Who’s who in the Zoo – Syracuse University Zooniverse User Research Group

This week, meet the Syracuse University Zooniverse User Research Group – a team that works across multiple Zooniverse projects to study many aspects of citizen science, including what volunteers learn through participation and what motivates them to contribute. 

– Helen

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Research Team: Syracuse University’s Zooniverse User Research Group

Location: School of Information Studies, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York USA


What are your main research interests?

Our group studies user behaviors in Zooniverse. Our research is centered on (1) understanding the complex and emergent motivations of volunteers who contribute to Zooniverse projects and (2) investigating how amateurs learn via participation in projects. Our research covers users in Planet Hunters, Higgs Hunters, Asteroid Zoo, Seafloor Explorer, and Gravity Spy.


Who is in your project team? What are their roles?

Kevin Crowston, Professor

Carsten Osterlund, Associate Professor

Corey Jackson, Ph.D. Candidate

Mabi Harandi, Ph.D. Student

Amruta Bhat, Masters Student

Dhruv Kharwar, Masters Student

Isabella Valentine, Undergraduate Student (REU)


Tell us more about the data used in your research

Our data comes from system logs, Talk posts, surveys, focus groups, and interviews.


How do Zooniverse volunteers contribute to your research? 

Zooniverse volunteers are extremely valuable to our research and in turn, enhance our ability to suggest features that encourage motivation and support learning.


What are the biggest challenges in your research?

One of the biggest challenges is learning more about newcomers and dropouts in the projects. These volunteers are valuable contributors to many citizen science projects. However, because they do not stay with the project for very long, there’s not much opportunity to interact with them. Understanding why they leave and how we can encourage them to stay can help increase contribution to Zooniverse projects.


What discoveries, and other outputs, has your project led to so far?

We’ve published more than twenty full papers, posters, and other publications based on user research in Zooniverse. You can see the list here (https://citsci.syr.edu/papers).


Once you’ve finished collecting data, what research questions do you hope to be able to answer?

Our questions center on motivation and learning. For instance, when newcomers join a project, informative resources such as volunteer-created discussion threads might be hidden across the discussion forums. We’re trying to find methods to apply machine learning techniques to bring these to the fore.


What’s in store for your project in the future?

Currently, we’re collaborating with the Gravity Spy project to design more complex citizen science tasks. For example, in Gravity Spy volunteers come up with their own labels to name phenomenon in the spectrograms they classify.


What are your favourite other citizen research projects and why?

We’re most actively involved with Gravity Spy. We’re currently working with LIGO scientists to design advanced citizen science work. We hope this research leads to the inclusion of citizen science tasks covering more phases of the scientific research process.


What guidance would you give to other researchers considering creating a citizen research project?

One of the most crucial aspects of a successful citizen science projects is engagement by the science team. Answering volunteer question on the discussion boards, organizing Skype meetings, providing feedback and keeping volunteers abreast of progress has been shown to encourage volunteers to remain active.


If you’d like to learn more about Syracuse University’s Zooniverse User Research Group check out their publications here (https://citsci.syr.edu/papers).

Who’s who in the Zoo – Grant Miller

In this week’s edition of our Who’s who in the Zoo series meet Grant Miller, communications and projects manager here at the Zooniverse. 

– Helen

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Name: Grant Miller

Location: University of Oxford, UK




Tell us about your role within the team:

I don’t really have a solid job title. Sometimes I say communications lead. Occasionally it’s project manager. At points it has been community manager. I’ve been with the team for over 5 years and my role essentially involves talking to everyone (volunteers, project builders, the development team, and external researchers).


What did you do in your life before the Zooniverse?

I completed a PhD at the University of St Andrews in the search for, and characterisation of, exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars in our galaxy).


What does your typical working day involve?

Quite a few emails. A lot of working with people to help them build and run their project in the best way possible. Fantastic discussions with the other Zooniverse team members about how we can improve the platform.


How would you describe the Zooniverse in one sentence?

The Zooniverse breaks down barriers, leading to open research that wouldn’t be possible without the help of millions of volunteers worldwide.


Tell us about the first Zooniverse project you were involved with

I was a masters student doing a summer internship when Galaxy Zoo launched. I fell in love with it and did thousands of classifications one week instead of the work I was supposed to be doing.


Of all the discoveries made possible by the Zooniverse, which for you has been the most notable and why?

People all around the world, of all ages, races, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds will help you with your research if you just ask, and they’ll do it for no more than their desire to see progress.


