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Those digital screens at bus shelters can be used for crowd-sourced academic research.

Every commuter has a strategy for dealing with boredom at the bus stop, be it with a book, a smartphone, or simply savoring the last moments before the daily grind. A team of researchers out of University of Oulu in Finland has another solution: academic research.

Computer scientist Vassilis Kostakos and his team set up four interactive LCD screens across the campus of the northern Finnish university, allowing the curious passersby drawn in by the "touch me" button — to become voluntary participants in a crowd-sourced computing project.

Crowd sourcing has become an increasingly common way for researchers to refine processes and programs; they break down the problem into smaller, manageable steps and recruit the general public to complete these tasks. (For example, every time you prove you're not a spammer when filling out an online form, those reCAPTCHAs are actually helping digitize books). A popular way to solicit participants has been through paid online marketplaces like Amazon's Mechanical Turk, but researchers have had problems preventing overt cheating and reducing bias, as current users are overwhelmingly English speaking.

The results of this Finnish experiment showed that drawing in curious or bored commuters could be just as effective a way to get the job done. They easily met their goal of 1,200 responses in just 25 days, and the accuracy of the results didn't differ significantly from similar experiments that used paid, online participants. "Our studies suggested that people walk up to public displays not knowing exactly what they want to do and usually to kill time. So we tried to find a way to tap into that," Kostakos told New Scientist on Monday.

In this experiment, participants helped train a software program meant to identify malaria-infected blood cells.

There could also be less academic uses for these kiosks, which would serve essentially as mini-info hubs. For example, the screens could help solicit and distribute hyper-local information, including good dog-walking routes or local concert schedules. But just think; some day those high-tech signs on bus shelters might be used for something more useful than a rotating display of H&M ads.

Top image: gui jun peng /Shutterstock.com

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