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Would you let the general public do your work for you? How about just the bits that are fundamentally important but would take you months of repetitive effort to get through on your own? In 2007, the GalaxyZoo team did exactly that and its been a massive success. They had images of a million galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey which they needed to classify multiple times (to ensure accuracy) and by eye (because people are much better at this than computers). They decided to see if they could use the power of the internet to harness a team of volunteers – the ‘Zooites’ – to help them. The site they set up, www.galaxyzoo.org, received nearly 1.5 million classifications from more than 35000 volunteers in the first 24 hours alone and continues to be very popular to this day. Go and help them if you’ve got a bit of spare time…
But what was motivating these citizen scientists to put in all this effort? To find out the GalaxyZoo team have been carrying out a series of interviews alongside forum discussion threads. They collated the results and narrowed the responses down to 12 motivation categories including “looking at galaxies that few people have seen before”, “enjoying the beautiful galaxy images” and simply “fun”. The three most popular were interestingly “interested in Astronomy”, “excited to contribute to original scientific research” and “amazed by the vast scale of the Universe”. I think if you asked most professional astronomers they’d say exactly the same thing!
This was just a pilot study, involving a small number of people (and may be biased towards the more proactive volunteers). However, armed with these 12 categories the team are now repeating the study with a much larger sample to get a better insight, which in turn will help the research teams of the future design new and exciting projects for the citizen scientists to get involved in.
M. Jordan Raddick, Georgia Bracey, Pamela L. Gay, Chris J. Lintott, Phil Murray, Kevin Schawinski, Alexander S. Szalay, & Jan Vandenberg (2009). Galaxy Zoo: Exploring the Motivations of Citizen Science Volunteers to be published in Astronomy Education Review arXiv: 0909.2925v1