Calling all Zooites! Your chance to attend the second Zooniverse Project Workshop in Chicago!

Meg Schwamb giving the Planethunters presentation
Meg Schwamb giving the Planethunters presentation in 2012
Photo © Julia Wilkinson

It’s almost a year since I attended the first ever Zooniverse Project Workshop in my role as an advisory board member. In April the second Zooniverse workshop will convene to discuss yet more exciting new projects. I’ll be there and hopefully so will Alice Sheppard (if her exam timetable permits!) This year, however, there is funding available for one more volunteer to attend. This is a responsible role for a dedicated and enthusiastic Zooite and that could be you!

This is a fantastic opportunity to meet the science teams behind projects old and new and to find out just what is involved in getting a project up and running. You will attend some great presentations and have the chance to contribute to some fascinating discussions and workshops. Last year we covered things such as design, how to get the best science out of a project and how to create the best user experience. You need to be prepared to take part in discussions and to talk about your experiences as a Zooniverse volunteer. The more you put in the more rewarding the conference will be and you’ll find that your contribution will be hugely respected and valued. Volunteers can make or break a project and I was certainly made to feel that my input was extremely important.

There is only one place available, however, so to help the team decide who gets to go please tell us in no more than 250 words a little about yourself, why you think you should go and what you can contribute to the discussions as a volunteer. Please add your full name and preferred e-mail address and send this to with the subject line CHICAGO PLEASE. The closing date is 12 noon GMT on Thursday 7 March 2013. The Zooniverse team will choose the successful entry.

The Adler Planetarium
The Adler Planetarium
Photo © Julia Wilkinson

The conference will be held over two days at the Adler Planetarium, Chicago on 29 and 30 April 2013. Flight and hotel expenses will be reimbursed in full.

This really is a fantastic opportunity to contribute to citizen science and the future of the Zooniverse – don’t miss out!

For a detailed account of last years event have a look at the notes on my blog.

Under the Sea and On the Moon with Third Graders

We have had a great response from teachers in the Chicago area to our offer of making classroom visits. Yesterday marked out first visit to West Ridge Elementary in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood.  After consulting with Ms. Tschaen, the third grade science teacher, we decided to present Seafloor Explorer and Moon Zoo to the students.  Apologies in advance for the lack of pictures, we were having way too much fun to think about proper documentation. 

One of the challenges while preparing for this school visit was figuring out a quick and easy way to explain crowdsourcing to third graders.  I scoured the web for a nifty interactive or video,but in the end decided a low-tech solution, a story, was the best solution. I told the students that when I was a kid my friends and I loved to play soccer.  One we were planning to play but my Mom told me I wasn’t allowed to until my room was clean.  When I was a kid, the floor of my room generally resembled a soup of toys, clothes, books, and papers.  Cleaning it was no small task and usually entailed the better part of a whole day.  I asked the students how they thought my friends and I solved the problem.  Every group offered the solution that we could work together to clean my room and then have time to play soccer together.  Voila! The principle of crowdsourcing quickly and easily explained.  Granted, I settled on a somewhat simplified definition, that crowdsourcing is getting a bunch people to help solve a bigger problem, but it did the trick and the students “got it”.

Next we were ready to set the stage with how Zooniverse projects utilize the efforts of many to solve problems involving large datasets.   With the first two classes, we decided to test a newly developed Seafloor Explorer classroom activity. For time’s sake we modified the activity by focusing on species identification and left out ground cover identification component.   After a 10 minute group discussion of Seafloor Explorer’s science goals and how to identify the different animals we were off and running.  Just like with the example of cleaning my room and soccer, the students called out that we needed more people to identify the 30,000,000 + images comprising this project’s dataset.  Success!  They were challenged to work together as a class to beat the time it took me to identify species on 40 different cards.  Working together each class about 1/3 of the time it took me to do it alone.  Double success!

Laura engaged the third class in lunar adventures using Moon Zoo.  Students learned a little bit about the history of moon exploration.  Next they discussed craters and the different ways we can find out information about our nearest celestial neighbor.   After a brief introduction to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, they divided into groups to explore individual portions of the moon.  Students worked together to mark any craters larger that their thumbprint on their section of the moon.  They tallied the total number of craters on their group’s individual moon section and compared them to the other groups’ moon sections. Finally students identified potential sites for a lunar lander to touchdown.

