We’re all looking at the stars: citizen science projects at ZooCon13

Last Saturday I escaped my desk to head to the Physics department at the University of Oxford and be awed by what we’re learning about space (and more terrestrial subjects) through citizen science projects run by Zooniverse at ZooCon13. All the usual caveats about notes from events apply – in particular, assume any errors are mine and that everyone was much more intelligent and articulate than my notes make them sound. These notes are partly written for people in cultural heritage and the humanities who are interested in the design of crowdsourcing projects, and while I enjoyed the scientific presentations I am not even going to attempt to represent them!  Chris Lintott live-blogged some of the talks on the day, so check out ‘Live from ZooCon‘ for more. If you’re familiar with citizen science you may well know a lot of these examples already – and if you’re not, you can’t really go wrong by looking at Zooniverse projects.

Aprajita Verma kicked off with SpaceWarps and ‘Crowd-sourcing the Discovery of Gravitational Lenses with Citizen Scientists’. She explained the different ways gravitational lenses show up in astronomical images, and that ‘strong gravitational lensing research is traditionally very labour-intensive’ – computer algorithms generate lots of false positives, so you need people to help. SpaceWarps includes some simulated lenses (i.e. images of the sky with lenses added), mostly as a teaching tool (to provide more examples and increase familiarity with what lenses can look like) but also to make it more interesting for participants. The SpaceWarps interface lets you know when you’ve missed a (simulated, presumably) lens as well as noting lenses you’ve marked. They had 2 million image classifications in the first week, and 8500 citizen scientists have participated so far, 40% of whom have participated in ‘Talk‘, the discussion feature. As discussed in their post ‘What happens to your markers? A look inside the Space Warps Analysis Pipeline‘, they’ve analysed the results so far on ranges between astute/obtuse and pessimistic/optimistic markers – it turns out most people are astute. Each image is reviewed by ten people, so they’ve got confidence in the results.

Karen Masters talked about ‘Cosmic Evolution in the Galaxy Zoo’, taking us back to the first Galaxy Zoo project’s hopes to have 30,000 volunteers and contrasting that with subsequent peer-reviewed papers that thanked 85,000, or 160,000 or 200,000 volunteers. The project launched in 2007 (before the Zooniverse itself) to look at spiral vs elliptical galaxies and it’s all grown from there. The project has found rare objects, most famously the pea galaxies, and as further proof that the Zooniverse is doing ‘real science online’, the team have produced 36 peer reviewed paper, some with 100+ citations. At least 50 more papers have been produced by others using their data.

Phil Brohan discussed ‘New Users for Old Weather’. The Old Weather project is using data from historic ships logs to help answer the question ‘is this climate change or just weather?’. Some data was already known but there’s a ‘metaphorical fog’ from missing observations from the past. Since the BBC won’t let him put a satellite in a Tardis, they’ve been creative about finding other sources to help lift ‘the fog of ignorance’. This project has long fascinated me because it started off all about science: in Phil’s words, ‘when we started all this, I was only thinking about the weather’, but ended up being about history as well: ‘these documents are intrinsically interesting’– he learnt what else was interesting about the logs from project participants who discovered the stories of people, disasters and strange events that lay within them. The third thing the project has generated (after weather and history) is ‘a lot of experts’. One example he gave was evidence of the 1918-19 Spanish flu epidemic on board ship, which was investigated after forum posts about it. There’s still a lot to do – more logs, including possibly French and Dutch – to come, and things would ideally speed up ‘by a factor of ten’.

In Brooke Simmons’ talk on ‘Future plans for Galaxy Zoo’, she raised the eternal issue of what to call participants in crowdsourcing: ‘just call everyone collaborators’. ‘Citizen scientists’ makes a distinction between paid and unpaid scientists, as does ‘volunteers’. She wants to help people do their own science, and they’re working on making it easier than downloading and learning how to use more complicated tools. As an example, she talked about people collecting ‘galaxies with small bulges’ and analysing the differences in bulges (like a souped-up Galaxy Zoo Navigator?). She also talked about Zoo Teach, with resources for learning at all ages.

