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2nd Zooniverse Project Workshop Part 2


Image credit: David Miller Photographer: Katy Maloney

Today we have Part 2 of  a two-part series from Katy Maloney who attended the 2nd Zooniverse Project Workshop hosted in Chicago at the Adler Planetarium (US Zooniverse HQ) earlier this week.  Katy is a full time sociology student at University of Quebec in Montreal, with a certificate in religious studies.  Her main research interests are STS, citizen science communities, man/nature relationships and ontologies. She’s also a part-time Planet Hunter(ess).

The first day of the workshop was a happy surprise. As a social science student, I was beyond thrilled to finally catch a glimpse of this “data” gathered on Zooites, and as a Planet Hunter(ess), proud that our Zoo was doing so good and consistently appeared in the top tiers. Not only are we one of the most popular Zooniverse project, our zooites also spend more time per visit on the website. The second day of conferences started with Robert Simpson, web developer for Zooniverse and PI of Milky Way Project and involved in many others. I won’t go into every morning presentation in as much detail as with the first blog, since those morning talks will be available on video, and note taking was a bit harder on the second day…! (It was “lighting optional” in the Johnson Star Theater that morning, plus I have to admit there might’ve been some slacking involved.. I consulted with Jules, and she too decided to just sit back and enjoy that one!) Basically, Robert presented the lifecycle of a Zooniverse project, from A to Z(oo), somewhat debunking the scientific method (or more like deconstructing it) along the way! More volunteer metrics and stats were thrown in (see Jules’ blog for a Hertzsprung–Russell diagram of the Zooniverse).

Rob’s talk was followed by four case studies: Galaxy Zoo 2, Old Weather, The Andromeda Project and Snapshot Serengeti. Along the way, we’ve learned: from Kyle Willet about the Galaxy Zoo 2 catalog and interface, as well as some user classification quirks and what they learned from them; from Philip Brohan about the history of the Old Weather project, which deals in historical weather data extracted from old ship logs; about the amazingly quick processing of The Andromeda Project by volunteers in just a few weeks (and Cliff Johnson’s Christmastime gift of data reduction, achieved just as quickly and leading to a presentation in January at the American Astronomical Society Meeting: the project was launched in December!); and last but not least, Margaret Kosmala came to show us what Snapshot Serengeti was all about, demonstrating once and for all the sheer attractive power of cute animal pictures on the internet! Two of those projects (Snapshot and Andromeda) were so popular that they’re actually all out of data for now! I don’t see this happening to PH anytime soon, seeing how many quarters we skipped in order to stay up to date with the latest releases! Snapshot Serengeti will be getting new data shortly (warning: it’s addictive!), as of the workshop they’d received the latest hard drives from Tanzania. In the meantime, you can still go on a pointless safari: the data is still available, for people’s “ohhh”s and “ahhh”s only.


Image credit: Katy Maloney

Next up was David Miller, who used to design for the Zooniverse and now holds a position as the Adler’s Visual Designer. His talk was mainly focused on how important good design is – both for the science and for the volunteer’s enjoyment, citing Apple as an obvious choice for people with a good design aesthetic (that shameless propaganda really hurt my Android’s feelings for a second there… :P). Laura Whyte then gave a quick pep talk about the educational vocation of the Zooniverse, and about her experience on ZooTeach. She talked about their experience with school children and teachers, as they went into schools with Galaxy Zoo and Seafloor Explorer. They’re also working on the Planet Hunters for ZooTeach, which I’m really excited about! I attended an un-conference session on this topic later, so I’ll skip right ahead to lunchtime, when I had the opportunity to attend a Zooniverse Advisory Board Meeting, along with Janet and Jules. (After geting completely lost inside the Planetarium…!) Remember when I said in my last blog that you guys were the stars of this workshop?! Well this was the consecration, if you will: zooites, you are the top priority in 2013. Communities in the Zoos are being probed (in a totally non-invasive way, trust: no Zooites were harmed during the probing of those communities!) and as I also mentioned in previous posts, various research groups are assessing what it means to do citizen science, from the citizen’s perspective, and from statistics and survey results. We all know what the science teams get out of a Zoo project, but what motivates volunteers to spend their free time volunteering on a science project?! What makes a successful community/project?

