What in the name of science is going on here!?

4 Feb

The folks at zooniverse.org have been keeping busy. Actually, they’ve been busy keeping a lot of other people busy, as well: Since the 2009 launch of Galaxy Zoo, nearly 800,000 citizen scientists have participated in a wide range of projects classifying life forms on the ocean floor or the Serengeti, identifying features on the surface of Mars or the moon, transcribing historic weather conditions at sea or interpreting activity in the far reaches of space. The Citizen Science Alliance (CSA) is an Oxford University-based partnership of museums and universities woking with other civic, scientific and academic institutions on a series of science (and humanities) projects using the labor of the virtual crowd to process massive amounts of data in a variety of fields.[1]

I had the chance to speak with Oxford astronomer and Zooniverse team leader Chris Lintott during a session on crowdsourcing at the AHA2012 THATCamp in Chicago. According to Lintott, the scientists, archivists, developers and humanists involved with these projects have had success for a few reasons:[2]

The tasks and the training are not overly simple. In order to get started with transcription, annotation or classification, participants have to familiarize themselves with the format of the data and the interface for data entry. It may be slow going at first, but once users get the hang of it, they have made a modest investment of time and attention in completing the tutorials and submitting their first entries. Potential volunteers unwilling to spend the time it takes to figure out how the system works wash out in that first phase, according to Lintott.

While there are some symbolic rewards for participation, including user profile pages with ratings or rankings, the organization emphasizes the importance of volunteer work as a contribution to science. In the case of Old Weather, transcribed ship log-book data from the First World War is being used by climate scientists interested in improving our understanding of current and future climate conditions by reconstructing models of weather in the past. Another positive feature of the Zooniverse…universe is its excellent online forum and blog spaces. Citizen scientists do this work because they find it interesting, and the site’s designers built in plenty of opportunities for users to talk.[3]

Not only does the CSA site explain how the data will be used, but they also make most of the data available to the public.Simon Tokumine, an environmental and computer scientist not directly connected to the CSA, developed this CartoDB map using the data from the first phase of the Old Weather project for publication in the Guardian. Gordon Smith, a team member at Old Weather is a retired engineer and author whose site Naval-History.net, a home for naval history enthusiasts on the web since the 1990s, continues to grow in partnership with the Old Weather site.[4]

One of the big concerns scholars voice with regard to crowdsourced transcription is that the results may be incorrect or unreliable. The Zooniverse model relies on multiple transcriptions to improve accuracy and to more efficiently identify errors that may require the attention of experts in the field. In order to construct useful models or prepare scholarship for publication, scientists need their data to be accurate, to be sure. At the same time, they need to format and organize the data according to the structure of their databases. Digital humanists also require accurate, organized and clearly formatted data in order to translate their scholarship for the web.

With the Ancient Lives project, the CSA has expanded its portfolio to include more typically humanities-focused projects, but I think the real transformative potential of the Zooniverse projects for public historians working in the digital domain has to do chiefly with: a) the precise and planned nature of the data collection activity, b) the establishment and maintenance of a healthy user community with opportunities for interaction between volunteer and professional participants throughout the process, and c) a consciously hybrid approach to rewards based on some form of recognition of users’ contributions on the one hand, and celebration of civic and scholarly outcomes of the project on the other.[5]


[1] “Zooniverse – Real Science Online.” Accessed February 4, 2013. https://www.zooniverse.org/;  “Galaxy Zoo.” Accessed February 4, 2013. http://www.galaxyzoo.org/; “Zooniverse – Science Projects.” Accessed February 4, 2013. https://www.zooniverse.org/projects;  “Ancient Lives | Help Us to Transcribe Papyri.” Accessed February 4, 2013. http://ancientlives.org/.

[2] French, Amanda. “About.” THATCamp American Historical Association 2012, October 19, 2011. http://aha2012.thatcamp.org/about/.

[3] “Old Weather – About.” Accessed February 4, 2013. http://www.oldweather.org/about; “Zooniverse Blog” Zooniverse. Accessed February 4, 2013. http://blog.zooniverse.org/.

[4] The Old Weather site provides a particularly good example of videos addressing the question: “Why Scientists Need You.” “Old Weather – Why Scientists Need You.” Accessed February 4, 2013. http://www.oldweather.org/why_scientists_need_you; “Britain’s Royal Navy in the First World War – Animated | News | Guardian.co.uk.” Accessed February 4, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/interactive/2012/oct/01/first-world-war-royal-navy-ships-mapped; “Royal Navy and Naval History.Net.” Accessed February 4, 2013. http://naval-history.net/index.htm; “Old Weather Team.” Accessed February 4, 2013. http://www.oldweather.org/team.

[5] “Ancient Lives | Help Us to Transcribe Papyri.” Accessed February 4, 2013. http://ancientlives.org/; Thanks to Callie McCune for calling my attention to Trevor Owens’ “The Key Questions of Cultural Heritage Crowdsourcing Projects | Trevor Owens.” Accessed February 4, 2013. http://www.trevorowens.org/2012/07/the-key-questions-of-cultural-heritage-crowdsourcing-projects/ in her post on this site: “What Happens When the Public Transcribes? The New York Public Library and What’s on the Menu?” Digital History. Accessed February 4, 2013. http://digitalpublichistory.wordpress.com/2013/02/02/what-happens-when-the-public-transcribes-the-new-york-public-library-and-whats-on-the-menu/.

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