After the break we learnt about ‘The Planet 4 Invasion’, the climate and seasons of Mars from Meg Schwamb and about Solar Stormwatch in ‘Only you can save planet Earth!’ from Chris Davis, who was also presenting research from his student Kim Tucker-Wood (sp?). Who knew that solar winds could take the tail off a comet?!

Next up was Chris Lintott on ‘Planet Hunting with and without Kepler’. Science communication advice says ‘don’t show people graphs’, and since Planet Hunters is looking at graphs for fun, he thought no-one would want to do Planet Hunters. However, the response has surprised him. And ‘it turns out that stars are actually quite interesting as well’. In another example of participants going above and beyond the original scope of the project, project participants watched a talk streamed online on ‘heartbeat binaries’, and went and found 30 of them from archives, their own records and posted them on the forum.  Now a bunch of Planet Hunters are working with Kepler team to follow them up.  (As an aside, he showed a screenshot of a future journal paper – the journal couldn’t accept the idea that you could be a Planet Hunter and not be part of an academic team so they’re listed as the Department of Astronomy at Yale.)

The final speaker was Rob Simpson on ‘The Future of the Zooniverse’.  To put things in context, he said the human race spends 16 years cumulatively playing the game Angry Birds every day; people spend 2 months every day on the Zooniverse. In the past year, the human race spent 52 years on the Zooniverse’s 15 live projects (they’ve had 23 projects in total). The Andromeda project went through all their data in 22 days – other projects take longer, but still attract dedicated people.  In the Zooniverse’s immediate future are ‘tools for (citizen) scientists’ – adding the ability to do analysis in the browser, ‘because people have a habit of finding things, just by being given access to the data’. They’re also working on ‘Letters‘ – public versions of what might otherwise be detailed forum posts that can be cited, and as a form of publication, it puts them ‘in the domain’.  They’re helping people communicate with each other and embracing their ‘machine overlords’, using Galaxy Zoo as a training tool for machine learning.  As computers get more powerful, the division of work between machines and people will change, perhaps leaving the beautiful, tricky, or complex bits for humans. [Update, June 29, 2013: Rob’s posted about his talk on the Zooniverse blog, ’52 Years of Human Effort’, and corrected his original figure of 35 years to 52 years of human effort.]

At one point a speaker asked who in the room was a moderator on a Zooniverse project, and nearly everyone put their hand up. I felt a bit like giving them a round of applause because their hard work is behind the success of many projects. They’re also a lovely, friendly bunch, as I discovered in the pub afterwards.

Conversations in the pub also reminded me of the flipside of people learning so much through these projects – sometimes people lose interest in the original task as their skills and knowledge grow, and it can be tricky to find time to contribute outside of moderating.  After a comment by Chris at another event I’ve been thinking about how you might match people to crowdsourcing projects or tasks – sometimes it might be about finding something that suits their love of the topic, or that matches the complexity or type of task they’ve previously enjoyed, or finding another unusual skill to learn, or perhaps building really solid stepping stones from their current tasks to more complex ones. But it’s tricky to know what someone likes – I quite like transcribing text on sites like Trove or Notes from Nature, but I didn’t like it much on Old Weather. And my own preferences change – I didn’t think much of Ancient Lives the first time I saw it, but on another occasion I ended up getting completely absorbed in the task. Helping people find the right task and project is also a design issue for projects that have built an ‘ecosystem’ of parts that contribute to a larger programme, as discussed in ‘Using crowdsourcing to manage crowdsourcing’ in Frequently Asked Questions about crowdsourcing in cultural heritage and ‘A suite of museum metadata games?’ in Playing with Difficult Objects – Game Designs to Improve Museum Collections.

An event like ZooCon showed how much citizen science is leading the way – there are lots of useful lessons for humanities and cultural heritage crowdsourcing. If you’ve read this thinking ‘I’d love to try it for my data, but x is a problem’, try talking to someone about it – often there are computational techniques for solving similar problems, and if it’s not already solved it might be interesting enough that people want to get involved and work with you on it.

