Public Participation and Stewardship of Science: Arfon Smith of Adler Planetarium and the Zooniverse

Arfon Smith, Director of Citizen Science, The Adler Planetarium

Arfon Smith, Director of Citizen Science, The Adler Planetarium

I’m excited to be able to chat with Arfon Smith, Director of Citizen Science at The Adler Planetarium & technical lead on the Zooniverse projects. Adler Planetarium is the newest member of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (and the first Planetarium to join!). Adler is somewhat unique in that it both collects, preserves and exhibits the history of astronomy and, through the Zooniverse projects, is a leader in directly engaging the public in the process of scientific discovery. Arfon has extensive experience in science (a PhD in Astrochemistry) and in software development (he worked senior software developer at The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge). Over the last four years he has been instrumental in designing and building the Zooniverse projects.

Trevor: For those unfamiliar, could you give us the quick overview of the kinds of citizen science work that the Zooniverse is involved in? What is the Zooniverse vision? What are some of your successes?

Arfon: Zooniverse is a collection of web-based citizen science projects. We focus on analysis problems where human abilities are still superior to computer methods such as recognizing an animal in a picture (snapshotserengeti.org) or saying something about the shape of a Galaxy (galaxyzoo.org). Crucially all of our projects begin with a real research problem and one that can only be solved with a significant amount of human attention. This focus on research is one of the reasons why I think we have such a dedicated community of volunteers – they’re motivated by contributing to something.

Our story started with Galaxy Zoo in 2007 and since then we’ve launched more than twenty citizen science projects under the Zooniverse umbrella. Over that time we’ve discovered new planets going around other stars (planethunters.org), found hundreds of new supernovae (supernova.galaxyzoo.org), recovered millions of weather observations (oldweather.org) and even found a new type of astronomical object – a quasar light echo (Hanny’s Voorwerpgalaxyzoo.org).

Astronomical object discovered by Dutch school teacher Hanny van Arkel while she was participating in the Galaxy Zoo project “Voorwerp and IC 2497 taken by Wide Field Camera 3 of the Hubble Space Telescope.”

Trevor:How did the Zooniverse come to be a part of the Planetarium? I’m curious to get a sense of how a group of what you see as the connections in values between the project and the institution.

Arfon: It’s actually rather the other way around – ‘how did the planetarium become part of the Zooniverse!’. After the initial success of Galaxy Zoo we realised that there were many other areas of research where we could apply this ‘citizen science’ model. We decided to gather as many interested parties as possible and asked the parent intuitions to donate a person-year of effort to the Zooniverse. We had some existing contacts at the planetarium and so the Adler became one of the founding five institutions.

The Adler’s mission is to ‘inspire exploration and understanding of our Universe’. I can’t think of any better way to inspire exploration than to actively engage people in some of the biggest questions we have in astrophysics.

Trevor: I’m curious to hear a bit more about how the Zooniverse is being integrated into the work and life of the planetarium. In much the  way science museums, observatories and planetariums have acted over time the Zooniverse seems to be a perfect fit with the model of being a educational activity and a core component supporting ongoing scientific research. The Adler Planetarium is both a content creator (generating substantive scientific data through projects like the Zooniverse) and a content steward (evident in their longstanding work on collecting, preserving and exhibiting items related to the history of astronomy). To what extent do these two sides of the Planetarium’s work integrate and fit together? If they don’t much now, is there a plan to integrate them more in the future?

Arfon: This is one of the major challenges I think we face as an institution. So far we’re really a research/development group that’s incubated by the planetarium. We have a few small programmes that have begun over the past year, including a facilitated Sunday programme where members of staff introduce Zooniverse projects to museum visitors and let them loose on the sites. We’ve also started to see some of our projects be included into parts of major exhibits. I’m really interested to see how the Adler could develop a compelling visitor experience that incorporates Citizen Science however I think we’re a way off designing something we’re all happy with. The ‘easy’ option is to just have a hallway full of screens with the projects on but this doesn’t seem really excite us – a visit to the planetarium should offer something much more than you can experience at home.

“The drama of the heavens–Adler Planetarium, operated by Chicago Park District” Work Projects Administration Poster Collection (Library of Congress).

Trevor: Is the Planetarium becoming a long-term home or repository for the kinds of data the Zooniverse is generating? It would seem that there’s a lot of potential value there to connect the stewardship role of the Planetarium as a cultural heritage institution with the active ongoing scientific research role.

Arfon: Not yet. We’re pretty well-versed in archiving physical artifacts such as communications between scientists and old astronomical instruments. The vast majority of the Zooniverse products are purely digital and often extremely large – I think long term the Adler will be able to accommodate these outputs.

Trevor: Earlier this year you participated in the NDIIPP meeting on Preserving Online Science. (I posted some reflections on the meeting a few months back) You gave a great talk about the Zooniverse projects and the different kinds of content you being generated through your work. I’m curious to hear about some of your reflections on the meeting. Did anything stick with you? Have any of the talks or the discussions informed your work or work at the Planetarium?

Arfon: It was a great meeting – thanks again for the opportunity to attend! I think my main feeling following the meeting was that the rate at which models of doing science are changing is extremely rapid and I don’t envy people like yourself who are trying to work out ways of preserving this information. The tools used to carry out academic research out are changing massively and as a researcher-turned-software developer this excites me.

Trevor: A lot of cultural heritage organizations are learning lessons from the work Zooniverse has done on public participation in science and applying it directly to approaches to invite public participation and engagement with their collections. For example, New York Public Library’s What’s on the Menu project, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration’s Citizen Archivist Dashboard and University of Iowa’s Civil War Diary Transcription project.  There is a bit of a context shift from science to cultural heritage though,  where your team is fundamentally interested in furthering scientific research, many cultural heritage organizations are fundamentally interested in the kinds of engagement and education that comes through these modes of public participation. What are the biggest pieces of advice you would offer to anyone in the cultural heritage world looking to learn from the Zooniverse’s success and do you think the shift in context from participation for the sake of basic science and participation as the goal is problematic?

Arfon: I don’t think that this content switch presents an inherent problem. Research into the motivations of our community (especially Galaxy Zoo) showed that we’d found a group of people who were interested in the science that the research team were conducting. This motivation of our community though I believe was more a reflection of the clear way in which the website and perhaps more importantly the blogs communicated the goals of the project. I think Galaxy Zoo presented clearly the core research goals and did this with a personal voice (often from a member of the science team). I believe that anyone in the cultural heritage sector thinking about starting a new project should identify some clear goals, know what success looks like and communicate these with their community.

Trevor: The National Digital Stewardship Alliance is a rather diverse mixture of organizations, institutions and companies. Really the only thing shared across the organizations is member organizations commitment to ensuring long term access to valuable digital content. What kinds of work do you think the NDSA could engage in that would help the Zooniverse and The Adler Planetarium?

Arfon: Preservation of physical items is something that the Adler understands well – we have a history department with highly skilled curators and decades of experience caring for a large collection. When it comes to digital artefacts though we’re not nearly as well developed as an institution. Internally we’re currently reworking out strategy for maintaining digital assets and it’s exposed a significant lack of experience internally as to what tools we should be using. If there’s one thing I’m hoping we can learn from the NDSA it’s what tools and methods we should be employing to be preserve and leverage our digital resources.

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