All posts by chrislintott


What’s interesting? Or rather, what’s most interesting? This most fundamental of questions isn’t one we often directly address when thinking about scientific data, when we’re usually concerned with classification or deriving some global property of the data. But interestingness is important – in my own work with large surveys of the Universe, how interesting a new object is – an exploding star, or a strange galaxy – may determine whether we point telescopes at it, or whether it will languish, unobserved, in a catalogue for decades.

Hanny’s Voorwerp – a light echo lit up by activity in a now-faded quasar – was found early in the Galaxy Zoo project, providing a timely reminder of the importance of finding the unusual things in large datasets!

We’ve learnt how important serendipitous discoveries can be from previous astronomical Zooniverse projects, ranging from Galaxy Zoo’s Green Peas to Boyajian’s Star, ‘the most interesting star in the Milky Way’ (even if it turns out not to host an alien megastructure. With new projects such as the Vera Rubin Observatory’s LSST survey nearly ready to provide an unprecedented flood of information, astronomers around the world are honing their techniques for getting the most out of such large datasets – but the problem of preparing for surprise has been neglected.

In part because it turns out it’s hard to get funding for a search for the unusual, where by definition I can’t say in advance what it is that we’ll find. I’m therefore very pleased the team have received a new grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to build on the Zooniverse to provide tools designed for serendipity. My hunch is that, as we’ve learnt from so many Zooniverse projects before, a combination of human and machine intelligence is needed for the task; while modern machine learning is good at finding the unusual, working out which unusual things are actually interesting is best left to human intuition and intelligence.

If we think about being ‘unusual’ and being ‘interesting’ as different axes, an interesting space on which to plot our data appears. Modern machine learning is best suited to finding the unusual – but most unusual things are boring artefacts.

The project won’t stop at astronomy. In combination with Prof Kate Jones‘ team at UCL and elsewhere, we’ll look for surprises in audio recordings from ecological monitoring projects, testing whether identifying rare events – such as gunshots – might contribute to assessments of the health of an ecosystem. (You might remember Kate – she ran the Bat Detective project on the Zooniverse) And with the Science Scribbler team (particually Michele Darrow and Mark Basham) based at the Rosalind Franklin Institute we’ll use the latest high resolution imaging to use these techniques to spot structures in cells.

In doing all of this we can build on our galaxy-classifying Zoobot, the work on glitch identification from Gravity Spy (recent results!), friends and collaborators like Kate Storey-Fischer and Michelle Lochner, whose Astronomaly concept seems right up our street, and of course the insights and efforts of the two million strong Zooniverse army. Who knows what we might find together?


PS If you have a PhD in a relevant scientific discipline, or in computer science, then we’re advertising a postdoc – see here for details, or get in touch via Twitter or email to discuss.

supernova hunters and nine lessons for curious people

At the weekend, a bunch of us had fun with a timely challenge – trying to find and follow-up supernovae with supernova hunters as part of the Nine Lessons and Carols for Curious People 24 hour science/music/comedy show organised by Robin Ince and the Cosmic Shambles Network in support of various good causes. Robin and Brian Cox normally run a huge show at the Hammersmith Apollo theatre at this time of year, but this socially distant, marathon show was a suitable replacement.

Robin and musician Steve Pretty somewhere in the middle of the 24 and a bit hour long show – they were on stage throughout! Credit:

In the run up to the show there was some concern that poor weather in Hawai’i – where the PanSTARRS telescope that provides data for Supernova Hunters is located – might prevent us getting enough data, but in the event skies were clear. Very clear. Which caused a problem as the extra data took a while to get to the servers at Queen’s University Belfast and from there to us, but thanks to heroic efforts from the Supernova Hunters team, I was able to zoom into the show early on and pointed the viewers to the site, and classifications started to flow in.

Supernova hunting is a competitive sport these days, and though the early results from volunteers were encouraging, most of what we found was either too faint to make follow-up easy with the telescopes we had on stand by or were objects already identified by other surveys (including the Zooniverse’s friends at ZTF). A brief reappearance on the Nine Lessons big screen (and an email to existing volunteers asking for help) later and we finally had a set of good candidates.

