Zooniverse is a (growing) repository of projects that aim to involve the general populace in data processing for a diverse range of fields (from galaxies to cyclones to bats).
Let me say, right now, that I don’t want to denigrate Zooniverse. It’s a wonderful idea and has helped to link people to the science that their taxes pay for.
But (and you might have guessed there was a ‘but’ coming), let’s not pretend that it is something that it is not. It’s not, as far as I’m concerned, “citizen science”. It is data crunching, plain and simple, and I think it could be so much more. I’ve had a go at a number of the different projects and they were entertaining for about five minutes, after which I was often left thinking “yes, but what does it mean if that galaxy is elliptical and that one is spiral?” or similar.
Zooniverse often seems to be touted (along with projects like Foldit) as a new paradigm of citizen engagement with science, where non-scientists can really “make a difference”.
The exoplanet hunting part of Zooniverse got a lot of attention last year when it was featured on Stargazing Live and Dara O’Briain and Brian Cox used a lot of very excited adjectives to describe the public response and result of finding (yes, folks!) a whole new planet, which was no doubt exaggerated for televisual effect.
This apparent success clearly meant that this year’s Stargazing Live had to have a new ‘interactive’ element. The result was Planet Four, where people can annotate and categorise orbital pictures of the martian surface, in search of ‘black fans’ that can apparently tell us a lot about what’s going on. Some of my colleagues had some… interesting things to say about the project, but I hate throwing out baseless criticism, so here’s my attempt to be a little constructive.
It was hailed on this year’s Stargazing Live as another huge success (though nothing was said other than “Well done folks, you’ve looked at an awful lots of pictures), in which the UK population had provided a massive help to Mars science. Ignoring the potential issues with the validity of the science behind the whole endeavour, what Planet Four offers is a massive stack of newly categorised HiRise images. We have thousands of these already, thousands still uncategorised, and untold thousands of other images from other Mars missions. There aren’t enough Mars scientists in the world, and the ones there are don’t have enough time, to look at all these images, so yes, the people that take part in Planet Four are performing a valuable service.
These categorised, itemised images, though, are what happens before the science starts. Looking at these images, clicking, sorting, categorising, isn’t the science. The science is in the interpretation that happens afterwards. Connecting people to the science behind their Zooniverse clicks is difficult, and requires careful thought, probably from people cleverer than I, but sometimes it can be something simple.
Planet Four is apparently aiming to map “features [that] indicate wind direction and speed”. So why not ask people to say what they think the wind direction is? Add a button to the side to add an arrow (or more than one) to the picture to show the wind direction. Better yet, let them compare two images and say which one has a stronger/faster wind. Yes, ‘scientists’ might balk and say that people can’t make these kind of inferences without all the necessary information and a background in planetary science, but it would have the potential to provide interesting results and lifts the activity from mere number crunching to people making real inference from real data.
This simple change, I feel, would elevate the whole exercise, making it real science and stopping what I think is somewhat patronising slave labour. I’m sure others could come up with better, more insightful ways of doing this, for the other Zooniverse projects as well, but let’s not lose sight of the aim of really connecting people to the actual science, not just the data collection bit at the beginning.
EDIT: I’ve open this post for comments. I’m interested to hear what you think.