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Working at the Zooniverse combines science and Web skills

Welcome to the Zooniverse: People-powered science

by Zara Zhuang
Mar 18, 2014

A glass-walled room sits in a secluded corner on the lower level of the Adler Planetarium. The people and computers inside aren’t part of an exhibit. They form the team that manages and supports the Zooniverse, the citizen science Web portal that reached 1 million registered volunteers last month.

“I think it’s hugely exciting,” said Laura Whyte, director of citizen science at the planetarium. “I mean, a million people have participated in citizen science projects. I think that demonstrates that a whole chunk of the population out there who want to spend their time doing something worthwhile.”

The popularity of the movement proves that science and research are still appealing. “(Citizen science) is a way of engaging the public with science,” Whyte said. “And it’s possibly the most exciting way of engaging the public in science because you actually get them doing science.”

With just a few clicks, anyone can sign up to be a researcher. The Zooniverse website hosts a variety of projects — from the classic Galaxy Zoo to the new Operation War Diary — that span a range of research areas, including space, biology and climate. Classify galaxies by their shapes, identify animals captured by camera trap images in Tanzania or transcribe logs made aboard U.S. ships since the mid-19th century — any way you work, you’ll be contributing to science.

Going to the Zoo

The Zooniverse has come a long way since it began in 2007 with its first project, Galaxy Zoo. Chris Lintott and Kevin Schawinski, then both astronomers at Oxford University, built that project to seek its website visitors’ help in sorting through images of about a million galaxies. Now, the Zooniverse hosts 21 projects on its website.

At the heart of citizen science is the need for analyzing data faster. Galaxy Zoo was not created for outreach, Whyte said, but because scientists could not classify all the galaxies on their own. “That’s the cornerstone of all our projects,” she said. “Each project begins with a scientific question that cannot be answered by using computers or by the science teams sifting through the data themselves.”

Project proposals are selected based on reviews of their technical feasibility and their education and outreach potential, and different research groups may use the same pool of data for different reasons. Once a project makes it to the Zooniverse website, the sorting begins.

Volunteers work on an image or item more than once. For a project like Galaxy Zoo, each image is classified 30 to 40 times. For the Old Weather project, having just three people transcribe the ships’ logs is enough to be sure that the work is done right. A retirement system is in place for Snapshot Serengeti, so if five people all say an image has no animals in it, the image is retired. “The beauty of getting multiple people to classify an object is that you have a confidence rating in how sure you are that that classification is correct,” Whyte said.

There is a very small probability that the majority classification is wrong. For that to happen, there would need to be at least half the volunteers classifying an object incorrectly. User weighting also helps improve the reliability of volunteers’ classifications. With professional astronomers and volunteers both identifying an object, a volunteer whose classification matches that of the professional astronomer will receive a higher user weighting and more value will be placed on his classification.

Citizens of the Zooniverse

The Zooniverse is not a typical science lab. A lot of people in the Zooniverse collaboration are ex-astronomers such as Whyte, and many others are part of the team that works on managing and improving the website. “Pretty much everything we do is on the Web,” Whyte said. “It’s absolutely vital.”

Stephen Raden, the citizen science web developer who has been at Adler since November, works on creating and maintaining applications and communicating with the people involved about the health of projects. “It’s called ‘software’ for a reason,” Raden said. “It’s not like building a bridge …”

How much science is part of the work of a Zooniverse web developer? “I would say not very much,” he said. “The projects I’m on, the astronomy projects, there are a few concepts to learn. … The other project, which is a biology transcribing project, I didn’t have to learn any science besides the divisions within biology.”

Chris Snyder, the Zooniverse’s technical project manager, is a programmer by trade. Besides bug fixing and website maintenance, he works with the team on creating educational materials for certain projects and outreach efforts. “The work itself — the goal of the work, to help science teams around the world do better research — it makes you feel good to know that there’s societal worth in what you’re doing,” Snyder said. “The cause is good.”

So after having moved from academia to education and outreach, does Whyte still consider herself a scientist? “That’s a tricky one,” she said. “I would consider myself a scientist because I am a scientist at heart. I trained as an astronomer, and I think … you never give up being a scientist. It’s a way of looking at the world, of asking questions about the world.”