Liverpool Telescope in the Canary Islands, which was responsible for our first follow-up observations. Credit: Liverpool Telescope.

The team – especially Ken Smith and Darryl Wright – worked overnight to arrange follow-up. When I emerged from a few hours sleep observers at the Liverpool Telescope had checked out our most promising candidate – but it turned out not to be a supernova, but rather a less extreme cosmic explosion known as a cataclysmic variable. I marvelled at the fact Robin was still awake – and was coherently interviewing cosmologists, brain scientists and the odd astronaut – and gave an update.

Just after I finished, Belfast’s Ken Smith popped up with the news that observers in Hawai’i using the SNIFS instrument had followed up other targets – and one of them was a real supernova! Better, it was a type 1a – the kind of supernova that can be used to measure the expansion rate of the Universe. Admittedly it was a type 1a-91bg, a rarer type of supernova which is fainter than a normal type 1a, but still useful, and this gave us a payoff for the show.

Spectrum confirming our candidate is a SN1a-91bg associated with a galaxy at redshift z=0.061 – light from an explosion that happened nearly a billion years ago.

Using only that supernova, a bit of maths on the back of an envelope and a few fairly shaking assumptions, we calculated that the Universe was 12.8 billion years old, about a billion short of the commonly accepted value. I wouldn’t throw out the careful systematic analysis of populations of supernova for this simple calculation – but we did get to announce to a bleary eyed comedian that the Universe might be (a little bit) younger than expected.

Just as I went on air a message from Mark Huber, the observer providing data from Hawai’i, confirmed a second supernova – this one a type II, an exploding massive star. It might even be of the same type as the famous 1987A which was spotted in a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, the Large Magellanic Cloud. Trying to take this in, and convey what was happening quickly was bit much for my sleep-deprived brain but hopefully people realised we confirmed a second supernova!

More importantly, we’ve recorded the results of all of our discoveries in a Astronote published on the Transient Name Server website (the worldwide clearing house for such discoveries). You can read the result of a Supernova Hunters weekend here – and rejoice in the fact that Robin Ince and some of the Cosmic Shambles team are now coauthors on a scientific publication!

I’ll post links to clips from the show when they’re available too, and if you fancy supernova hunting yourself there will be more data on the site soon!


PS Thanks a million to the Supernova Hunters volunteers, and to the team that made it happen – Brooke Simmons (Lancaster), Ken Smith (Belfast), Darryl Wright (Mayo Clinic), Coleman Krawczyk (Portsmouth) and Grant Miller and Belinda Nicholson (Oxford). Michael Fulton and Shubham Srivastav from QUB took the Liverpool Telescope observations, and Michael also led the publication of our AstroNote.

PPS This gives Robin Ince a Erdös Number of, I think, no higher than 5. His Bacon number (according to the Infinite Monkey Cage) is no higher than 3, so this gives him a Bacon-Erdös number of no more than 15! More importantly, as he’s performed music on stage, he must have a Sabbath number, though finding out what it is requires further work – making him one of the rare number of individuals with EBS numbers. A suitable reward for 24 hours of effort.

UKRI Citizen Science Exploration Grants

UK Research and Innovation have announced a scheme to support citizen science projects, focused especially on new and innovative uses. It seems like an excellent opportunity to experiment, or to work on designing a new project and we hope it persuades many more people to take the plunge and start using citizen science approaches in their research. More details at

We at Zooniverse would be keen to help any UK-based researchers thinking of applying for such a grant – if you’re interested, or would like to discuss how you might use the Zooniverse platform, contact Grant Miller :

A Zooniverse Spin-Out Company

I wanted to let you know that a new company called 1715 Labs has been set up to make commercial use of the software created by the Zooniverse team. Specifically, the company will explore how other businesses might make use of our tools in order to classify and label images, text, audio and video.

