Crowdsourcing to the Stars and Beyond: The Galaxy Zoo

This blog has already seen many purposes for the combined skills of many, from disaster relief to technological innovation. But is it also possible to crowdsource scientific advancement? The “Zooniverse” is a group of “citizen science projects”, hosting dozens of projects enabling volunteers to participate in scientific research. It consists of more than 1 million registered volunteers, generally referred to as ‘Zooites’. The data collected from the various projects has already led to the publication of more than 50 scientific papers!

It all started in 2007, when the first Galaxy Zoo project was launched. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey provided Chris Lintott, an astronomer at Oxford, with a dataset of a million galaxies. All these galaxies needed to be sorted according to their shape and features. This proved to be simple in terms of task, but monstrous in terms of scale for just Chris and a single graduate student. It also proved difficult to be done reliably by a computer, as computers could not detect subtle differences and similarities or things that simply looked “interesting.” Soon, they came up with the idea of having volunteers do it. The idea proved more popular than they could have imagined, and the classifications made by the volunteers turned out to be as good as they would’ve been had they been done by professional astronomers. Moreover, as many participants rate the same galaxies, the data is cross-validated on the go: the goal is to have each individual galaxy rated by 30 users.

The project is by now already in its 4th cycle, with new data provided by, among others, the Hubble telescope. The newest cycle asks a series of intuitive questions and provides pictures of the shapes it refers to; an example of the interface is shown below. The process couldn’t be more simple, but as it gets repeated by the huge amount of contributors, it provides some very powerful data, which the astronomers can then use to ask for time on telescopes to follow up on important findings.

xOther projects pursued by the Zooites include creating crater counts from moon images, classifying animals at a wildlife park in Tanzania, transcribing texts in Greek from ancient Papyri, categorizing killer whale sounds and transcribing British war diaries. This is just a sample: there are many more projects currently running.

The Galaxy Zoo and other citizen science projects provide excellent examples of an elegant way to use the spare time of hobbyists to solve academic conundrums that would take years and huge amounts of budget if done within the traditional framework of academic research. Modern day scientists are grappling with the sheer amount of information produced by new technologies; the “Zooites” have found a way to use the power of many to solve this problem.



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