‘Engaging Visitors Through Play’ – the Museums Computer Group in Belfast

Last week I was in Belfast for the Museum Computer Group‘s Spring event, ‘Engaging Visitors Through Play’, fabulously organised by Alan Hook (Lecturer, University of Ulster) and Oonagh Murphy (MCG Committee member and PhD Researcher, University of Ulster) with support from the MCG Committee, and hosted by the University of Ulster’s Centre for Media Research.

Like other recent MCG event reports, I’m also writing as the Chair of the group, so you may think I’m biased when I say it was an excellent day with great speakers, but if I am at all biased, I promise it’s only a tiny bit! I’ve posted my talk notes at ‘Digital challenges, digital opportunities’ at MCGPlay, Belfast.

The MCG’s Spring Meeting is an opportunity to take a wider theme than our annual Museums on the Web conference (which as the name suggests, is generally about things that touch on museums on the web). This year’s topic was ‘Engaging Visitors Through Play’, with presentations on playful experiences from site-specific theatre, rapid prototyping and hack days, big budget and experimental games. The event was an opportunity to bring museum staff and researchers together with game and interaction designers, and the ‘regional showcase’ of lightning talks about projects from local practitioners further helped introduce people to the great work already going on in Northern Ireland and hopefully start some local collaborations. As Alan pointed out in his introduction, it was also a chance to think about the impact of research and start conversations between museums and academia.

The first session after my talk was ‘Play: A Northern Ireland Showcase’ and began with Lyndsey Jackson (@LyndseyJJacksonof Kabosh talking about ‘Immersive Theatre and Digital Experience’ and their site-specific theatre company. Their material is the buildings, people and stories of Northern Ireland and they work with unusual spaces – anywhere but a theatre. They’re dealing with two interesting constraints – the stories of buildings might be complicated, contested or difficult, and while they want to give audiences the chance to navigate an experience for themselves, they’re aware that ‘theatre is a game – it has rules, boundaries, you can bend them but it confuses people when you break them’. In a lovely departure from some museum experiences, they don’t try to give their audiences all the answers – sometimes they want to give people some information in a way that starts them asking questions so they have to look things up themselves if they want to know more. I wish I’d had longer in Belfast to see one of their shows or try ‘Belfast Bred‘.

Oonagh (@oonaghtweets) presented some results from her audit of the online presences of museums in Northern Ireland and the question she set out to test: that professional development hack days can help the sector. Find out more at her MW2013 paper on ‘This is Our Playground‘; but one fascinating snippet was that museum studies students are quite conservative, ‘museums have rules for a reason’, and take a while to warm to the concept of prototyping. Alan (@alan_hook) talked about MYNI photo competition, asking ‘is Northern Ireland ready for play in these spaces?’, games that work with ‘civic pride’, the realities of designing mobile experiences around 3G coverage and expensive data plans, and shared some reflections on the process, including his questions about the ethics of crowdsourcing images and the differences between academic and industry timelines.

 The next session was ‘Games: Best Practice and Innovative Approaches’. First up, Sharna Jackson (@sharnajackson), czar of Tate Kids, presented on the past, present and future of play at Tate. She pointed out that games can bring in hard-to-reach audiences, can be a gateway to engagement with deeper content, and can be a work of art in themselves. I loved her stance on web vs device-specific apps – while tablets are increasingly popular, their aim is to reach wide audiences so jumping into apps might not be right choice for limited budgets. Her lessons included: know your audience, what they expect; start playing games so you know what mechanics you like so you’ve got context for decisions and so you get what’s great about games; your mission, content and goals all influence what kinds of games it makes sense for you to make; if planning to let users generate content, you need a strategy to manage it. Be clear about what games are – respect the medium.