We’ve been approached over the years by a number of companies with such projects in mind, but the Zooniverse policy has always been to accept only projects whose aim is academic research. (See our policy statement at

This is not changing. This policy will remain the same for Zooniverse projects, so you can be sure that any project you see at will continue to have as its goal the advancement of academic research. Projects developed by 1715 Labs will not appear at

It’s also important that you, the volunteers, know that the Zooniverse will not be handing the new company any of your data or personal information. Indeed, according to the Zooniverse privacy policy we will not be able to. Instead, the company will use the same software as the Zooniverse to reach other crowds who can take part in any projects it creates.

The team who have been working on the Zooniverse will continue to do so, just as they always have. However, the possibility exists that some team members – including myself – may serve as paid consultants for 1715 Labs as the new company gets off the ground. This work will be managed separately from work for us in the Zooniverse.

1715 Labs is formally a spin-out company of the University of Oxford, where a large part of the Zooniverse team have been based from the beginning. It is currently led by Sophie Hackford (We’re currently recruiting a long-term CEO – if you’re interested, send me a CV). Normally, the researchers involved in leading such a spin-out would receive equity in the new company, and benefit financially from it.

However, in this case, we have given up any such rights, passing the shares instead to another new organisation, the 1715 Association. This means – unusually for a spin out company – no-one involved in Zooniverse owns shares or has a financial stake in the new company. (As noted above, some of the team may end up working for 1715 labs as consultants).

The 1715 Association is what’s known as a company limited by guarantee. If it receives money as a result of its ownership of shares in 1715 Labs, it must use it in accordance with its objects. The objects of the 1715 Association are to benefit citizen science research, especially through the Zooniverse. Should the company do well, therefore, the result will be additional funding for our work here at and the chance to build new, better, more interesting projects.

This is good news – we want the excellent software our developers have created to be used, and if it can benefit our research, then so much the better. Hopefully, businesses with data that needs labelling will be inspired by this link to the Zooniverse to work with 1715 Labs.

I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with this new venture. In the meantime, I’m happy to answer any questions in the comments below or over on Talk.

Chris Lintott, PI for Zooniverse

Studying the Impact of the Zooniverse

Below is a guest post from a researcher who has been studying the Zooniverse and who just published a paper called ‘Crowdsourced Science: Sociotechnical epistemology in the e-research paradigm’. That being a bit of a mouthful, I asked him to introduce himself and explain – Chris.

My name is David Watson and I’m a data scientist at Queen Mary University of London’s Centre for Translational Bioinformatics. As an MSc student at the Oxford Internet Institute back in 2015, I wrote my thesis on crowdsourcing in the natural sciences. I got in touch with several members of the Zooniverse team, who were kind enough to answer all my questions (I had quite a lot!) and even provide me with an invaluable dataset of aggregated transaction logs from 2014. Combining this information with publication data from a variety of sources, I examined the impact of crowdsourcing on knowledge production across the sciences.

Last week, the philosophy journal Synthese published a (significantly) revised version of my thesis, co-authored by my advisor Prof. Luciano Floridi. We found that Zooniverse projects not only processed far more observations than comparable studies conducted via more traditional methods—about an order of magnitude more data per study on average—but that the resultant papers vastly outperformed others by researchers using conventional means. Employing the formal tools of Bayesian confirmation theory along with statistical evidence from and about Zooniverse, we concluded that crowdsourced science is more reliable, scalable, and connective than alternative methods when certain common criteria are met.

In a sense, this shouldn’t really be news. We’ve known for over 200 years that groups are usually better than individuals at making accurate judgments (thanks, Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, aka Marquis de Condorcet!) The wisdom of crowds has been responsible for major breakthroughs in software development, event forecasting, and knowledge aggregation. Modern science has become increasingly dominated by large scale projects that pool the labour and expertise of vast numbers of researchers.

We were surprised by several things in our research, however. First, the significance of the disparity between the performance of publications by Zooniverse and those by other labs was greater than expected. This plot represents the distribution of citation percentiles by year and data source for articles by both groups. Statistical tests confirm what your eyes already suspect—it ain’t even close.

Influence of Zooniverse Articles

We were also impressed by the networks that appear in Zooniverse projects, which allow users to confer with one another and direct expert attention toward particularly anomalous observations. In several instances this design has resulted in patterns of discovery, in which users flag rare data that go on to become the topic of new projects. This structural innovation indicates a difference not just of degree but of kind between so-called “big science” and crowdsourced e-research.

