Students Staff

30 July 2009

1,000 people turn detective...and help science too

Colchester Campus

A fun online game designed by University of Essex researchers to help gather language data has now attracted 1,000 players.

Since its launch in December, Phrase Detectives has seen a steady increase in players, whilst collecting valuable data at the same time to help computers learn our language better.

Modern computer methods for studying language require hundreds of thousands of examples to ‘learn’ how to interpret certain expressions – just like humans do.

With the word game Phrase Detectives it is possible to not only get many people to help explain the ambiguities of language, but means large amounts of data can be collected in a surprisingly short space of time.

After registering at, players read through texts and make annotations to highlight relationships between words and phrases.

Jon Chamberlain, a research officer at the University’s School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, said the data collected through the game could benefit all computer users. ‘It could help search engines find information more relevant to your searches,’ he explained.

Like Wikipedia, it demonstrates how large amounts of data can be collected quickly when lots of people take part.

The first 1,000 players of the game have worked for more than 10,000 hours - approximately 14 months of 24/7 work that would have been impossible to achieve using normal annotation methods.

However, researchers are keen for more people get involved to help them collect the data needed to train computers to learn our language better.

Tests run on the data collected so far show that expert researchers agree with the judgments expressed by the players 90 per cent of the time.

‘We are just asking people to give it a go, just for five minutes,’ said Mr Chamberlain. ‘It will appeal to people who like reading. So, instead of playing solitaire on your computer, why not play Phrase Detectives and do something to help science too.’


Notes to editors:
More information about Phrase Detectives is available at:

For further information please contact the University of Essex Communications Office on telephone: 01206 872807 or e-mail:

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