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Missouri Botanical Garden developing mobile game to aid research

Friday, November 15, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST

ST. LOUIS — Step aside, "Angry Birds." The next round of mobile games aims to addict its players to obscure plant taxonomy.

Sounds like fun, right?

Scientists across the globe are hoping a game being developed by the Missouri Botanical Garden will help them search 500 years and 42 million pages of online plant and animal books.

The Botanical Garden's project aims its slingshot at the nation's premier public natural history database, the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Funded by a $450,000 federal grant, the garden is leading a team of researchers from the New York Botanical Garden, Cornell and Harvard  universities to construct a computer game in which players transcribe millions of obscure and unrecognizable words from within the collection's pages.

"It's not just playing Angry Birds," said Martin R. Kalfatovic, coordinator at the biodiversity library. "It's playing'Angry Birds' for a purpose."

Computer games are already aiding in serious tasks. They help doctors find breakthrough treatments, addicts kick the habit, girlfriends get over boyfriends, and universities prevent plagiarism.

The challenge in this case is simple but vast. When agencies such as the Missouri Botanical Garden began to scan and digitize historical texts more than a decade ago, they didn't have the time or money to transcribe the works.

That leaves scientists with an online library that they can't search by keyword.

Computer software has helped. Programs convert photos of the scanned words into letters a computer can recognize.

But some of the literature — John Evelyn's "Acetaria," published in 1699, for instance — is nearly impossible for a computer to read accurately. Evelyn's Fs look like S's. He italicizes and capitalizes midsentence. Smudges quickly turn into extra characters.

And he uses words such as "fettl'd" and "fantasms," which the computer reads as "lettl'd" and "F.vUafms," respectively.

"They're using words that we don't even use today," said Trish Rose-Sandler, who works for the Missouri Botanical Garden's Center for Biodiversity Informatics.

That's not to say the Biodiversity Heritage Library isn't useful. International scientists have written pages of testimony to the contrary.

Chris Freeland, now an associate librarian at Washington University, helped start the biodiversity library while working for the Missouri Botanical Garden and came up with the gaming idea. He says botanists rely on literature when identifying and describing plants they find in the field.

Without the texts, they may be uncertain whether they've come across a rare species or a new one, among other issues.

Before the works were compiled online, biologists had to travel to the appropriate library — sometimes across the planet — spend thousands of dollars and pore through books to find the first mentions of a particular animal or plant.

The biodiversity library has become the largest and most successful online natural history collection, Freeland said, and one of the most important tools botanists use, library director Kalfatovic added.

Still, a thorough search requires reading each electronic page of a given book.

But transcribing every volume in the growing collection, Freeland said, is impossible. If it took three minutes to transcribe a page, for example, retyping 42 million of them would take one worker more than 1,000 years to finish, without a vacation.

"There's no way the math works," Freeland said.

To solve the problem, the Botanical Garden and its collaborators made a pitch to the national Institute of Museum and Library Services that crowdsourcing, through mobile or online computer games, could solve the translation problem.

This fall, the Feds awarded them the grant, matched by the collaborators. The garden is kicking in labor worth $265,000.

Rose-Sandler, the garden's principal investigator, said she hoped to send requests for proposals to gaming companies early in December. She estimates the game will launch in May 2015.

It will almost certainly involve word puzzles, in which players identify letters in images pulled from the texts. It will probably have an element of competition — points for right answers, for instance. And it may have a simple story line, such as bridge-building to get animals to safety.

"But who knows?" Rose-Sandler said. "It'll be interesting to see what the companies come up with."

There's only one nonnegotiable item: The game should attract a lot of players.

Because the library has no "answers" to the word problems they present to players, the collaborators will glean correct responses based on how often users type in the same letters. And that means many people have to answer each question.

Rose-Sandler say they're hoping the game appeals to scientists who use the library as well as to families waiting in the grocery store line. "Whether or not they understand the purpose of the task, it almost doesn't matter," she said.

Maura Marx, a deputy director for the Institute of Museum and Library Services, said managers of other large databases were already looking to the biodiversity library as a model. The project has a depth and breadth, she said, that she hasn't often seen come across her desk.

Researchers such as Hong Cui  at the University of Arizona and Jennifer Hammock, with a collaborative housed at the Smithsonian in Washington, are hopeful it works.

Cui, an associate professor, said one of the major challenges in biology right now was connecting genes to physical traits, something difficult to do without accurate text searches.

Hammock,who works for the Encyclopedia of Life, said the effort could nearly double the number of species with original text references on their home pages.

"This will be a really big deal on our site for people who are interested in obscure organisms," she said.

Nathan Verrill, CEO of local game developer Megatherium Labs, is interested in bidding on the project. He imagines harnessing the 325 million U.S. cellphone users.

But he cautions that it won't be easy. The sweets-matching "Candy Crush Saga" is a billion-dollar game for a reason: Even in its simplicity, it is deceptively clever.

"The secret, to me, is creating a casual experience," he said. "If I have a few minutes, I can play."


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