Category Archives: technical

Pop-ups on Comet Hunters



We’re testing out a new feature of our interface, which means if you’re classifying images on Comet Hunters you may see occasional pop-up messages like the one pictured above.

The messages are designed to give you more information about the project. If you do not want to see them, you have the option to opt-out of seeing any future messages. Just click the link at the bottom of the pop-up.

You can have a look at this new feature by contributing some classifications today at

Emails from the Zooniverse

Click this image to be taken to your Zooniverse email settings

We’re cleaning up our email list to make sure that we do not email anyone who does not want to hear from us. You will have got an email last week asking you if you want to stay subscribed. If you did not click the link in that email, then you will have received one today saying you have been unsubscribed from our main mailing list. Don’t worry! If you still want to receive notifications from us regarding things like new projects, please go to and make sure you’re subscribed to general Zooniverse email updates.
NOTE: This has not affected emails you get from individual Zooniverse projects.

Lost Classifications

We’re sorry to let you know that at 16:29 BST on Wednesday last week we made a change to the Panoptes code which had the unexpected result that it failed to record classifications on six of our newest projects; Season Spotter, Wildebeest Watch, Planet Four: Terrains, Whales as Individuals, Galaxy Zoo: Bar Lengths, and Fossil Finder. It was checked by two members of the team – unfortunately, neither of them caught the fact that it failed to post classifications back. When we did eventually catch it, we fixed it within 10 minutes. Things were back to normal by 20:13 BST on Thursday, though by that time each project had lost a day’s worth of classifications.

To prevent something like this happening in the future we are implementing new code that will monitor the incoming classifications from all projects and send us an alert if any of them go unusually quiet. We will also be putting in even more code checks that will catch any issues like this right away.

It is so important to all of us at the Zooniverse that we never waste the time of any of our volunteers, and that all of your clicks contribute towards the research goals of the project. If you were one of the people whose contributions were lost we would like to say how very sorry we are, and hope that you can forgive us for making this terrible mistake. We promise to do everything we can to make sure that nothing like this happens again, and we thank you for your continued support of the Zooniverse.


The Zooniverse Team

Crowdsourcing and basic data visualization in the humanities

In late July I led a week-long course about crowdsourcing and data visualization at the Digital Humanities Oxford Summer School. I taught the crowdsourcing part, while my friend and collaborator, Sarah, from Google, lead the data visualization part. We had six participants from fields as diverse as history, archeology, botany and literature, to museum and library curation. Everyone brought a small batch of images, and used the new Zooniverse Project Builder (“Panoptes”) to create their own projects. We asked participants what were their most pressing research questions? If the dataset were larger, why would crowdsourcing be an appropriate methodology, instead of doing the tasks themselves? What would interest the crowd most? What string of questions or tasks might render the best data to work with later in the week?

Within two days everyone had a project up and running.  We experienced some teething problems along the way (Panoptes is still in active development) but we got there in the end! Everyone’s project looked swish, if you ask me.

Digging the Potomac

Participants had to ‘sell’ their projects in person and on social media to attract a crowd. The rates of participation were pretty impressive for a 24-hour sprint. Several hundred classifications were contributed, which gave each project owner enough data to work with.

But of course, a good looking website and good participation rates do not equate to easy-to-use or even good data! Several of us found that overly complex marking tasks rendered very convoluted data and clearly lost people’s attention. After working at the Zooniverse for over a year I knew this by rote, but I’d never really had the experience of setting up a workflow and seeing what came out in such a tangible way.

Despite the variable data, everyone was able to do something interesting with their results. The archeologist working on pottery shards investigated whether there was a correlation between clay color and decoration. Clay is regional, but are decorative fashions regional or do they travel? He found, to his surprise, that they were widespread.

In the end, everyone agreed that they would create simpler projects next time around. Our urge to catalogue and describe everything about an object—a natural result of our training in the humanities and GLAM sectors—has to be reined in when designing a crowdsourcing project. On the other hand, our ability to tell stories, and this particular group’s willingness to get to grips with quantitative results, points to a future where humanities specialists use crowdsourcing and quantitative methods to open up their research in new and exciting ways.

