In a time when Luddites rule, something called the ‘Zooniverse’ is offering average people a way to help out research projects. So, 1.8 million have joined up.

 

 

In a world where scientific literacy is lacking, the online platform Zooniverse is doing what it can to change that. Encouraging “people-powered research,” Zooniverse is the world’s largest online platform connecting researchers with citizen scientists. It was born from a collaboration between Adler Planetarium, the University of Oxford in England, and the University of Minnesota.

It exists to help scientist analyse their data leveraging the power of crowdsourcing while engaging people of all ages in the process of scientific discovery. 

Chris Lintott, professor of astrophysics at the University of Oxford, was at the forefront of the Zooniverse’s development. It began in 2007 when Lintott and his colleagues were tasked with classifying millions of images of galaxies photographed by the Sloan Digital Survey telescope—a formidable undertaking.

“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.”

After a brief discussion on BBC radio about what would become the Galaxy Zoo project, Lintott and his colleagues found they had volunteers classifying 70,000 galaxies per hour.

 

“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.”

 

“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. Zooniverse now has over 1.8 million registered users worldwide.

Most of the projects are appropriate for any age according to Laura Trouille, vice president of citizen science at the Adler.

“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.”

The projects available for participation on Zooniverse don’t just deal with space. For example, Chimp&See affords users the opportunity to watch and classify species and behaviours of chimpanzees. Volunteers contributing to Chimp&See have aided the Pan African Program: The Cultured Chimpanzee (PanAf) in determining diversity in chimpanzee behaviour and culture.

Another is the Fossil Atmospheres project, a Smithsonian Institution citizen science project from the National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Centre. Researchers there are studying Ginko trees and fossils to better comprehend millions of years of plant evolution and climate change. Trained volunteers using Zooniverse are giving them a hand counting stoma, which are holes on a leaf’s surface where carbon dioxide passes through. The number of holes gives scientists an idea as to how the plants adapted to changing levels of carbon dioxide.

While many of the projects are visual, some require volunteers to lend an ear. Manatee Chat needs citizen scientists who can train their ear to decipher manatee vocalisations. Researchers hope to learn what calls the marine mammals make and when. With enough practice, volunteers might even be able to recognise the distinct calls of individual animals.

The Zooniverse is so popular now that new projects are being released at the rate of about one per week. 

“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.”

 

 

 

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