If you’re curious to learn more about our study of Zooniverse and the site’s implications for sociotechnical epistemology, check out our complete article.

The importance of acknowledgement

Trying to understand the vast proliferation of ‘citizen science’ projects is a Herculean task right now, with projects cropping up all over the place dealing with both online data analysis like that which concerns us here at the Zooniverse and with data collection and observation of the natural world via projects like iNaturalist. As the number of projects increases, so do questions about the effectiveness of these projects, and so does our desire to keep track of the impact all of the effort put into them is having.

These aren’t easy questions to answer, and an attempt to track the use of citizen science in the literature is made by Ria Follett and Vladimir Strezov, two researchers in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Macquarie University, in a recent paper published in the journal PLOS One. They look at papers including the words ‘citizen science’, and includes the surprising result that ‘online’ projects accounted for only 12% of their sample. They explain :

The missing articles dis- cussed discoveries generated using “galaxy zoo” data, rather than acknowledging the contribtions of the citizens who created this data.

This, to me, is pushing a definition to extremes. Every one of the ‘missing’ papers cited has a link to a list of volunteers who contributed; several have volunteers listed on the author list! To claim that we’re not ‘acknowledging the contribtions’ of volunteers because we don’t use the shibboleth ‘citizen science’ is ridiculous. Other Zooniverse projects, such as Planet Hunters, don’t even appear in the study for much the same reason, and it’s sad that a referee didn’t dig deeper into the limited methodology used in the article.

Part of the problem here is the age-old argument about the term ‘citizen science’. It’s not a description most of our volunteers would use of themselves, but rather a term imposed from the academy to describe (loosely!) the growing phenomenon of public participation in public research. In most of our Galaxy Zoo papers, we refer to ‘volunteers’ rather than ‘citizen scientists’ – and we believe strongly in acknowledging the contributions of everyone to a project, whatever term they choose to label themselves with.


Orchids and Lab Rats

Orchid Observers, the latest Zooniverse project, is perhaps at first glance a project like all the others. If you visit the site, you’ll be asked to sort through records of these amazing and beguiling plants, drawn from the collections of the Natural History Museum and from images provided by orchid fans from across the country. There’s a scientific goal, related to identifying how orchid flowering times are changing across the UK, a potential indicator of the effects of climate change, and we will of course be publishing our results in scientific journals.


Yet the project is, we hope, also a pointer to one way of creating a richer experience for Zooniverse volunteers. While other projects, such as iNaturalist, have made great efforts in mobilizing volunteers to carry out data collection, this is the first time we’ve combined that sort of effort with ‘traditional’ Zooniverse data analysis. We hope that those in a position to contribute images of their own will also take part in the online phase of the project, both as classifiers but also sharing their expertise online – if you’re interested, there’s an article in the most recent BSBI News that team member Kath Castillo wrote to encourage that magazine’s audience to get involved in both phases of the project.

BSBI News – published by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, and not as far as I know available online – is a common place for the environmental and naturalist communities to advertise citizen science projects in this way, and so it also serves as a place where people talk about citizen science. The same edition that contains Kath’s article also includes a piece by Kew research associate Richard Bateman chewing over the thorny issue of funding distributed networks of volunteers to participate (and indeed, to coordinate) projects like these. He alludes to the ConSciCom project in which we’re partners, and which has funded the development of both Orchid Observers and another Zooniverse project, Science Gossip, suggesting that we view volunteers as either a freely available source of expertise or, worse, as ‘laboratory rats’.

Neither rings true to me. While the work that gets done in and around Zooniverse projects couldn’t happen without the vast number of hours contributed by volunteers, we’re very conscious of the need to go beyond just passively accepting clicks. We view our volunteers as our collaborators – that’s why they appear on author lists for papers, and why when you take part in a Zooniverse project, then we should take on the responsibility of communicating the results back to you in a form that’s actually useful. The collaboration with the historians in ConSciCom, who study the 19th century – a time when the division between ‘professional’ and ‘citizen’ scientist was much less clear – has been hugely useful in helping us think this through (see, for example, Sally Frampton’s discussion of correspondence in the medical journals of the period). Similarly, it’s been great to work with the Natural History Museum who have a long and distinguished history in working with all sorts of naturalist groups. We’ve been working hard on directly involving volunteers in more than mere clickwork too, and ironically enough, the kind of collaboration with volunteer experts we hope to foster in Orchid Observers is part of the solution.

