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.

8 thoughts on “Why the Zooniverse is easy to use.”

  1. Pleased I could spark a debate. Thanks for filling us in on what I wasn’t aware of behind the scenes. Maybe I’m just not paying attention, but I think stuff like this could well stand to be said more often!

  2. I posted this comment on Adam’s blog (it’s currently “awaiting moderation”):

    The serendipitous discovery aspects of Zooniverse projects seems to be one thing you missed, Adam. From the original (Galaxy Zoo, a.k.a. GZ), such discoveries have led to a couple of new terms (voorwerpjes, a.k.a. AGN clouds, and Green Peas), and, indirectly, a dozen or so papers. I do not know what examples there are from other projects – I’m much less familiar with them – but I’d be surprised if there are simply none (watch out for something surprising from the Andromeda Project though).

    Then there’s Lens Zoo (LZ): you do know, don’t you, that several (GZ) zooites – ordinary amateurs, not professional astronomers drawing a salary from the University of X – are core LZ team members? If gumbosea (a GZ zooite now a member of that core team) had had your attitude (“… had a go at a number of the different projects and they were entertaining for about five minutes, after which I was often left thinking …”), he would not have gone on to develop code for analyzing SDSS images, and as a result discovering many good lens candidates. Nor would Alice (one of the oldest ‘oldbie’ zooites) have decided to enrol in an MSc astrophysics program. Nor …

    Yes, the Zooniverse can certainly be improved; yes, it is very heavily top-down driven; yes, perhaps only 1% (or fewer) of the ~800,000 are really ‘into it’; … but Zooniverse projects are most certainly doing far more than just producing ‘click data’ from zooites acting as zombie automatons.

  3. How do Trackbacks/Pingbacks work?

    #2 on this blog post is “Pearl across the Zooniverse: …”, from the Florida State Tribune.

    However, that webpage has a link, “Check out the original source here.” Clicking that brings you to a Yahoo! News page, with the byline “By Caren Cooper | Scientific American – Thu, Feb 28, 2013”

    With some effort, I was able to find the original, the source, the index case: Pearls across the Zooniverse: When Crowdsourcing Becomes Citizen Science

    Interestingly, both the original and the Yahoo! News versions contain formatting and images which are lost in the Florida State Tribune version, considerably weakening the article.

    So, why wasn’t the source – a SciAm Guest blog – picked up?

    Also, what is a “Twitter stream”?

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