It’s an exciting time at Zooniverse HQ, with results flooding in from our existing projects – I’ve just been taking a quick look at the Moon Zoo data – and the programming team preparing new projects and some surprises, too. It’s been fantastic to see the other projects coming into their own. Don’t tell the Galaxy Zoo team but it’s particularly great that Moon Zoo has been our busiest project for the last few weeks.
That’s one sign that whatever magic powered the enormous and unexpected wave of enthusiasm for Galaxy Zoo can be replicated. Our task, then, should be simple – all we have to do is launch projects with the right mixture and sit back and watch the science roll in.
Unfortunately, writing down the recipe isn’t that simple. Although the education team are working hard to try and understand what makes a good project, it will never be an exact science. There will, I suspect, always be an element of hit and miss in whether a project attracts an audience, but what we do know is that many of you contribute because you’re enthused by the opportunity to make a difference – to actually add something to what we understand about the Universe.
That means that we have one absolutely unbreakable rule when selecting projects – they must be constructed in such a way that we know that clicks or contributions will add up to something meaningful.
In the original Galaxy Zoo, for example, we would never have predicted that we’d find the Voorwerp or the Peas and a random search for things that might look interesting wouldn’t have let us guarantee that Zooite’s contributions would be useful.
Instead, we found a set of questions with defined answers that we knew would be interesting. For example, we know that producing a catalogue of clumpy galaxies will be interesting, and so there’s an ‘Is this clumpy’ question in Galaxy Zoo’s latest incarnation.
This golden rule has implications for the design of the projects as well. It’s very tempting to rely on description – rather than forcing people to sort galaxies into categories that don’t always apply, why don’t we just allow people to ‘say what they see’, just as people on Flickr tag and comment on photos?
If producing science is the goal, though, this doesn’t work. There isn’t an easy way to average comments, and there’s no way we can read every tag or post on the Forum (even if Alice and the other moderators do a fairly good job of that!). To guarantee results we need quantifiable data – and then we can rely on the forum to do the wonderful, surprising job of serendipitous discovery.
When we were putting together the original Galaxy Zoo site, almost as an afterthought, we added a link to the SDSS Sky Server, a background page of information on each and every galaxy compiled by the survey team. Sloan is special in astronomy because of its remarkably open data policy; rather than keep hold of the data for years or reserve specific parts of the science for those who’d spent large parts of their careers constructing, building and operating the survey telescope, after initial verification the data was released to the wider world. More importantly, they build a whole host of tools for astronomers to explore the data, ranging from Casjobs a service where one could submit database queries to tools to provide images.
The huge success of Sloan is, I think, partly down to this very open policy, but I don’t think anyone on the Galaxy Zoo team gave much thought to what would happen if we allowed Zooites to explore further. The only reference I can find in my early emails is from Anze, who points out, correctly, that it’s ‘quite a compelling procrastination tool…’. Rather than just fuelling happy procrastination, though, many classifiers, particularly those on the forum, have dived deeper into the data. Sometimes, these extra tools – now available for SDSS galaxies from the My Galaxies page – have just been used to provide context, but sometimes they have been used in detailed scientific investigations like those that led to the discovery of the peas and my new favourite object, Mitch’s ‘Mystery’ Star.
In many ways, I think that these stories – of professional astronomers and zooites pouring over the same data – fullfil the original goals of those who took such pains to make tools like Sky Server work. They’ve certainly become very important to us, as we begin to think about how to encourage more people to move from clicking to discussing what they’ve found (while still classifying, of course!). Just over a year ago, though, we realised that we were very dependent on what Sloan had already built. The latest incarnation of Galaxy Zoo mostly includes galaxies from large Hubble Space Telescope surveys. In some cases there is a lot of data available online, but it’s never as easy to find what you’re looking for as putting up a link to the Sloan Sky Server. As budgieye put it on the forum, “This was getting to be so much effort finding the galaxies, I was starting to feel like a grad student.” For other Zoos, further from our home in astrophysics, there may be nothing available at all.
Thanks to a generous grant from the US National Science Foundation, though, we can do something about this. As of yesterday, we have a full time programmer based at Adler Planetarium in Chicago devoted to solving this problem for Galaxy Zoo and for two forthcoming projects. His name is Michael Parrish, and he’s actually being working on the Zooniverse backend while at SIUE for the last year or so. Michael and I will be looking for suggestions as to what
we he should work on – feel free to leave a comment here or on this forum thread. Do you want to be able to zoom in and out around interesting galaxies, or is knowing how far away they are more important? If spectra leave you cold, what sort of interface would help you explore them? All suggestions welcome – and in the meantime, you should start seeing changes pretty quickly as we try and open up as much of the data to as many Zooites as possible.
Welcome to the Zooniverse.
I’m very proud to launch the Zooniverse today; if you haven’t found the main site yet, then click here to explore. Zooniverse will provide a home not just for Galaxy Zoo (and its friends like the Mergers and Supernova Hunting), but for our ever-growing suite of projects.
These will include new astronomy projects – one of which will have its beta version launched very soon – but also from the rest of science and beyond. There’s one common thread; each project needs your help to increase our understanding of the Universe, and will produce results that could not happen without you. We hope you’ll explore, and soon be able find a project for every occasion.
For those who are happy in Galaxy Zoo, and who don’t want to be distracted by whatever’s coming next, you should notice very little difference. The Galaxy Zoo blog has found a new home, but that’s about it. For everyone else, the enormous amount of work that’s gone into the machinery that powers the Zooniverse should make it easy to move from project to project as the mood takes you.
We’ve been hurtling unknowingly toward the Zooniverse since the day Galaxy Zoo launched, way back in July 2007. As servers melted and emails piled up in our inbox, it was obvious that we’d underestimated the number of people who wanted to spend time helping us out. Zoo 2 confirmed that that appetite was still there, and projects like Mergers show that you’re more than capable of taking more complicated tasks off our hands.
Alongside the Zooniverse itself, a web home for the organisation we’ve put together to run our projects – the Citizen Science Alliance – has also been launched. Each of the organisations that make up the Alliance, and our other partners too, believes that making use of your skills, talents and energy is not only helpful in dealing with the flood of data confronting us, but it is necessary.
As we work hard to make that possible, we hope the Zooniverse will become a home for you all. To remind us who we’re working for, profiles of Zooites will always feature on the Zooniverse home page. Between us, we can make more of the vast reservoirs of images, videos and data modern science creates – it should be an exciting ride.
The Zooniverse was announced publicly at the National Maritime Museum on August 19, 2009.