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Posts Tagged ‘Citizen Science’

.Astronomy 3 – day 1

Jill Tarter sets the tone at .Astronomy 3

This morning opened with a fascinating talk by Jill Tarter, director of the Centre for SETI Research. Her message was full of perspective, some physics, an overview of Kepler (see the Kepler Orrery here) and some really interesting technical aspects of the data and challenge of data processing in real time with citizen scientists. The challenge is that of setiQuest and it will be tackled at the Google Summer of Code this year. As the numerous favourite quotes from this talk populating the #dotastro twitter stream demonstrate, it was quite a start to the day.

Next came a string of inspiring presentations.

Ed Gomez from LCOGT showed off the great Virtual Sky, presented the upcoming Star in a Box (stay tuned) and invited everyone to take part in agent exoplanet!.

LCOGT uses Linked Data

Mike Peel‘s presentation initiated a debate about the use of Wikipedia in Astronomy. His talk can be found here – and is well worth a read!

Matt Wood, our favourite Amazon Technology evangelist enthused us with his Amazon web services and, as sponsor of the conference, gave us a bunch of vouchers to use the hack day tomorrow and for the rest of the meeting.

Before lunch, Chris Lintott attempted to give a talk without mentioning the Zooniverse and almost succeeded. His talk, about why the internet is terrible, touched upon how the internet is influencing the way we think. While some agreed that social networking around interests reduced serendipity, others argued that social networks led to more serendipitous discoveries of interests. The debate goes on…

Full room for the first morning


Everyone was enthusiastically tweeting on at least two devices simultaneously and we were trying to ustream the meeting to the point of breaking the network… Sorry #dotastro followers. 90 connections were not enough for 40 odd people this morning. The issue was subsequently fixed.

After a copious lunch with a memorable series of deserts, the afternoon took off with three parallel unconference sessions.

Live coding with Processing


Twitter is another way to follow #dotastro when the afternoon sessions are not broadcast.


The ‘Citizen operated spacecraft’ session was led by Michael Johnson and covered topics such as low-cost space exploration devices, the consequences of making space exploration affordable for citizens, the ethics of bringing space within citizens’ reach, what benefits there are to citizen space exploration (outreach and education, engineering skills, contributions to science) – and a controversial debate of exploration vs science. Each of these topics being worth a blog post on its own, we are looking for volunteers from the session to share their notes with us…

In the Processing 101 session, participants learnt to start playing around with Processing, an open source visualisation language and development environment based on Java that allows to create animated interactive powerful visualisations. After going through a live coding Hello World example in the form of a growing white circle on a bright red background, everyone was let loose. An image annotation app and an image-to-audio app were developed in the session, among other cool bits of code. Hopefully the game will continue at the Hack day tomorrow afternoon.

Another session led by Norman Gray focused on Linked Open Data. The two areas of focus were – the semantic web in practice and – the machine-readable web. At the session, the question ‘What is it for?’ was addressed. The suumary is that making the web machine-readable should be easy to use but it is tedious to implement. Norman predicted that the machine-readable web will come about when people with lots of data will want to make their data available to others.

Kinect in motion

Jonathan Fay demonstrated the World Wide Telescope (WWT). He imported data from various origins and visualised them in the WWT. The WWT is now interfaced with and etc. and allows users to do much more with their own images and their own data. Tomorrow at the Hack day, we will have a demonstration of how the WWT can be used using Microsoft’s Kinect technology. Let’s go surf in outer space!

Megan Schwamb led a discussion about the future of large data-driven astronomy. Parsing, searching, doing science with big data require new methods. The debate led to a discussion on how to get more support and recognition for astroinfomatics and astrostatistics and what career paths are there for the astrosoftware engineers of today and tomorrow. There was also a discussion about the limitaions of models to compare data with and how human intervention is still crucial to discover what we don’t know is there to discover.

The last unconference session was about Gloria, a Spanish networked telescope project organised by the Montegancedo Observatory. Gloria involves the establishment of telecommunication standards for networkable telescopes such that astronomers (amateur and professional) can make their telescopes available for remote observations and how those without access to telescopes can carry out observations remotely.

All the participants are invited to share their photos and other digital memorabilia to the .Astronomy flickr group

Could citizen science projects run out of volunteers?

The Galaxy Zoo home page

It has been argued that keeping volunteers motivated to contribute is a key challenge of crowdsourced projects [1]. Some distributed projects have a built-in solution to this problem: novelty (innocentive: there are new challenges all the time), diversity (flickr attracts very diverse interest groups, each of whom contribute their expertise in tagging images) or rewards (Threadless, where the activity is always the same (design) but there is a chance of being rewarded by having a design printed and innocentive, where a reward is offered by the company proposing the challenge).

Astronomical citizen science projects have experienced a tremendous growth recently owing to the success of Galaxy Zoo. It has grown into a Zooniverse, where the back-end of Galaxy Zoo has become a platform for many more projects such as Moon Zoo, Solar stormwatch, etc. The latest is a climate project Old Weather and more projects are being built). Organisations like the Citizen Science Alliance or the Citizen Cyberscience Centre both try to facilitate the creation of more citizen science projects and stimulate the involvement of citizens in the advancement of science.

BOINC citizen science project list

What makes the success of these projects is the large number of contributors[2] but science being still outside the mainstream interests of the general population, the multiplication of citizen science projects may run the risk of distributing a limited supply of volunteers across too many projects. This is not a real problem (yet?): the number of volunteers is  growing steadily if only because internet access is increasing across the world and will for many more years, but it’s nonetheless worth keeping in mind.

How can we prevent contributor boredom?

Astronomy keeps inspiring people with discoveries capturing the public’s attention (but for how long?) like the recent potentially life-bearing planet and this is a great advantage over, e.g. climate science…

The Zooniverse recipe is a great idea: if users get ‘bored’ of one project, they can migrate to another one whose novelty refreshes the entertainment value of taking part in a citizen science project. Another possibility is boosting participation in the short-term with, e.g. specific themes (the search for green peas), or rewards. The latter is often used to motivate people to fill in commercial surveys, which is in principle what companies use to crowdsource the collection of customer information.

Boinc uses contribution statistics as incentive.

A way to keep people busy with citizen science is to develop new ways to take part, making it easier to join the game. The development of smartphone interfaces to citizen science projects is a good example. But in a world where the funding of science by public monies is increasingly under threat, iPhone applications might fall below the funding threashold in governments’ lists of priorities.

What can we do to keep people involved? I wonder if a shift in public culture and the general perception of science can sustain citizens’ dedication beyond entertainment value[3]. If so, how do we attain it?

What do you suggest? And how could we make it happen?

[1] Javanmardi S., Ganjisaffar Y., Lopes C. and Baldi, P. User Contribution and Trust in Wikipedia
[2] Lintott, C. et. al, Galaxy Zoo: morphologies derived from visual inspection of galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, MNRAS 389, 1179 (2008)
[3] Raddick et. al show in Galaxy Zoo: Exploring the Motivations of Citizen Science Volunteers that the main motivation of volunteers is ‘contributing to the progress of science’. What I am hoping to see one day is making citizens think (if not know) that their contribution matters to the bigger picture of science, just like making citizens feel that their vote counts in a democracy.