In the Zooniverse, Everyone Can Be a Scientist


In a world in which scientific literacy is often lacking, the online platform Zooniverse.org is doing what it can to encourage “people-powered research.”

The Zooniverse is the world’s largest online platform connecting researchers with citizen scientists. It was created in collaboration with the Adler Planetarium, the University of Oxford in England and the University of Minnesota.

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Its aim is to help scientists analyze their data by using the power of crowdsourcing while engaging people of all ages in the process of scientific discovery.

It has more than 1.8 million registered users worldwide, including some 18,000 Chicagoans.

Chris Lintott, professor of astrophysics at the University of Oxford and the main presenter of the BBC’s long-running astronomy show “The Sky at Night” was at the forefront of the Zooniverse’s development.

It began back in 2007 when Lintott and his colleagues faced the daunting task of classifying millions of images of galaxies photographed by the Sloan Digital Survey telescope.

“We just had too many galaxies,” said Lintott. “We tried getting a student to look at them and sort them out. He looked at 50,000 and then came and had a quiet word. So we put them online and discovered that actually there are people out there who want to help.”

And after a brief discussion on BBC radio about what would become the Galaxy Zoo project, Lintott and his colleagues had volunteers classifying 70,000 galaxies an hour.

“It’s a rather reassuring thought, I think, that there is a crowd of people on the internet who are happy to spend their spare time helping us discover stuff about the universe,” said Lintott.

Laura Trouille, vice president of citizen science at the Adler leads the planetarium’s efforts to engage the public, which includes helping to support the Zooniverse project. Trouille says most of the projects are appropriate for any age, from ages 5 to 95.

“For many projects it is just one task for every image,” she said. “So in the Planet Hunters project where we are looking for exoplanets around distant stars there is just a quick look at a graph and you are looking for dips in the light curve. And if there are periodic dips that means that a planet is passing in front of the star and blocking its light.”

And Trouille said that because new images become available every few weeks, volunteers are literally the first to see data that reveals new planets.

“So our volunteers, the public, get to be those discoverers,” Trouille said.

But can volunteers, including some young children, be trusted to produce reliable data classifications? To begin with, says Trouille, every image, video clip or audio file is classified by more than 40 volunteers.

“So if 43 out of 45 say, ‘Hey, I think that’s a spiral galaxy,’ then you can have confidence in that result,” she said. 

For every project they also have a certain amount of expert-classified data and then compare the expert’s results with that of the volunteers.

“A nice example of this is in Snapshot Serengeti where you are tagging what kind of animal, whether it’s a zebra or a wildebeest, in the image and what behavior it is showing,” said Trouille. “For 97% of the images that the experts classified, the volunteer consensus result agreed with the experts.”

And for the other 3%, not even the experts were always in agreement.

In another project called Chimp and See, volunteers watch videos of chimpanzees in their natural habitats and look for behaviors.

“So not only is the classifying – just seeing what they are doing in the videos – really fascinating, but I really like the discussion forum,” said Trouille. “It’s just a really rich conversation and there are so many similarities between chimp facial features and ours. It’s really fascinating.”

A new project that launched last week has volunteers helping transcribe sign-up sheets for African American soldiers during the Civil War.

In fact, the Zooniverse is so popular that new projects are now being launched at the rate of about one per week. That’s possible in part thanks to a Google Global Impact Award and Sloan Foundation Grant that funded the development of a browser-based interface that enables anyone to build and launch their own project.

“So we went from launching three Zooniverse projects a year to research teams all across the disciplines clamoring to create their own, and now this past year we launched over 50 Zooniverse projects,” Trouille said. “There is such a need to engage the public in real science, to help the public understand what the process is, what we are trying to do, and that there is no mystery to it. It’s just working with data and making sense of it.”


Upcoming event

Trouille and Lintott will be giving a public presentation about the Zooniverse as part of the Adler Planetarium’s Kavli lecture series on Friday, Nov. 1 and Saturday, Nov. 2.


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