So, what did we learn from our adventures with third graders?  I’ve long suspected that, while students certainly have the ability to participate in most any Zooniverse project, it sometimes helps to introduce the project “offline”.  This may help students feel more secure when they begin participating on a project’s website.  Many teachers I’ve spoken with point out that students don’t always feel empowered in their practice of science.  By frontloading students with a little bit of a project’s background content and walking through the classification task together, students can easily see that they are more than capable to make an important contribution to current scientific research.  Working as a group also fosters a sense of community that we, as a class, are working together to help scientists make important discoveries and maybe even making some important discoveries ourselves.   I’m sure that there will be many lessons to learn over our remaining visits to Chicago-area classrooms.

Making the Zooniverse Open Source

We’re pleased to announce that the time has come to start making the Zooniverse open source. From today, you’ll be able to see several of our current projects on Github (at and will be able to fork them and contribute to them.

Taking the Zooniverse open source is something we’ve been thinking about for a long time. As the field of citizen science expands into ever broader domains the number of tools available to people to start their own projects is still low. Since the launch of Galaxy Zoo 2 we’ve been building tools that allow for code reuse across a number of projects and while the majority(1) of our software has never been ‘officially’ open, behind the scenes we’ve been sharing with pretty much anyone who asked, often talking them through the thought process that led us to design our software in a particular way.

Because of our natural inclination to share with those who approached us, we’ve never really made publishing our code a priority. As with most closed source projects there are also a number of pretty boring (but sometimes important) reasons for not publishing – we worried about how usable the code we’d written was to people we didn’t work closely with – as a small team we favour clean code and conversation with other developers over heavy documentation. Some sensitive information around our production environment inevitably slipped into the codebases which mean’t lots of work to clean up and security audit our tools. Some of these reasons hold for legacy applications each project we start often comes with a new Git repo and an opportunity to develop in a different way.

What does this mean?

Well, from today you’ll start to see a number of applications appear on the Zooniverse GitHub site. We’re starting with a collection of our most recent projects: Snapshot Serengeti, Bat Detective, Cyclone Center and Seafloor Explorer.

It’s important to say here that we’re not expecting a community of developers to jump in a help us develop new projects (although that would be pretty cool), but if there’s a typo on our site or a really annoying bug that you know exactly how to fix then fork the repo and send us a pull request and we’ll see what we can do. Significantly for our localisation support (translating sites into multiple languages) we’re proposing that new translations should be submitted in exactly this way (2). There are a huge number of very talented people in the Zooniverse community who until today had no way of contributing to the project other than to help analyse data. That changes today.

We’re releasing our software under a very liberal license – Apache 2.0. In very simple terms this means that the tools we develop can be used for whatever you like provided you follow the rules of the Apache 2.0 license.

What aren’t we open sourcing?

In truth lots of legacy code for our older projects aren’t likely to make it into the open. A large number of our projects between 2009 (Galaxy Zoo 2) and 2011 (The Milky Way Project) were all built upon a shared codebase called The Juggernaut. While we’re not making each of the projects open we’re are publishing the common application core which has been kept up to date and runs on Rails 3.1.

We’re also not opening up our applications that hold sensitive user information and are mission-critical for the operation of the Zooniverse. That’s not to say we won’t ever do this, we’re just not comfortable publishing these applications at this point. This basically means that the application that powers Zooniverse Home ( and an application called Ouroboros ( that serves up images and collects back classifications aren’t part of our open source strategy.

Why now?

Aside from the reasons mentioned above, there are a number of reasons to make open source our default position. In part it’s about people – developers these days are often hired (or at least shortlisted) by their GitHub profiles that show which projects they’ve been working on. As our team grows and we hire talented young developers we’re doing them a disservice not allowing them to show off the awesome work they do. It’s also about the way in which we as the Zooniverse do science. We believe citizen science is an inherently open way of doing research, we often work with open datasets (such as SDSS) and ask people to donate their time and efforts to a project that in the end produces open data products for the research community to enjoy (e.g., Having a closed codebase for everything we do just feels incompatible with this way of doing research.

