades.

Fortunately, accurate curation of the data, though still impossible for machines, involves perceptual tasks that are very easy for humans.   We aim to address the analytic bottleneck via crowdsourcing using a divide-and-conquer strategy.  The curation tasks in this research map closely to the tasks used in two existing citizen science platforms: stardust@home and EyeWire, both of which have enabled discoveries reported in the journal Science.  In direct collaboration with the creators of these highly successful citizen science platforms, we are developing a new platform for public participation that we expect will reduce the time to a treatment from decades to only a few years.

If you are interested in participating in an online activity that will directly contribute to Alzheimer’s research, please pre-register here.  By participating, you will not only help speed up a treatment, but also understand more about the disease and exactly how your efforts make a difference.

This project includes collaborators from Cornell University, Princeton University, U.C. Berkeley, SciStarter, and WiredDifferently.

Pietro Michelucci

Solving wicked problems is a four-way partnership

What is a wicked problem?

“Wicked problems” are intractable societal problems (e.g., climate change, pandemic disease, geopolitical conflict, etc.), the solutions of which exceed the reach of individual human cognitive abilities[1].  They are often multifaceted, involving multiple systems such that a solution that benefits one system (e.g., Earth’s ecosystem) may harm another (e.g., the global economy).  Furthermore, viable solutions tend to be dynamic, adaptive, and ongoing.

Human computation to the rescue

Human computation (HC), which encompasses methods such as crowdsourcing, citizen science, and distributed knowledge collection offers new promise for addressing wicked problems, by enabling participatory sensing, group intelligence, and collective action at unprecedented scales.  Ironically, many of the wicked problems we face today have resulted from  unintended manifestations of collective behavior (e.g,. car pollution).   Thus, we now seek to harness and improve this crowd-powered capability as a fitting remedy.

A good idea is a seed, not a solution

Despite such promise, transformative new ideas are not enough to solve real-world problems.  Indeed the Human Computation Institute employs a practice of four-way teams with end-to-end partnerships to ensure that  initiatives will have a high likelihood of success in terms of quantifiable and meaningful societal benefit.

Multidisciplinary teams

Candidate projects often begin with an articulated need and prospective HC approach.   However, because HC, like Computer Science, is an enabling technology, developing new methods and associated capabilities often requires domain expertise (e.g., Genomics) in the problem space.  Furthermore, the breadth of HC methods and approaches often requires input from contributing disciplines to address, for example, participatory approaches, workflow architecture, and complexity analysis.  The marriage of domain experts with HC specialists thus ensures a core research team with relevant competencies and technical perspective.

Broad community reach

The Human Computation Institute, with its broad network of advisors, affiliates, and partner organizations is both a community leader and agora for HC researchers.  As orchestrator of a 117-author collaboration leading to the field’s most extensive reference text, public driver of a national HC research agenda, and as publisher of the only dedicated scholarly journal for Human Computation, the Institute has broad access across domains to the world’s leading HC researchers and relevant domain specialists.  This broad participation base ensures a high degree of selectivity and specificity in forming research teams that are suited to both to the problem space and technical approach.

Mission-aligned funding partners

Partnership is a core tenet of the Human Computation Institute, and never more so than in building effective and enduring relationships with mission-aligned funding partners.  Though it may seem like a philosophical nuance, this partnering perspective is critical to outcome-based successes.  Funding entities live and breathe in the space of purpose, often reflecting a careful assessment of societal needs and relevant solution gaps.  Such an awareness can critically inform development and implementation approaches.  Thus, embracing funding organizations and their program directors, not only as essential financial resources, but as  key strategic partners helps keep solutions aligned with zones of maximal impact.

On-the-ground implementers

A capability becomes a solution only when it has been effectively implemented in the real world to address a specific need.  Implementers are applied domain experts, such as humanitarian workers coordinating relief efforts,  or first-order stakeholders, such as medical researchers analyzing huge datasets.  Ultimately, these implementation partners are needed to deploy and administer new HC capabilities in service of societal betterment.  Because of their extensive practical knowledge, they are also essential members of a solution team during concept development, to inform interaction design and reconcile unanticipated differences between theoretical expectations and real-world dynamics.  Early involvement from  an implementer can reduce the number of iterations to prototype maturity and  accelerate deployment readiness by building relevant  competencies in parallel with the associated HC technology.

Four cornerstones for success

Any new initiative at the HC Institute requires a human computation specialist, domain expert, funding partner, and implementer.  Anything less than a collaboration formed from these four cornerstones is by our definition not a solution team.  As an innovation center, the HC Institute encourages creative approaches to unsolved problems, which may involve speculative methods.  However, the four cornerstone approach  reduces other R&D risks to maximize the likelihood of high-impact beneficial and enduring outcomes.

Fundamental research along the way

Fundamental research is critical to the advancement of Human Computation and, indeed, consistent with the mission of the Institute.  Theoretical advancements reduce application development time and improve the validity and repeatability of HC methods.  Because the field is still young, solution development often necessitates the new development or extension of HC methods, which requires associated empirical studies.  The Institute holds that any such findings should be shared broadly with the HC research community for the benefit of the field, which in turn supports more effective HC solutions.

Rigor, passion, and duty

A solution team is itself a human computation system, and as consumers of our own findings, we recognize that key predictors for collaborative success in participatory systems are goal and value alignment.  While the Institute maintains an ethos of rigorous empirical doctrine and the highest scholarly standards, the institute’s partnering activities are driven by individual passion – passion in each solution team member both for the target societal outcome and their individual contributions to that outcome.  After all, a success for the solution  team is a win for Team Humanity.


Pietro Michelucci

Founding Director, Human Computation Institute

[1] H. Rittel and M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,Policy Sci., vol. 4, pp. 155–169, 1973.