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The Zooniverse

Where you can volunteer on a vast array of scientific projects

Created date

May 10th, 2016
Children in the Czech Republic gather around to explore “Chimp & See,” one of the many ongoing Zooniverse projects.

Children in the Czech Republic gather around to explore “Chimp & See,” one of the many ongoing Zooniverse projects.

One recent rainy afternoon, I helped researchers identify animal behaviors in the African jungle. I also analyzed slides of breast cancer cells, and I transcribed a recipe from Shakespeare’s time. I did all of this without ever leaving home, without any prior knowledge of the scientific studies I was contributing to, and without any training beyond simple directions. How? Through an amazing website called Zooniverse.

Whether you are a history buff, an environmentalist, or a science aficionado, Zooniverse almost certainly has an ongoing project or two that will interest you. It’s one thing to watch documentaries on television or read articles in magazines. It’s quite another to actively participate in advancing those kinds of explorations. And the fact that it can be done from home makes the concept of Zooniverse, the world’s largest citizen scientist website, all the more mind boggling. 

Citizen scientists

As exciting as new discoveries are, the work that contributes to those findings can be downright mundane. Many scientific studies are based on observing patterns contained in a large volume of data. This work, while vital, can be tedious and time-consuming. Computers help in this regard, but scientists have found that humans are far better at detecting certain types of patterns than computers. 

The Zooniverse website links scientists in need of human intelligence and people who want to lend their time advancing scientific research. To date, approximately 1.4 million volunteers have contributed their time and energy to a vast array of projects. 

Projects for every interest

There are currently over forty active projects on the Zooniverse website. Here’s a tiny sampling of what you will find:

Have an interest in the First World War? The British National Archives and the Imperial War Museum needs citizen historians to help with “Operation War Diary.” By transcribing over 1.5 million pages of unit war diaries, researchers hope to discover previously uncovered stories of the global conflict and have a better understanding of how the war was fought.  

Do planets fascinate you? “Planet Four Terrains” is a project that needs help reviewing images of Mars’ south pole. Volunteers help map the various terrains by studying images taken by the Context Camera aboard Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Scientists will use the locations identified by project volunteers as targets for detailed study with the HiRISE camera, the highest resolution camera ever sent to a planet.

Are you an environmentalist? “Condor Watch” needs volunteers to view photos of California condors. By identifying the tag number of condors, then observing their behavior around a feeding carcass, scientists will better understand how lead poisoning impacts the birds’ eating or social problems.

Making an impact

Every volunteer makes a vital contribution to Zooniverse projects. Occasionally, however, a citizen scientist makes a huge discovery. Take the case of “Hanny’s Voorwerp,” for example. Dutch schoolteacher and Zooniverse volunteer Hanny van Arkel discovered an immense, hot cloud of gas that had been excited by an interaction with a nearby galaxy. “When it was found, nothing like it had ever been seen, and we’ve learnt a lot about how galaxies behave by studying it,” says Chris Lintott, principal investigator at Zooniverse and professor of astrophysics at the University of Oxford in England.

Regardless of how large or small the contribution, volunteers can track the progress of Zooniverse projects. “We try and keep in touch with our volunteers via the project websites—most of the sites have blogs—and via the discussion forums,” says Lintott. “We’ll also email people when the papers describing any discoveries come out; the wheels of science turn slowly so that can take a while, but I think people get a real kick out of seeing their contributions turn into a printed article.”

It’s common for volunteers to feel inadequate or fear making a mistake. Rest assured, you won’t mess anything up. “We have several people look at each image, and that gives us confidence in our collective classifications. In most cases, we’ll also have either a small proportion of the images classified by experts or containing ‘simulated’ finds, and so we can calibrate how well the crowd is doing,” says Lintott. Mostly, though, people are pretty good at these tasks—we evolved to be good at pattern recognition, and it turns out to be a very human thing to notice the odd or unusual.”

“I think the real importance of projects like Zooniverse,” says Lintott, “is that anyone can take part. Science can be a collective endeavor, something we can all contribute a few minutes to, rather than something done by ‘boffins’ [a British term for nerds] in remote university labs.”