Zooniverse Project Builder Is Like WordPress For Plug-and-Play Citizen Science

Since the citizen science project Galaxy Zoo launched in 2007, more than 1.4 million individuals globally have been drawn in to one Zooniverse project or another: helping scientists classify distant galaxies, identify whales by the patterns on their tales, characterize bat calls, and transcribe historical documents, to name just a few of their contributions. The projects hosted on Zooniverse have resulted in more than 100 peer-reviewed scientific articles, including 14 meta-studies about citizen science itself, and the platform has been widely praised for democratizing science and building community online. Last year, Zooniverse launched a project builder that allows anyone in the world to create a citizen science project in just minutes, making the platform even more open and accessible to all.

The project builder has significantly increased Zooniverse’s capacity to do citizen science. From 2007 until the launch of the project builder in 2015, Zooniverse put out 41 projects, roughly five each year. Since releasing the project builder, the Zooniverse community has created and launched 15 projects, in addition to five projects created by Zooniverse researchers, for a total of 20 in only one year. Grant Miller, who runs special projects and communications for Zooniverse, says that there are 11 more working their way through the pipeline right now.

Before the project builder went online, proposals had to go through the Zooniverse administrators, causing a bottleneck and an unnecessarily high rejection rate. Of the 50 to 100 proposals submitted each year, Zooniverse could only select a small fraction to work with. After projects were chosen, web developers were brought in to build a project website, which then had to be alpha tested. Miller told Civicist that the time between acceptance and launch could be as long as a year.

In 2013, Zooniverse received a Google Impact Award to begin working on the project builder. Like Facebook or WordPress, the platform is plug-and-play, and anyone with basic computer know-how and a large dataset on hand can get a project ready to go in an hour or less.

The Zooniverse team still take the first look, but instead of deciding which projects are worthy of their attention, time, and resources, as before, they simply verify that it is a serious project, that it is sound, and that it could stand up to peer review. If they have any questions that the scientists or academics on the team can’t answer, Zooniverse will reach out to an expert in the field. After receiving initial approval, the project is submitted to a self-selected group of 30,000 Zooniverse volunteers who have noted in their profiles that they are interested in reviewing projects in beta.

Miller told Civicist that 10 percent of that group will open the email and look at the project, and 100 or so will fill out the feedback form. The individual or team behind the project is asked to respond to the community response, the Zooniverse team takes one final look, and the project is ready to launch.

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Not everyone wants to put their project out to the entire Zooniverse base of 1.4 million citizen scientists. Some researchers have adopted the platform for projects on a smaller scale that can be completed with five or ten research assistants in just a few weeks. Miller said there are a couple hundred of these projects in existence, although it’s hard to tell how many are in active use and how many are prototypes.

Chris Lintott, an astronomer and the founder of Galaxy Zoo and Zooniverse, told Civicist that the people submitting projects on the project builder are mostly professional scientists, often relatively junior in their field—either newly-tenured professors or post-doctorates. Lintott compares the platform to an emergency service.

“Dial 1-800-Zooniverse if you have too many images to look at,” he joked.

He said that since Galaxy Zoo launched in 2007 that Zooniverse has been a “series of experiments on what works and what doesn’t” in citizen science, so they can give fairly specific advice to researchers hoping to launch projects on the platform.

The Zooniverse team originally hypothesized, for example, that projects with pretty pictures would be more popular, but after a while they saw no correlation. “It links to the idea that people are doing this because they’re in it for the research,” said Lintott. The exception to this rule, he added, would be projects about animals, which are often some of the most popular.

Lintott and Miller point to Fossil Finder, which helps archaeologists find and classify fossils in northern Kenya, and Snapshots at Sea, a survey of whales based on tourist snapshots, as exemplary examples of projects that have been built on the new platform.

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“There’s one really cool project called Monopole Quest,” said Miller. The project involves classifying particle signatures as part of the search for the magnetic monopole hypothesized by Paul Dirac. “I didn’t even find out about until I went to a meeting at the Royal Society, a kind of event, and there was this group of school kids showing it off. And I was like, I recognize that design.”

“We had no idea because they didn’t need us anymore,” said Miller. “It’s kind of weird, that we’ve entered this universe where we’re not involved in all the projects anymore. Which is kind of where we wanted to go but is also kind of scary.”

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