What’s next?

To be honest we’re not quite sure. Going forward, our projects will typically become open source as we launch them. If there’s a Zooniverse project that you think you’d like to rework for a different purpose then there’s now nothing stopping you from doing this. If you’re interested in helping us with a new translation for your favourite project then we’d love to talk. Perhaps you’re just interested to see how some of our applications work. Regardless, we invite you to take a look and give us feedback. The Zooniverse has always been about harnessing the crowd to make science happen. From today, there is a new way for people to contribute to that goal.


1. Scribe, our open source text transcription framework grew out of Old Weather and has been used on a number of projects now.
2. A fuller article about language support is coming very soon on this blog.

We’re hiring – come help us build citizen history

I’ve been remiss in not posting our latest job advert on the blog – it’s a full-time developer position in Oxford for someone to lead our new collaboration with Imperial War Museum’s project to commemorate the first world war. This is an exciting chance to expand what we’ve been doing with projects like Old Weather and we hope that talented front-end developers will apply.

We’re looking for someone who can build beautifully in HTML5/CSS/Javascript, and who has an understanding of user interface design. If they’re good at working with large and diverse teams, that’d be a bonus too as they’ll be the main point of contact between Zooniverse and IWM. A background in developing highly-usable interfaces for web applications and experience of working with a modern web framework such as Ruby on Rails would be an advantage, as would a history in citizen science, history, science or any combination of the three.

Full details are here, but the upshot is that you’ve got until 5th March to apply.

Why the Zooniverse is easy to use.

A blog post from Adam Stevens today appeared in my Twitter stream, containing some discussion (and criticism) of the Zooniverse in general and Planet 4 in particular.

All debate is useful, so I wanted to respond to a few of the points made. Dispute about whether the main Planet 4 interface is any good scientifically should, I think, be settled by seeing if the team publish a paper with the results – our track record (in need of updating!) is here.

The meat of the post draws a distinction between ‘real science’ – by which I assume the author means analysis, paper writing and so on – and what the main Zooniverse interfaces do, which is described as ‘data analysis’. We’ve been here before, and part of the answer is the same one I gave then : data analysis and classification is as much a part of science as solving an equation, and while there may be scientists who do nothing but think grand analytic thoughts, I’ve never met any.

However, there’s another part to the answer. Zooniverse projects are explicitly designed so that even a brief interaction with the site produces meaningful results. This is partly pragmatic (as this post from our Old Weather project shows, as a rule of thumb half of contributions come from people who only do a few) but it also because we truly believe in the transformational nature of having someone do something real. Those visiting Zooniverse for the first time are typically not scientists; often they are not yet even fans of science. We know from anecdote and from our own research that for many of these people doing something simple that makes a contribution to our understanding of the Universe is very fulfilling, often unexpectedly so.

More than that, these projects act as engines of motivation. Once people have found their feet in the main interface, once people have got used to the idea that science is now an activity they can participate in, once people are excited to further investigate interesting images and objects that are now theirs, wonderful things happen.

There are great examples from many projects, but on Twitter I pointed to our recent Planet Hunters paper which reported one new confirmed planet and 42 new planet candidates (with greater than 90% certainty of being real) which were discovered by the community active on our Talk discussion tool.

Many of these volunteers (including Kian Jek, who was just awarded the Chambliss prize for achievement by the AAS) are doing far, far more than just using the Planet Hunters interface. But they’re there because they were drawn in by the proposition of the initial site. For many, the motivation to learn about classes of variable stars and the minutia of transits came only after they’d found something special, and for many the confidence to attack these more detailed questions comes from the initial, guided experience.

As technical supremo Arfon put it on Twitter, the Zooniverse is a set of analysis tasks where scientists need help, and where they will analyze results and report back, but if you’ll come with us there’s a whole world of conversation and discovery that can happen. Drawing a distinction between the two misses the point – without the former, participation in the latter (the ‘real science’, if you must) is limited to those who already have the confidence to participate.