-Victoria, humanities project lead

A whole new Zooniverse

Anyone heading over to the Zooniverse today will spot a few changes (there may also be some associated down-time, but in this event we will get the site up again as soon as possible). There’s a new layout for the homepage, a few new projects have appeared and there’s a new area and a new structure to Talk to enable you to discuss the Zooniverse and citizen science in general, something we hope will bring together conversations that until now have been stuck within individual projects.

Our new platform, Panoptes, is name after Argus Panoptes, a many-eyed giant form Greek mythology.
Our new platform, Panoptes, is named after Argus Panoptes, a many-eyed giant form Greek mythology. Image credit:

What you won’t see immediately is that the site is running on a new version of the Zooniverse software, codenamed ‘Panoptes‘. Panoptes has been designed so that it’s easier for us to update and maintain, and to allow more powerful tools for project builders. It’s also open source from the start, and if you find bugs or have suggestions about the new site you can note them on Github (or, if you’re so inclined, contribute to the codebase yourself). We certainly know we have a lot more to do; today is a milestone, but not the end of our development. We’re looking forward to continuing to work on the platform as we see how people are using it.

Panoptes allows the Zooniverse to be open in another way too. At its heart is a project building tool. Anyone can log in and start to build their own Zooniverse-style project; it takes only a moment to get started and I reckon not much more than half an hour to get to something really good. These projects can be made public and shared with friends, colleagues and communities – or by pressing a button can be submitted to the Zooniverse team for a review (to make sure our core guarantee of never wasting people’s time is preserved), beta test (to make sure it’s usable!), and then launch.

We’ve done this because we know that finding time and funding for web development is the bottleneck that prevents good projects being built. For the kind of simple interactions supported by the project builder, we’ve built enough examples that we know what a good and engaging project looks like. We’ll still build new and novel custom projects helping the Zooniverse to grow, but today’s launch should mean a much greater number of engaging and exciting projects that will lead to more research, achieved more quickly.

We hope you enjoy the new Zooniverse, and comments and feedback are very welcome. I’m looking forward to seeing what people do with our new toy.


PS You can read more about building a project here, about policies for which projects are promoted to the Zooniverse community here and get stuck into the new projects at

PPS We’d be remiss if we didn’t thank our funders, principally our Google Global Impact award and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and I want to thank the heroic team of developers who have got us to this point. I shall be buying them all beer. Or gin. Or champagne. Or all three.

Introducing VOLCROWE – Volunteer and Crowdsourcing Economics


Hi everyone, I’d like to let you know about a cool new project we are involved with. VOLCROWE is a three year research project funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in the UK, bringing together a team of researchers (some of which are already involved with the Zooniverse, like Karen Masters) from the Universities of Portsmouth, Oxford, Manchester and Leeds. The PI of the project Joe Cox says “Broadly speaking, the team wants to understand more about the economics of the Zooniverse, including how and why it works in the way that it does. Our goal is to demonstrate to the community of economics and management scholars the increasingly amazing things that groups of people can achieve when they work together with a little help from technology. We believe that Zooniverse projects represent a specialised form of volunteering, although the existing literature on the economics of altruism hasn’t yet taken into account these new ways in which people can give their time and energy towards not-for-profit endeavours. Working together with Zooniverse volunteers, we intend to demonstrate how the digital economy is making it possible for people from all over the world to come together in vast numbers and make a contribution towards tackling major scientific problems such as understanding the nature of the Universe, climate change and even cancer.

These new forms of volunteering exemplified by the Zooniverse fundamentally alter the voluntary process as it is currently understood. The most obvious change relates to the ways in which people are able to give their time more flexibly and conveniently; such as contributing during their daily commute using a smart phone! It also opens new possibilities for the social and community aspects of volunteering in terms of creating a digitally integrated worldwide network of contributors. It may also be the case that commonly held motivations and associations with volunteering don’t hold or work differently in this context. For example, religious affiliations and memberships may or may not be as prevalent as they are with more traditional or recognised forms of volunteering. With the help of Zooniverse volunteers, the VOLCROWE team are exploring all of these issues (and more) with the view to establishing new economic models of digital volunteering.

