In December, three of our YSJournal Team Members, Iman Mouloudi, Cormac Larkin and Michael Hofmann, had the fantastic opportunity to visit the Zooniverse centre in Oxford.
Zooniverse is a start-up company specialising in ‘Citizen Science’. They provide people around the world with the opportunity to be at the forefront of developing research in science. By allowing the general public to help to classify the photos, covering everything from the Antarctic to Mars, this allows researchers to create and publish real research based on the gathered data. Kevin Schawinski, an astronomer conducting research on blue elliptical galaxies had divided his photographic data into two categories: spirals and ellipticals. In the space of a couple of days, he had sorted a monumental 50,000 photographs into these two divisions. Here the Zooniverse was born; a space that allowed enthusiasts from around the world to participate in real research, regardless of their scientific background.
The team members travelled to Oxford to represent Young Scientists Journal and also to find out a bit more on how Zooniverse currently communicate with the public, and what we can do to communicate better and more efficiently. We know that in general, members of the public are interested in science, at least to a certain extent, but what we were keen on exploring is how companies are actively using this interest and passion at the core of academic science. Since this is usually made up of an exclusive community, classifying photographs with Zooniverse allows people to become engaged and connected with real academic science that they may not otherwise have the opportunity to do.
However, an interest in science isn’t always why the volunteers at Zooniverse are keen to be involved with the project. Behind the research, there is also a thriving community of almost a million volunteers who have dedicated their time to classifying everything from sea worms to the shapes of galaxies and more. Discoveries in science are often used as ‘head-line grabbers’, though the ‘actual-science’ often diluted enough to be explained to the general population. However, the difference that a company such as Zooniverse makes is allowing ordinary members of the public to engage with real, and relevant science. These efforts have led to incredible discoveries of their own, such as Hanny’s Voorwerp. The development of an entirely new galaxy shape came during the ‘Galaxy Zoo’ project.
The discovery made by an amateur, came after research astronomers armed the Zooniverse community with a simple guide to classifying galaxy shapes. In fact, while using this guide, one of the members then went on to discover her shape after being unable to classify the shape of a galaxy in one of the photographs she was given to categorise. In this way, Zooniverse lives up to the name ‘people-powered research’. It is the largest citizen science project of its kind, and the most successful. However, notably, it is not the first. The National Audubon Society founded some 111 years ago, used the idea of ‘citizen science’ in a similar way, dedicated to the conservation of birds. The aim of the Zooniverse’s various projects is to utilise the general public’s desire and interest in science as a way to participating in real scientific research and projects that have covered everything from classifying bat species to the varying terrains of Mars. Since its 2009 launch, active volunteers of the Zooniverse community have rocketed to over a million. The data gathered from their active participation has led to the publication of over 70 scientific papers.
“What I took away from the trip is the fierce belief that the general public does have a largely untapped passion for science. By thinking creatively, we can open doors to ‘Science Communication’ just by changing the way we reflect on those at the foreground of academic science. No matter our backgrounds it is possible to engage and participate in science at all levels, and I firmly believe that some of the thinking at Zooniverse can be implemented in the Young Scientists Journal to further the idea of ‘Citizen Science’.” – Iman Mouloudi