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).
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 here, here and here.