To achieve this aim, we are going to be interacting with the Zooniverse community in a number of ways. First, we’ll be conducting a large scale survey to find out more about its contributors (don’t worry – you do not have to take part in the survey or give any personal information if you do not want to!). The survey data will be used to test the extent to which assumptions made by existing models of volunteering apply and, if necessary, to formulate new ones. We’ll also be taking a detailed look at usage statistics from a variety of projects and will test for trends in the patterns of contributions across the million (and counting) registered Zooniverse volunteers. This larger-scale analysis will be supplemented with a number of smaller sessions with groups of volunteers to help develop a more nuanced understanding of people’s relationships with and within the Zooniverse. Finally, we’ll be using our expertise from the economic and management sciences to study the organisation of the Zooniverse team themselves and analyse the ways and channels they use to communicate and to make decisions. In short, with the help of its volunteers, we want to find out what makes the Zooniverse tick!

In the survey analysis, no information will be collected that could be used to identify you personally. The only thing we will ask for is a Zooniverse ID so that we can match up your responses to your actual participation data; this will help us address some of the project’s most important research questions. The smaller group and one-to-one sessions will be less anonymous by their very nature, but participation will be on an entirely voluntary basis and we will only ever use the information we gather in a way in which you’re comfortable. The team would really appreciate your support and cooperation in helping us to better understand the processes and relationships that drive the Zooniverse. If we can achieve our goals, we may even be able to help to make it even better!”

Keep an eye out for VOLCROWE over the coming weeks and months; they’d love you to visit their website and follow them on Twitter.

Grant and the Zooniverse Team

Not the Premier League : How Zooniverse got blocked by the courts

Anyone browsing the BBC News Technology section last night might have seen an unexpected appearance of a couple of our projects in this story about illegal streaming of Premier League football games. The story started on Saturday with an email from a volunteer pointing out that Virgin Media, a major Internet Service Provider in the UK, were blocking access to Notes From Nature. All is well now, but if you do experience problems please let us know. If you’d like the background, then read on.

Continue reading Not the Premier League : How Zooniverse got blocked by the courts

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 and – 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.

New Talk Feature: Automatic Favourites Collection

Today we’ve added a new feature to all the Zooniverse sites that use the new version of Talk. As you’ll know, most of our projects allow you to save ‘favourites’ – a list of things that are either cool/interesting/worthy of keeping and something to refer back to later. One often asked for feature is for this collection of favourites in the project to be available in Talk as a collection.

Today we’ve added this feature and from now on when you favourite something on the main site (e.g. Galaxy Zoo) it will automagically appear in a collection called ‘Favourites’ on Talk. That means you can discuss, share or even import them as a data source into


Zoo Tools: A New Way to Analyze, View and Share Data

Since the very first days of Galaxy Zoo, our projects have seen amazing contributions from volunteers who have gone beyond the main classification tasks. Many of these examples have led to scientific publications, including Hanny’s Voorwerp, the ‘green pea’ galaxies, and the circumbinary planet PH1b.

One common thread that runs through the many positive experiences we’ve had with the volunteers is the way in which they’ve interacted more deeply with the data. In Galaxy Zoo, much of this has been enabled by linking to the Sloan SkyServer website, where you can find huge amounts of additional information about galaxies on the site (redshift, spectra, magnitudes, etc). We’ve put in similar links on other projects now, linking to the Kepler database on Planet Hunters, or data on the location and water conditions in Seafloor Explorer.

The second part of this that we think is really important, however, is providing ways in which users can actually use and manipulate this data. Some users have been already been very resourceful in developing their own analysis tools for Zooniverse projects, or have done lots of offline work pulling data into Excel, IDL, Python, and lots of other programs (see examples here and here). We want to make using the data easier and available to more of our community, which has led to the development of Zoo Tools ( Zoo Tools is still undergoing some development, but we’d like to start by describing what it can do and what sort of data is available.

An Example

Zoo Tools works in an environment which we call the Dashboard – each Dashboard can be thought of as a separate project that you’re working on. You can create new Dashboards yourself, or work collaboratively with other people on the same Dashboard by sharing the URL.