What’s been your most memorable Zooniverse experience?

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to spend 3 weeks on an expedition to the Southern Ocean and Antarctica with the Penguin Watch research team, helping them maintain their cameras and monitor the penguin colonies. That’s hard to beat, but there have been many many other highlights over the last 5 years.


What are your top three citizen science projects? 

Plankton Portal (It was the first one I helped launch, and it is awesome. The images of the tiny sea creature are fantastic.)

Snapshot Serengeti (…and all other camera trap projects that followed. It was the original camera trap project on the Zooniverse and my first experience of the amazing and candid shots you could get of wildlife when they don’t think they’re being watched.)

Planet Hunters (it was the first exoplanet project we launched. On it the volunteers showed us just how awesome they could be when allowed to talk to each other. They discovered the first ever planet with 4 stars! I wish I had been smart enough to create a project like this to help with my PhD…)


What advice would you give to a researcher considering creating a Zooniverse project?

You’re entering a huge collaboration with lots of wonderful volunteers. Treat them with respect and communicate with them as often as you would a professional collaborator. They will reward you with awesome discoveries and unrivaled effort.


How can someone who’s never contributed to a citizen science project get started?

Just click ‘Get Started’ on any Zooniverse project. they are designed to minimise the barrier to entry. All of the tasks are pretty easy to do, and most projects come with a short tutorial to help you.


Where do you hope citizen science and the Zooniverse will be in 10 years time?

In every household and classroom. But seriously, just more present in people’s thoughts when they consider research methods. We also need to get humans working with machines to go through even larger datasets.


Is there anything in the Zooniverse pipeline that you’re particularly excited about?

I’m really excited to see what happens when we get humans and machines working together on the same datasets. This will allow us to do research that isn’t even possible with a large crowd.


When not at work, where are we most likely to find you?

Either exploring somewhere I’ve not been before, on the golf course, on the real tennis court, listening to music, watching football (‘mon Scotland!), or in the pub with friends. Preferably all of the above on the same day.


Do you have any party tricks or hidden talents?

I play guitar, but never do it in public anymore. I can also name all 50 US state capitals, which is pretty much useless. I’m above average at balancing objects (my record is 4 golf balls, or 5 pint glasses before being asked to leave the pub.)


Zooniverse Data Aggregation

Hi all, I am Coleman Krawczyk and for the past year I have been working on tools to help Zooniverse research teams work with their data exports.  The current version of the code (v1.3.0) supports data aggregation for nearly all the project builder task types, and support will be added for the remaining task types in the coming months.

What does this code do?

This code provides tools to allow research teams to process and aggregate classifications made on their project, or in other words, this code calculates the consensus answer for a given subject based on the volunteer classifications.  

The code is written in python, but it can be run completely using three command line scripts (no python knowledge needed) and a project’s data exports.


The first script is the uses a project’s workflow data export to auto-configure what extractors and reducers (see below) should be run for each task in the workflow.  This produces a series of `yaml` configuration files with reasonable default values selected.


Next the extraction script takes the classification data export and flattens it into a series of `csv` files, one for each unique task type, that only contain the data needed for the reduction process.  Although the code tries its best to produce completely “flat” data tables, this is not always possible, so more complex tasks (e.g. drawing tasks) have structured data for some columns.


The final script takes the results of the data extraction and combine them into a single consensus result for each subject and each task (e.g. vote counts, clustered shapes, etc…).  For more complex tasks (e.g. drawing tasks) the reducer’s configuration file accepts parameters to help tune the aggregation algorithms to best work with the data at hand.

A full example using these scripts can be found in the documentation.

Future for this code

At the moment this code is provided in its “offline” form, but we testing ways for this aggregation to be run “live” on a Zooniverse project.  When that system is finished a research team will be able to enter their configuration parameters directly in the project builder, a server will run the aggregation code, and the extracted or reduced `csv` files will be made available for download.

You’re invited!

Once again, we’re hosting a meetup for our Chicago-area Zooniverse volunteers during Adler’s Members’ Night.

Visit us at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago where you’ll be able to:

  • Meet Zooniverse team members
  • Talk to researchers from Northwestern University about an upcoming project
  • Preview new projects
  • Help us beta test a new exhibit for the Adler

The event is free for all Zooniverse volunteers – at the door, just show your Zooniverse profile either on a mobile device or printed out. You’ll be able to participate in all of the Adler’s Members’ Night activities and tour the planetarium after hours.

Adler Planetarium Members’ Night
Friday, October 26
6:00-10:00 pm