Protein Folding and the Census Challenge

Dustin was the first to tell me the story of how online gamers, in just 3 weeks, decoded an AIDS protein that had stumped scientific researchers for 15 years.  The story is that researchers at the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington, in collaboration with the University of Washington Department of Biochemistry, created a computer game called FoldIt, which allows gamers around the world to play a game that solves scientific puzzles.  FoldIt allows players to “predict the shape of a protein and map it, using a game-like structure.  The better the model, the more points you get.”  Turning this task into a game motivated thousands of people to participate, and most of the players didn’t even have a background in biochemistry.  This protein puzzle is just one example of a relatively recent trend of crowdsourcing (coined from “crowd” and “outsourcing”), where an individual or organization proposes to a group of individuals the voluntary undertaking of a task.

The Census Bureau is jumping on the bandwagon, inviting us to enter the Census Return Rate Challenge for the chance to win some cash.

On the Census Bureau Director’s Blog, Tom Mesenbourg explains:

The 2010 Census achieved a return rate of 79.3 percent, which was the rate of returned forms for all occupied housing units. However, census and survey return rates vary considerably across geographic areas. For example, 2010 Census mail-form return rates ranged across states from a high of 82 percent to a low of 65 percent, with even more variation at the neighborhood or census tract level. The Census Return Rate Challenge asks participants to model these variations using predictive variables found in the updated Census Planning Database which includes information from both the 2010 Census and the American Community Survey.

During the 2010 Census, the Census Bureau saved about $85 million in operational costs for every percentage point increase in the nation’s participation rate by mail. A postage paid envelope cost taxpayers 42 cents, compared to $57 for an enumerator to visit the household. The winning model will help us develop more efficient and effective data collection strategies for both our ongoing household surveys and the 2020 Census.

The competition ends November 1, so get crowdsourcing!