We’ve learned that perhaps the average zooite was already somewhat of a science nerd to begin with, so are we really contributing to science literacy, or are we preaching to the already converted? Truth is, although our friend David Smith, the Average Zooite, is a white male in a technical job, there is a wide variety of reasons why one chooses citizen science as a hobby. I started a thread a while ago on Talk, asking people what their motivation was for hunting planets: while the overwhelming majority said their motivation was… hunting/discovering planets (who could’ve seen that one coming, eh!), others came up with creative and surprising reasons to explain their scientific pastimes: apparently, it looks good to say you’re a citizen scientist in your free time on your resume or in a job interview (take notes, zooites! I know I did.). Another user, who had a disability in the real world, turned his “illness” into an ability on the Zooniverse. I’m bringing this up because in a way, we can come to a very simple conclusion based on this: zooites all have different abilities, different reasons that motivates them, different backgrounds and different perspectives, and this richness transfers to the communities that organically assemble within the Zooniverse. And in order to grow the best environment for those serendipitous finds to happen, we have to make sure to foster curiosity within the communities, and then just keep the communication channels open: in case….

The lunch meeting lasted a bit longer than the lunchtime we had planned, so we all sorta rushed to the next un-conferences. Jules and Janet went to a session on machine-learning (or algorithm-training), and I headed for a session on communication and translating the Zooniverse. The first half, which I missed half of, was about setting up a communication tool for different Zooniverse teams to communicate amongst themselves, cross-projects: it was pretty straight forward and by the time that part was over, a type of mailing list was created for them already, live on the spot. The second half was what drew me in: being a native french speaker, I thought it would be great to have classification interfaces and instructions in other languages than English. Living in a french-speaking province, where teaching is done in french, and most public services (like say, the planetarium!) are required at least bilingual, I thought it was a shame that only anglo kids could benefit from a Planet Hunters education! A blog has since been posted to describe the steps to translate an interface, so with reserves, I might’ve found a cool side project! I would be more than thrilled to know that the local schools, planetarium and cosmodome could all have access to quality citizen science projects as well!

This ties in perfectly with the last un-conference I attended: the aptly named “education is awesome!” session! Education was deemed so awesome, in fact, that we were entrusted with a street-level board room with exterior view, bathing in them photons for a discussion before diving back into the depths of the Adler for the conclusion! I had the honor to recap the discussion that we had, which in short, was about finding practical ways to create outreach opportunities adapted to different age groups and settings. We felt that college students were perhaps less of a focus, since they were already in that science-attentive category for the most part, or in formal science training. Lunch conferences on citizen science projects were evoked, but not discussed a whole lot. Summer camps and day camps, however, often need rainy day activities, so why not get kids into a citizen science project!? We even discussed a possible collaboration with the Scouts to have a Citizen Science badge. The possibility of charging a small fee to send ready-made “citizen science kits” was also discussed briefly, to accommodate busy teachers or those who don’t have access to sufficient technological resources (laminating machines, big prints). Having a Talk forum for ZooTeach was brought forward, so that teachers could communicate and exchange tips and tricks (while of course providing feedback!). Teenagers are a special breed, and don’t necessarily react to “science” the way children do: perhaps insisting more on the “sub-culture” aspect of citizen science would be enough to get their attention and slip into science without hurt. Finally, two lovely ladies from the California Institute of Science talked about an project in the building, called the National Citizen Science Association, which seem very enthusiastic about Zooniverse projects and would be a potential great ally for outreach.

After the day was over, those who decided to stay for the public event had dinner at Zoo HQ, and then went back one last time in the Johnson Star Theater for 3 conferences: one by Brooke Simmons on Black Holes and Hanny’s Voorwerps, another by Philip Brohan on Old Weather, which had really interesting stories and interactive maps, and another talk by Margaret Kosmala, which introduced the visitors to the Serengeti plains and the camera traps that her colleague Ali Swanson placed in a grid all over the plains, to study predators and how they share the space with other predators. (Apparently, shipping hard drives from Tanzania is no fun!)


Image credit: Katy Maloney

So what else for Planet Hunters?  There’s a version 2.0 in the works (That’s all I know about it anyways, not much of a scoop…!) I strongly suggest you watch the videos from the conferences as soon as they’re online, most of the general Zooniverse talks had Planet Hunters stats and facts. You may also get to witness the precise moment that kianjin stopped classifying to dedicate all his time on Talk (no really, the very moment, clean cut, no looking back)! You may also get to see an epic Street Fighter-style classification battle between Chris Lintott and Arfon Smith: it was ridiculously long for no apparent reason, which made it even funnier, in my sense! These two days spent at the workshop were a great learning experience, and a chance to meet many passionate people. It’s really cool that it was filmed, so that way all zooites can attend, as I know many were disappointed about the closed nature of the event. All in all it was a really great few days, and I’m looking forward to seeing what science and new projects come out of the Zooniverse in the future.

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