Zoo Tools Main Page

Create a New Dashboard

Within the Dashboard, there are two main functions: selecting/importing data, and then using tools to analyze the data.

The first step for working with the Dashboard is to select the data you’d like to analyze. At the top left of the screen, there’s a tab named “Data”. If you click on this, you’ll see the different databases that Zoo Tools can query. For Galaxy Zoo, for example, it can query the Zooniverse database itself (galaxies that are currently being classified by the project), or you can also analyze other galaxies from the SDSS via their Sky Server website.

Import Data from Zooniverse

Clicking on the “Zooniverse” button, for example, you can select galaxies in one of four ways: a Collection (either your own or someone else’s), looking at your recently classified galaxies, galaxies that you’ve favorited, or specific galaxies via their Zooniverse IDs. Selecting any of these will import them as a dataset, which you can start to look at and analyze. In this example we’ll import 20 recent galaxies.

Import 20 Recents

After importing your dataset, you can use any of the tools in Dashboard (which you can select under “Tools” at the top of the page) on your data. After selecting a tool, you choose the dataset that you’d like to work with from a dropdown menu, and then you can begin using it. For example: if I want to look at the locations of my galaxies on the sky, I can select the “Map” tool. I then select the data source I’d like to plot (in this case, “Zooniverse–1”) and the tool plots the coordinates of each galaxy on a map of the sky. I can select different wavelength options for the background (visible light, infrared, radio, etc), and could potentially use this to analyze whether my galaxies are likely to have more stars nearby based on their position with respect to the Milky Way.

The other really useful part is that the tools can talk to each other, and can pass data back and forth. For example: you could import a collection of galaxies and look at their colour in a scatterplot. You could then select only certain galaxies in that tool, and then plot the positions of those galaxies on the map. This is what we do in the screenshots below:

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Making Data Analysis Social

You can also share Dashboards with other people. From the Zoo Tools home page you can access your existing dashboards as well as delete them and share them with others. You can share on Twitter and Facebook or just grab the URL directly. For example, the Dashboard above can be found here – with a few more tools added as a demonstration.

Sharing a Dashboard

This means that once you have a Dashboard set up and ready to use, you can send it to somebody else to use too. Doing this will mean that they see the same tools in the same configuration, but on their own account. They can then either replicate or verify your work – or branch off and use what you were doing as a springboard for something new.

What ‘Tools’ Are There?

Currently, there are eight tools available for both regular Galaxy Zoo and the Galaxy Zoo Quench projects:

  • Histogram: makes bar charts of a single data parameter
  • Scatterplot: plot any two data parameters against each other
  • Map: plot the position of objects on the sky, overplotted on maps of the sky at different wavelengths (radio, visible, X-ray, etc.)
  • Statistics: compute some of the most common statistics on your data (eg, mean, minimum, maximum, etc).
  • Subject viewer: examine individual objects, including both the image and all the metadata associated with that object
  • Spectra: for galaxies in the SDSS with a spectrum, download and examine the spectrum.
  • Table: List the metadata for all objects in a dataset. You can also use this tool to create new columns from the data that exists – for example, take the difference between magnitudes to define the color of a galaxy.
  • Color-magnitude: look at how the color and magnitude of galaxies compare to the total population of Galaxy Zoo. A really nice way of visualizing and analyzing how unusual a particular galaxy might be.

We have one tool up and running for Space Warps called Space Warp Viewer. This lets users adjust the color and scale parameters of image to examine potential gravitational lenses in more detail.

Snapshot Serengeti Dashboard

Finally, Snapshot Serengeti has several of the same tools that Galaxy Zoo does, including Statistics, Subject Viewer, Table, and Histogram (aka Bar Graph). There’s also Image Gallery, where you can examine the still images from your datasets, and we’re working on an Image Player. There’s a few very cool and advanced tools we started developing last week – they’re not yet deployed, but we’re really excited to let you follow the activity over many seasons or by focusing on particular cameras. Stay tuned. You can see an example Serengeti Dashboard, showing the distribution of Cheetahs, here (it’s also shown in the screenshot above).

We hope that Zoo Tools will be an important part of all Zooniverse projects in the future, and we’re looking forward to you trying them out. More to come soon!