PS Adam did suggest a specific change: that, as one of the main science goals of Planet 4 is to measure wind speed we should add an arrow allowing people to indicate the wind speed and direction. This seems to me misguided; we’re getting that information from the task that the volunteers are doing in marking the shape, size and direction of the fans. You could add further pedagogical material early on, but this would likely reduce the number of people who make it to the ‘ah ha! I’m doing science!’ moment because we know that it’s very easy to trigger an adverse reaction in the form of a loss of confidence when we ask slightly more abstract questions in the initial phase of engagement with a project. In any case, inference follows measurement – and we’re still at the measurement stage in this strange and fascinating region of Mars.

PPS In the main post, I’ve ignored comments about the relationship between the BBC’s Stargazing Live program and Planet4. It’s important to realize that the driving force behind the Planet 4 project is Candy Hansen and her team of Martian scientists – ironically, we’d discussed a version of the idea while I was interviewing her for the Sky at Night about 18 months ago. That’s before Planet Hunters was on TV, so it’s dead wrong to say that Planet 4 was cooked up in response to a desire to have something else to do on telly. If there were inaccuracies on camera, I can only plead that live television is tricky and the real test is whether the project produces papers – which will, as any real scientist knows, take time! Stargazing’s commitment to real engagement instead of ‘educational experiments’ is, I think, a huge strength of the series: Here’s the latest news on the planet candidate identified in the 2012 series.

No Right Answer?

Last week we had the pleasure of speaking to a class of pre-service teachers at Loyola University in Chicago.  After discussing the basics of citizen science and the origins of Zooniverse, the teachers took time to explore projects of their choice.  Always being keen to show-off  Zooniverse’s new educational offerings, we then demonstrated ZooTeach and a beta version of Galaxy Zoo Navigator.

Many of these pre-service teachers are preparing to begin or are in the midst of their student teaching placements. We spent the rest of the class discussing ways they could incorporate Zooniverse projects into the classroom, specifically how they could be used to facilitate scientific inquiry.  Over the course of the discussion the notion of “right” answers emerged.  This was a real ah-ha moment for me.  I suddenly remembered my own fears of getting the wrong answer as a first-time Zooniverse user. Whether a Zooniverse volunteer or a student, encountering a project for the first time can be a bit intimidating.  There is the fear, however irrational, that by submitting an inaccurate classification you could single-handedly break science.  If you look closely all of the different Zooniverse project sites are peppered with reassuring messages of “don’t worry you’re good at this” and “just give it your best try”.

Laura has previously blogged about how Zoonverse projects are used to engage museum audiences at the Adler Planetarium on the Planet Hunters blog.  Whether working with members of the public or groups of students, we often encounter “Did I get it right?”.  This is a tricky question to answer; Zooniverse volunteers are supplying the answers from which scientific interpretations are drawn.  Projects employ measures of checking for accuracy.  That’s why any given object be it a galaxy to classify or a bat call to listen to, is looked at by more than one individual.  The “power of the crowd” yields more accurate results than one single person.  Needless to say the idea of crowdsourcing as a quality-control mechanism is easier to convey to adults than to a bunch of eleven year olds.  It’s difficult to get students over the hurdle that, in the instance at least, being right isn’t so important.

I don’t know about you, but this leaves my head full of more questions than answers.   How do we as educators model for students that science can’t only be about getting the right answer?  How do we encourage students that being wrong can be oh-so-right?  Taking a risk of being wrong is brave and necessary to advance this thing we call science.  So how about it, how do you encourage a risk-taking culture in your own classroom or other learning environment?

Three Days of Awesomeness

The Zooniverse team is a mix of web developers, educators, and designers.  What would happen if you locked this group into a glass-sided room with like-minded folks from the New York Public Library Labs for three days?  That’s what we’re trying – three  days of hacking in the Cyberspace Studio at the Adler Planetarium!  For updates on our progress, check out @ZooTeach or @the_zooniverse on Twitter.

Let the awesome commence….

Sugar and coffee, let's build!
Sugar and coffee, let’s build!