Zooniverse asynchronous contributions

Projects hosted on Zooniverse simplify specific components of a scientific study and crowd source data processing, observations, or digitization (among other tasks). In many scientific fields, like astronomy, the limiting factor is not the availability of data but the limited processing power of trained scientists (either due to time or funding constraints). The level of analysis and training for each stage of a study or experiment are not the same. For example, framing research questions, structuring an experiment, or understanding scientific background and academic context may require higher educational training. However, raw observational data processing like classifying galaxies taken from telescopes, charting the shape of hurricanes using satellite images, or analyzing recordings of bat calls, requires very little training but requires a great amount of time and attention to detail.

Citizen science projects, like those hosted on Zooniverse which span many scientific disciplines, are hosted on a platform that intentionally has a very low barrier to entry. This means that very little skill, pre-requisite knowledge, or time commitment is necessary to contribute to individual projects. Introductions or primers to the task being crowd-sourced are featured at the beginning of an observation module (usually for one specific project) and citizen scientists learn to do a task within minutes. A tutorial like this runs volunteers through common encounters, and then is available for assistance or frequently asked questions at any time. Creating these platforms for data collection from the volunteer citizen scientists requires much of the financial and personnel commitment from Zooniverse employees stationed at universities (see funding section to understand who these employees work for and how they are funded).

Joining is designed to be easy thanks to well-designed platforms like those on Zooniverse projects. Volunteers mostly use forums to discuss trends seen (which resulted in the a discovery of a new galaxy on Zoo Galaxy), ask questions to other citizen scientists or the scientific team, or post cool observations seen. Being a citizen scientist appears to be seen as more of an identity than becoming a member of a community like other open projects.

Contributions from citizen scientist volunteers are added asynchronously. Zooniverse specifies to research partners (who host projects) that data validation activities or analysis should be largely taken care of by the scientific research team instead of the citizen scientists. Data verification (such as observations made by volunteers) is built into the system platform by allowing several people to classify the same galaxy (or other task on a project) and if all contributors agree, then the observation is taken by the scientific team. If there are conflicts in responses given, it is up to the scientific team to conduct further analysis on the image instead of burdening the citizen scientists with this task. This way, the citizen scientists do not need to commit extra time validating the same image, or dealing with discrepancies for a poor quality picture or anomaly.

Since contributions can be made at any time, some projects may be completed within a short time span or may take a long amount of time. This variance is inherent with the decision to crowd-source a research project. The notion of “free loaders” does not really apply since it does not matter if a single person commits 5 observations or 500, so long as the project gets enough participants to move the project forward. Currently, there are no studies of if “productive bursts” occur on certain projects or how and what influences impact productivity on some projects.

What causes differences in observation rates on Zooniverse projects and continued public interest in certain projects over others is a question currently posed by the Zooniverse organizers. I will be working with forum data from several projects to understand if the involvement of the scientific team (active communication on forum question boards) with the citizen scientists influences volunteer commits to a project. This research project will likely continue after the completion of this course.