Danny Birchall (@dannybirchall) of the Wellcome Collection talked about ‘Truth and Fact: Museums and Public Engagement, including the High Tea evaluation‘s findings that ‘piracy is the most effective form of distribution’ so designing games to be ripped or seeded on portals can help achieve wider goals. He also talked about the differences between history and science games, as well as some of the unique hazards of working in museums with large, closely related collections – one memory game was ‘punishing you with intense sense of similarity of items in Henry Wellcome’s collection’.

The final presentation in the session was Alex Moseley on the educational potential of low budget games. His talk included a tiny taster of alternative reality gameplay and discussion of some disruptive, slightly subversive elements of ARGs you could use independently. His seven step process: identify key concepts or constraints want to get across; situate them in real activities; think of a real problem or challenge; add narrative to deepen the context; create a prototype; test it with colleagues/visitors; refine, retest and release. He also raised some challenges for museums: if players suggest something good in an ARG, it could be incorporated and effect the outcome – but this might be tricky for museums to manage with limited resources.

One interesting test that emerged from the panel discussion was whether something was ‘Belfast good’. As Oonagh said, ‘Is this good or is it ‘Belfast-good’ because if it’s Belfast-good, then not good enough’. Asking whether a project is ‘museum good’ or ‘academic good’ might be a useful test in the future… The session also lead to ‘chocolate covered broccoli‘ references overtaking ‘gamification’ as the new buzzword bingo winner.

The lightning talks covered a range of interesting projects from local organisations, in part with the idea of helping start local conversations. Some of the projects we heard about from @takebackbelfast, @stephentshaw, @designzoo and @Lancorz were really inspiring and just plain cool.  It was also refreshing to hear outsider’s perspectives on what museums do: one guy said ‘people bring their own knowledge, experiences and devices to museums – why do you need big interactive installations?’.
The day finished with a twenty minute play test of Alex Moseley’s ‘curate-a-fact’ game then we headed off to the pub for some well-deserved #drinkingaboutmuseums.

The MCG usually holds its Spring Meeting somewhere outside London, but it’s a long time since we’ve been in Belfast – it might have been a long time coming, but Belfast did themselves proud. I was really encouraged by the excellent work going on in the region and the creativity and energy of the people and projects in the room. Huge thanks to all the participants, chairs, speakers and organisers for putting together a great day!

Thanks to the university, we were able to (mostly) live stream the talks, and had people watching at their desk in Leicester or London and even from a train in New York! We also had a live tweeter @JasonAPurdy on the @cmr_ulster account plus loads of tweeters in the audience to help capture the day. Alex has also posted his thoughts on ‘Engaging Visitors Through Play’ – well worth a read.

‘Digital challenges, digital opportunities’ at MCGPlay, Belfast

These are my rough notes for my talk on ‘Digital challenges, digital opportunities’ at Museum Computer Group‘s Spring event, ‘Engaging Visitors Through Play’ (or #MCGPlay). My aim was to introduce the Museums Computer Group, discuss some of the challenges museums and their staff are facing and think about how to create opportunities from those challenges. I’ve posted my notes about the other talks at MCGPlay at ‘Engaging Visitors Through Play’ – the Museums Computer Group in Belfast.

Play testing Alex’s game at #MCGPlay

I started with some information about the MCG – our mission to connect, support and inspire people working with museum technology (whether technologists, curators, academics, directors or documentation staff) and how that informs the events we run and platforms like our old-school but effective mailing list, whose members who can between them answer almost any museumy question you can think of. As a practioner-led group of volunteers, the MCG can best fulfill its mission by acting as a platform, and with over 1000 members on our mailing list and hundreds of attendees at events, we can help people in the sector help and inspire each other in a mutually supportive space. We’ve also been involved in projects like the Semantic Web Think Tank (2006-2007), Mashed Museum hack days (2007, 2008) and LIVE!Museum (2009-2010). Apparently list discussions even inspired Culture24’s Let’s Get Real analytics project! In response to surveys with our members we’re experimenting with more regional events, and with event formats like the ‘Failure Swapshop’ we trialled early this week and #drinkingaboutmuseums after the conference. (On a personal note, reviewing our history and past events was a lovely excuse to reflect on the projects and events the MCG community has been involved in and also to marvel at how young familiar faces looked at past events).

