Zooniverse: providing authentic science-driven projects to facilitate science learning
In order to make the demonstrators accessible to citizens, REINFORCE will be needing a platform on top of which it will build its infrastructure and engage with its community. Relying on an existing one has the advantage of working with proven, scalable software, while also allowing the project to have an impact beyond its initial stages. REINFORCE has the University of Oxford in its consortium, which is the lead institution within Zooniverse.
Zooniverse is known as the world’s largest platform for online citizen science. It was developed in 2010 following the paradigm of Galaxy Zoo, one of the first projects where citizens were asked to participate in data analysis by classifying galaxies’ images, with the idea to transfer the lessons learnt to other scientific domains. Nowadays, more than 1,900,000 users have registered and produced 400,000,000+ classifications in more than 200 online citizen science projects with subjects ranging from arts and literature to Physics and Astronomy.
One of the aspects that makes Zooniverse so inclusive is that it uses a project builder tool allowing researchers across Europe and beyond to build and run their own projects without requiring software development expertise. Another key feature is that the platform is powered with the Panoptes software, which allows participants to focus on skills development, giving them the chance to play a full role in scientific exploration.
Another aspect that is worth being highlighted is that, because of the uniquely shared nature of this open source platform, any tools built for one project are immediately available to a large audience of research groups and communities they work with. This means that REINFORCE will be able to make use of the existing network of Zooniverse contacts: new projects built with the platform may be promoted to the large mailing list of Zooniverse volunteers, and the more than 200 research groups who make use of the platform will be an audience for the best practice materials that are produced.
The research carried out on the impact of Zooniverse indicates that public engagement and scientific impact are highly correlated and thus that “the best way to use citizen science projects to provide an environment that facilitates science learning is to provide an authentic science-driven project” (Masters et al, 2016). Experience from Zooniverse provides further insight and sets the stage for an evolution in online citizen science, posing the questions of “scientific efficiency versus social inclusivity” and indicating that “researchers should consider the extent to which they can and should facilitate the accessibility of their project to undeserved online communities, through the implementation of inclusive design approaches” (Spiers et al, 2018).
We spoke to Grant Miller, Project Manager of the Zooniverse, who has helped to build, launch, and run over 200 citizen science projects in the last six years and can, therefore, boast a good understanding of how to build an engaging, efficient citizen science project, how to get a diverse crowd of volunteers involved in it, and how to capture the desires and motivations of a wide demographic of volunteers.
He thinks that “bridging the gap between science and society leads to multiple wins”, for example it can get more science done with the help of members of the public; it provides another route into science for people who did not pursue, or were unable to pursue, the fields of study professionally; it is a great source of education for people who are interested in the topics; and it allows closer collaboration between professional scientists and members of the public, helping foster trust between both groups.
Grant Miller claims that science is for everyone and that, through citizen science projects, anyone can be part of scientific collaboration, making research possible.
Masters, K., Oh, E. Y., Cox, J., Simmons, B., Lintott, C., Graham, G., Greenhill, A. & Holmes, K. “Science learning via participation in online citizen science”, Journal of Science Communication 15(03)(2016)A07
Spiers, H., Swanson, A., Fortson, L., Simmons, B., Trouille, L., Blickhan, S., and Lintott, C., “Everyone counts? Design considerations in online citizen science”, Journal of Science Communication 18(01)(2019)A04