Zooniverse, GitHub and the future

In case you haven’t noticed I’ve had a pretty busy five years at the Zooniverse. With more than 25 projects launched in fields from astronomy to biodiversity and from climataology all the way to zoology, it’s been an incredible experience to work with so many new science teams hungry for answers to research questions that can only be answered by enlisting the help of a large number of volunteers. This model of citizen science, one where we boil down the often complex analysis task brought to us by a science team to the ‘simplest thing that will work’, build a rich user experience and then ask a bunch of people to help, seems to work pretty well.

For me, one of the best aspects of what I get to do is that I work in a domain that is an inherently open way of doing research. Having joined Zooniverse when we were still ‘just’ Galaxy Zoo, to see the range of projects we host broaden and to watch our community mature has been a remarkable experience. With our latest endeavour – the Galaxy Zoo Quench project – it’s clear that the line between the activites of the ‘science’ team and the ‘volunteers’ is becoming less defined by the day. Citizen-led science in the Zooniverse began with a group of people in the Galaxy Zoo Forum, ‘The Peas Corp’ when they discovered a new class of galaxy, and it continues today with volunteers discovering new types of worms, exotic exoplanets and even, through Quench, analysing and writing a new paper as a group. These of course are just examples I’ve taken from the Zooniverse and there are many more in other projects run by other people, but in each case the result is the same: by enagaing the public in a meaningful way Citizen Science is challenging the centuries old practices of academia and that has to be a good thing.

The opportunity to change the way science is done, whether it’s building software to increase efficiency or developing new collaboration models, is what brought me to the Zooniverse and now it’s what is leading me away. At the end of September this year I’m going to be hanging up my hat as Technical Lead of the Zooniverse and joining GitHub as their ‘science guy’.

As with all big decisions in life this wasn’t an easy one. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to give technical direction to an incredible team of scientists, developers, educators and designers here at the Adler and the wider Zooniverse. But over the past couple of years I’ve also got to know a number of the GitHub folks and I’ve been hugely impressed by their focus on building the very best platform possible for online collaboration. Starting with the very simple idea that ‘it should be easier to work together than alone’ they’ve clearly nailed what it looks like to work on a problem with others in code. But software isn’t the only thing people are sharing on GitHub – legislators are publishing drafts of state law, technicians are documenting scientific laboratory protocols and with tools like the IPython Notebook researchers have defined formats and means of sharing entire research workflows.

The mantra of ‘collaborative versioned science’ has been rattling around my head now for a couple of years. I believe there’s an opportunity for GitHub to be the platform for capturing the process of scientific discovery and I want to help make that happen.

So what does this mean for the Zooniverse? Well, I’m leaving at a pretty good time as the Zooniverse has never been healthier – there’s a first-class web and education team of twelve people I’m going to be leaving behind at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and we’ve just secured several large grants to expand our sister team at The University of Oxford to ten people (watch this space for job ads).

With all of these people and a number of major development projects in the pipeline we’re going to need a new Technical Lead. If this sounds fun, like you might be a good fit (and you’re able to work in the UK or US) then drop myself and Chris Lintott a line (we’re arfon@zooniverse.org and chris@zooniverse.org) – we’d love to talk. Our software is a mixture of Ruby, Rails and Javascript and we like using technologies like MongoDB, Redis, Amazon Web Services and Hadoop. We get to work on hard data science problems, build custom software for solving crowdsourcing at scale and work with some incredibly smart and creative collaborators.  Whoever takes over is going to have a lot of fun.


PS If you’d like to know more about what work looks like as a Technical Lead of the Zooniverse then I’ve written recently about some of the problems we’ve addressed over the past few years herehere and here.

17 thoughts on “Zooniverse, GitHub and the future”

  1. Thanks for your help over the years Arfon.

    Yes, Citizen Science projects have certainly expanded over the years, from a pub in Oxford, to an Ash tree disease project on Facebook, which I heard about tonight.

    As a Software Developer, lately as a Software Tester, I know how time consuming the work can be, in running projects. (I run three public websites in my “spare time”.)

    So, good luck in your new role, hopefully it will be a lot of fun.

    1. Wow! Good luck in your new job Arfon – you’ve been a star! Thanks so much for all your help with the Zooniverse and particularly for being so helpful (and quick) sorting out forum issues. Definitely GitHub’s gain. Have fun! 🙂

  2. We only met once (first Cambridge Galaxy Zoo meet) but I remember you well. Whether you think that’s a good thing or not is up to you. I wish you well in your new venture and the only advice I can offer is always look up and always go forward.

  3. Very best wishes for the future, Arfon. It’s great to know that you leave a good team behind you – we know that they have been part of your brilliant work (thanks team – keep the good work up). Even so – you WILL be missed.

  4. Good luck Arfon, and thank you for providing the chance to work on projects such as Galaxy Zoo and especially Old Weather. I dont know what I would do without it.

  5. Dear Arfon,
    You’ve made PlanetHunters a fantastic success. We will miss you!
    GitHub is very lucky to have hired you, and I look forward to benefiting from your work there, too!

  6. Thanks Arfon for all the wonderful work and assistance! I hope you have a great time in your new job, they’re very lucky to have you 🙂

  7. Good luck on your new adventure at GitHub, I hope you’ll find inspiring new challenges to tackle, and that it’ll be a fruitful, fulfilling work experience for you!



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