I’d reviewed the MCG list subject lines over the past few months to get a sense of the challenges or questions that digital museum people were facing:

  • Finding good web design/SEO/evaluation/etc agencies, finding good staff
  • The emergence of ‘head of digital’ roles
  • Online collections, managing digital assets; integration with Collections Management Systems and other systems
  • Integrating Collections Management Systems and 3rd party platforms like WordPress
  • Storytelling to engage the public
  • Museum informatics: CIDOC-CRM and other linked open data topics
  • ‘Create once, publish everywhere’ – can re-usable content really work?
  • Online analytics
  • Digital 3D objects – scanning, printing
  • Measuring the impact of social media
  • MOOCs (online courses)
  • Google Cultural Institute, Google Art Project, Artsy, etc
  • 3rd party tools – PayPal, Google Apps
  • Mobile – apps, well-designed experiences
  • Digital collections in physical exhibitions spaces
  • Touch tables/large-scale interactives
  • The user experience of user-generated content / co-produced exhibitions

Based on those, discussions at various meetings and reviews from other conferences, I pulled out a few themes in museum conversations:

  • ‘Strategically digital’ – the topic of many conversations over the past few years, including MCG’s Museums on the Web 2012, which was actually partly about saying that best solution for a project might not involve technology. Being ‘strategically digital’ offers some solutions to the organisational change issues raised by the mismatch between web speed and museum speed, and it means technology decisions should always refer back to a museum’s public engagement strategy (or infrastructure plans for background ICT services).
  • Mobile – your museum’s website probably has over 20% mobile visitors, so if you’re not thinking about the quality of their experience, you may be driving away business.
  • Immersive, challenging experiences – the influence of site-specific theatre, alternative reality games and transmedia experiences, the ever-new value of storytelling…
  • High-quality services integrated across the whole museum – new terms like service design and design thinking, are taking over from the old refrain of user-centred design, and going beyond it to test how the whole organisation appears to the customer – does it feel like a seamless, pleasurable (or at least not painful) experience? Museums are exploring new(ish) ways of thinking to solve old problems. As with mobile sites, you should be designing around your audiences needs, not your internal structures and complications.
  • Audience participation and engagement – we’ll hear about games over the day, but also think about crowdsourcing, asking the audience to help with tasks or share their knowledge with you.

And a few more challenges:

  • New models of authority and expertise – museum authority is challenged not only by audiences expecting to ‘curate’ their own experience but also by younger staff or people who’ve come from other sectors and have their own ideas about digital projects.
  • Constantly changing audience expectations – if you’ve ever seen kids smoosh their hands on a screen because they expect it to zoom in response to their touch, you’ll know how hard it is to keep up with consumer technologies. Expectations about the quality of the experience and the quality of the technology are always changing based on films, consumer products and non-museum experiences.
  • ‘Doing more with less’ (and then less again)
  • Figuring out where to ask for help – it can be hard to find your way through the jargon and figure out what language to use
  • Training and personal development – job swaps or mentoring might supplement traditional training

There’ll always be new things to learn, and new challenges, so find supportive peers to learn with. The MCG community is one of the ways that people can learn from each other, but the museum sector is full of smart people who are generous with their time and knowledge. Run a discussion group or seminar series over lunch or in the pub, even if you have to rope in other local organisations to make it happen, join in mailing lists, find blogs to follow, look for bursaries to get to events. The international Museums and the Web past papers are an amazing resource, and Twitter hashtags can be another good place to ask for help (check out Dana Allen-Greil’s ‘Glossary of Museum-Related Hashtags‘ for US-based pointers).

I finished by saying that despite all the frustrations, it’s an amazing time to work in or study the sector, so enjoy it! We shouldn’t limit ourselves to engaging audiences in play when we could be engaging ourselves in play.

Museums Computer Group: connect, support, inspire me