Genes in Space

Cancer Research Accelerated through Big Data Analytics and Gamification

Kate MacDermott

Apr. 29, 2014 | #highoctane, #RPMCO, Big Data, Cancer Research UK, Crowdsourcing, Gamification, Genes in Space

Genes in Space, launched February 2014, is a free smartphone game that accelerates research to cure cancer. Users map their route through genetic cancer data which is disguised as a fictional substance called Element Alpha. Once mapped, the users fly through space collecting Element Alpha and shooting asteroids. Behind the space-themed interface, users are conducting an analysis of real genetic data that is sent back to researchers to help them discover new cancer treatments.

Through an ostensibly simple mobile app, Cancer Research UK harnessed the power of the public intelligence and gamification to crowdsource genetic data analysis and fuel scientific discovery. Genes in Space provides a new paradigm for how mobile tech can use big data to engage customers to help better the world.


Crowdsourcing to Tackle Big Data

Cancer Research UK is devoted to finding cures for cancer in an innovative way. In 2012, it collaborated with the Citizen Science Alliance to create Cell Slider on a web interface, which is similar to Genes in Space in that users click through images to analyze data. A year following Cell Slider, Cancer Research UK hosted Game Jam inviting groups of developers, scientists, gamers, and designers to participate in a hackathon of sorts for genetic data. This event seeded Genes in Space.

Cancer Research UK’s challenge was a massive backlog of genetic microarray data. A successful analyses of it would show genetic patterns that scientists could use to discover new treatments. The organization’s approach to the big data was incredibly efficient as the  use of crowdsourcing  harnessed the collective intelligence of the public to create life-saving solutions. In the first month the game was out, users analyzed more genetic data than scientists would have in six months. Cancer Research UK effectively used its resources to fuel discovery and engage users for the public good.

Harnessing the Power of Gamification

 In the game design process, the primary goal was to provide the best possible data analysis, and secondary was to make it fun. Once the developers decided on the best way to tackle big data, the gamification begun. The microarray data was transformed from a graph to a map for users to route before flying through it. However, the game itself requires no expertise except for a basic pattern recognition. The gamification of big data on mobile made it easily accessible and affordable to the larger public (free download with a smartphone!) while making customers feel charitable with each engagement.

Microarray Data


Route Mapping

The game’s philanthropic components (“Play to Cure”) drives a ‘feel-good’ addictive engagement, which is evident in the number of downloads – up to 500,000 from the Google Play store alone. This game is revolutionary, and we hope similar organizations are inspired by the creativity of the Cancer Research UK utilizing the power of gamification, crowdsourcing, and mobile to tackle big data.



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