I hope you enjoy the new project – and as ever, comments and thoughts on how we can improve are welcome, either here or via the project’s own discussion space.


PS This debate is slightly different, but it reminds me of the discussions we’ve had over the years about whether ‘citizen’ science is actually science, or just mere clickwork. Here are some replies from 2010 and from 2013.

Introducing Darren McRoy – Zooniverse Community Builder!



Back in August I wrote about our search for someone we were calling a ‘community builder,’ which I said was ‘the most important job in the Zooniverse.’ The position was created because of the rapid expansion of the project, and the plans we have for the next year or two, which will mean we may be able to create hundreds or thousands of new projects. If the Zooniverse isn’t constrained by the slow process of project-by-project development, then we need to rethink how we choose what is hosted on our platform, what gets promoted—and how we talk about such things. We need, in fact, to try and build a broader Zooniverse community, capable of taking the choice of projects out of our hands. At the same time, we want the tools we use to engage with this community to let everyone have a say, from new classifiers on a single project to those who roam freely across all of our Talk discussion boards.

As many of you will have already discovered, we’ve found someone we can help us with this process — Darren McRoy. Darren is a 2010 graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He has worked as a reporter and editor and is an experienced writer and communicator with a strong focus on developing online communities and strategic digital content. One of his first projects will be gathering and compiling the feedback that will inform the upcoming rebuild of the Talk discussion system. He will be a regular presence on the forums, responding to users’ comments and concerns and seeking opportunities to spur additional conversation. He will also be contributing some written content for Zooniverse projects, blogs, websites, etc. when needed, and giving feedback to the development team.

You should see quite a lot of Darren, and we’d like to encourage you to talk to him if you have any questions, comments, concerns, or other feedback about the Zooniverse community. In particular, right now he is seeking feedback about how Talk can be improved to better serve both the science goals and the growing community of contributors and volunteers.

Darren can be reached via email at or DZM on Talk. Please feel free to contact him — he is looking forward to working with all of you!


The most important job in the Zooniverse

Job ad

The Zooniverse team has, over the last five years or so, shown signs of growing uncontrollably like some sort of bacterial colony that requires feeding with grant money. The job we’ve just advertised (at Adler Planetarium) might, though, be the most important yet. As those who are eager followers of this blog will know, we’re currently working hard on rebuilding the Zooniverse platform so that it can support many more projects.

If the Zooniverse can get to the point where we’re no longer constrained by the number of projects that can be built, we will need to think about how projects get chosen to appear on the Zooniverse, and about who should make that decision. Our opinion is that you – our community – should be more involved, and to work out how to make that happen we’re looking for what we’re calling a ‘community builder’. As you’ll see from the job description, this isn’t a technical post, but rather we’re looking for someone who knows how to build a community that is capable of awesome things. If that sounds like you, please get in touch.


PS The post is funded by a new grant from our friends at the Alfred P. Sloan foundation, to whom we’re eternally* grateful.

* – or as near as we can make it

Two more jobs at the Zooniverse

As part of our ongoing expansion of the Oxford Zooniverse team, I’m delighted to announce that there are two new jobs available at Zooniverse HQ in Oxford. We’re looking for developers and scientists who are excited at the prospect of helping us find more planets, keep an eye on more animals and generally make the Zooniverse more awesome.


We’re looking for the following kinds of people:

Data Scientist/Hadoopist to help us build up the processing power of the Zooniverse infrastructure

Postdoc in the statistics of citizen science – this might be a scientist with an interest or experience in citizen science, or someone with statistical expertise. In any case we’re looking to take a proper crack at the generic problem of combining classifications to produce consensus.

Both jobs are two year positions, and we’re really excited about expanding the team in Oxford. If you’d like to know more, you can contact me on cjl AT or 07808 167288.