Digital Citizen Science: Creating Meaning for the Zooniverse

By Chris Lintott

This sort of project — in the absence of a better name, we call it “citizen science” — certainly can be a short cut to sorting through data, but it’s not a free ride, and plenty of effort has to go into the process of generating reliable results from classifications provided by multiple volunteers.

Why is an astronomer writing for a blog aimed at those who spend their time thinking about the environmental humanities? It’s true that I’ve published several papers on environmental influences, but the word in my Universe has a rather limited meaning — the environment of a galaxy simply means the density of its surroundings. Astrophysics, like the environmental sciences, has a long tradition of engagement with the humanities tradition, whether through inspiring philosophies or providing a (dark) canvas for authors, but there are plenty more qualified than I to write on those subjects.

On Galaxy Zoo, users are invited to classify galaxies.

On Galaxy Zoo, users are invited to classify galaxies.

I usually describe myself as a distracted astronomer, as I’m as likely to be discussing penguins, papyri or 19th century scientific periodicals as I am the discovery of planets. In 2007, needing to sort through images of a million galaxies, I led a small team in creating a project called Galaxy Zoo, inviting the general public to help with our data problem. The response was beyond our wildest dreams — Galaxy Zoo has enabled hundreds of thousands of people to provide more than a hundred million classifications of galaxies, and more importantly showed the ability and willingness of the crowd to go beyond mere “clickwork” and start to investigate the unusual and interesting themselves. In the language of this site’s mission statement, volunteers are acting not just as ants feeding data to professional spiders, but as bees in their own right.

A single project quickly expanded to become the Zooniverse, a platform for this sort of distributed analysis. The same software that presents an image of a galaxy for classification can as easily ask for the identification of animals in a camera trap image, or even coordinate the effort of volunteers who assist pathologists in sorting through stained images of cells from cancer patients. The key realisation was that the volunteers who take part in these projects do so not because of a pre-existing interest in astrophysics (or whatever the subject is) but out of a desire to make an authentic contribution to the scientific process.

The key realisation was that the volunteers who take part in these projects do so not because of a pre-existing interest in astrophysics (or whatever the subject is) but out of a desire to make an authentic contribution to the scientific process.

This has profound consequences; the success of a project rests not on how beautiful its images are, but rather on how clearly the research that it enables can be explained. Our volunteers crave contact with the scientists and researchers behind the project — at a recent workshop, as we discussed whether we should provide swag (stickers for laptops and so on) one of the invited guests, a moderator on several of our projects blurted out: “Don’t give us stuff — invite us to your conferences.”

It also means that we go to great lengths to make sure that we’re not wasting anyone’s time. This means running projects only where human intervention is genuinely required, rather than just duplicating tasks which computers could conveniently do. It also means making sure that the researchers with whom we work have what’s needed to make use of the classifications, and that we’re providing the right kind of support. This sort of project — in the absence of a better name, we call it “citizen science” — certainly can be a short cut to sorting through data, but it’s not a free ride, and plenty of effort has to go into the process of generating reliable results from classifications provided by multiple volunteers.

Snapshot Serengeti invites users to classify animals photographed in Serengeti National Park.

Snapshot Serengeti invites users to classify animals photographed in Serengeti National Park.

Sometimes, though, what volunteers get from a dataset is very different from the original plan. Occasionally this should have been predictable — a community of birdwatchers settled in to our SnapshotSerengeti project to enjoy the reserve’s avian life rather than necessarily concentrating on its four-legged inhabitants — but sometimes it’s been a complete surprise.

One of our early projects, Old Weather, has now transcribed more than a million pages of logbook from 19th and early 20th century ships. The aim of the project is to add to meterologists’ store of historical observations, the better to test their models of a changing climate, but the interest for most of the volunteers lies in the historical fragments that accompany the logs. Who, for example, will ever forget the tragic loss of chocolate recorded in the logs of the HMS Mantua?

OldWeather.org invites citizen scientists to mark and transcribe ships' logbooks.

OldWeather.org invites citizen scientists to mark and transcribe ships’ logbooks.

Interface for transcribing logbooks

Interface for transcribing logbooks

These and other historical records are now recorded on the volunteer-run Naval History.net, whose archives now form part of the collection of the Royal Naval Museum. This engagement with historical records has led us to build more historically focused projects, including most recently ScienceGossip.org.

Homepage for Science Gossip

Homepage for Science Gossip

This latest endeavour is a citizen science project about citizen science, sorting through Victorian periodicals to understand a time when, like now, professional and volunteer scientists depended on each other. Our hope is that by understanding the past we’ll understand how to better collaborate today, but our success depends on the efforts of volunteers. Please click and give us a hand!

Chris Lintott is a Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford, and Principal Investigator for Zooniverse.org. He’s one of the editors at Citizensciencetoday.org, a site that — like Ant Spider Bee — uses PressForward to collate articles from around the web.

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