Making "Citizen Science" compelling (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Sat, 06 Feb 2010

Making "Citizen Science" compelling

I had the opportunity to participate in a focus group on NASA's new "citizen science" project, called Moon Zoo, with a bunch of other fellow lunatics, amateur astronomers and lunar enthusiasts.

Moon Zoo sounds really interesting. Ordinary people will analyze high-resolution photos of the lunar surface: find out how many boulders and craters are there. I hope it will also include more details like crater type and size, rilles and so forth, though that wasn't mentioned. These are all tasks that are easy for a human and hard for a computer: perfect for crowdsourcing. Think Galaxy Zoo for the moon. The resulting data will be used for planning future lunar missions as well as for general lunar science.

It sounds like a great project and I'm excited about it. But I'm not going to write about Moon Zoo today -- it doesn't exist yet (current estimate is mid-March), though there is a preliminary PDF. Instead, I want to talk about some of the great ideas that came out of the focus group.

The primary question: How do we get people -- both amateur astronomers and the general public, people of all ages -- interested in contributing to a citizen science project like Moon Zoo?

Here are some of the key ideas:

Make the data public

This was the most important point, echoed by a lot of participants. Some people felt that many of the existing "citizen science" projects project the attitude "We want something from you, but we're not going to give you anything in return." If you use crowdsourcing to create a dataset, make it available to the crowd.

Opening the data has a lot of advantages:

Projects like Wikipedia and Open Street Map, as well as Linux and the rest of the open source movement, show how much an open data model can inspire contributions.

Give credit to individuals and teams

People cited the example of SETI@Home, where teams of contributors can compete to see who's contributed the most. Show rankings for both individuals and groups, so they can track their progress and maybe get a bit competitive with other groups. Highlight groups and individuals who contribute a lot -- maybe even make it a formal competition and offer inexpensive prizes like T-shirts or mugs.

A teenaged panel member had the great suggestion of making buttons that said "I'm a Moon Zookeeper." Little rewards like that don't cost much but can really motivate people.

Offer an offline version

They wanted to hear ideas for publicizing Moon Zoo to groups like our local astronomy clubs.

I mentioned that I've often wanted to spread the word about Galaxy Zoo, but it's entirely a web-based application and when I give talks to clubs or school groups, web access is never an option. (Ironically, the person leading the focus group had planned to demonstrate Galaxy Zoo to us but couldn't get connected to the wi-fi at the Lawrence Hall of Science.)

Projects are so much easier to evangelize if you can download an offline demo.

And not just a demo, either. There should be a way to download a real version, including a small data set. Imagine if you could grab a Moon Zoo pack and do a little classifying whenever you got a few spare minutes -- on the airplane or train, or in a hotel room while traveling.

Important note: this does not mean you should write a separate Windows app for people to download. Keep it HTML, Javascript and cross platform so everyone can run it. Then let people download a local copy of the same web app they run on your site.

Make sure it works on phones and game consoles

Lots of people use smartphones more than they use a desktop computer these days. Make sure the app runs on all the popular smartphones. And lots of kids have access to handheld web-enabled game consoles: you can reach a whole new set of kids by supporting these platforms.

Offer levels of accomplishment, like a game

Lots of people are competitive by nature, and like to feel they're getting better at what they're doing. Play to that: let users advance as they get more experienced, and give them the option of doing harder projects. "I'm up to level 7 in Moon Zoo!"

Use social networking

Facebook. Twitter. Nuff said.

Don't keep results a secret

Quite a few scientific publications have arisen out of Galaxy Zoo -- yet although most of us were familiar with Galaxy Zoo, few of us knew that. Why so secretive? They should be trumpeting achievements like that.

How many times have you volunteered for a survey or study, then wondered for years afterward how the results came out? Researchers never contact the volunteers when the paper is finally published. It's frustrating and demotivating; it makes you not want to volunteer again. Lots of us sign up because we're curious about the science -- but that means we're also curious about the results.

With citizen science projects, this is particularly easy. Set up a mailing list or forum (or both) to discuss results and announce when papers are published. Set up a Twitter account and a Facebook group to announce new papers to anyone who wants to follow. This is the age of Web 2.0, folks -- there's no excuse for not communicating.

I don't know if NASA will listen to our ideas. But I hope they do. Moon Zoo promises to be a terrific project ... and the more of these principles they follow, the more dedicated volunteers they'll get and that will make the project even better.

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[ 20:25 Feb 06, 2010    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]

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