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A bit of Citizen Science Communication

If somebody asks you if you’d like to go down to London Town to tell people about how great Citizen Science is there really is only one answer. So I found myself booking yet another London-bound train this time to attend the British Science Association’s Science Communication Conference

The Venue – King’s Place


As this was a science communicators conference there was a mix of educators, writers, media people, organisational representatives and students amongst the attendees.

I was on a panel with Chris Davis, project scientist for the STEREO Heliospheric Imagers and Solar Stormwatch science team guru and Marek Kukula, the Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. Karen Bultitude from the University of the West of England Science Communication department chaired and introduced our session which was held in one of the concert halls. Apparently the hall sits on rubber springs to ensure it is acoustically separate from the outside world. I didn’t notice the springs but it had the look of a breakfast TV set with an audience. Cosy.

Me, Karen, Marek and Chris on the sofa


Our session was: “Citizen Science: public participation in research.”  We had an hour and a half to talk about the role Citizen Science can play in science communication and data sifting. We were each given a slot to talk about different aspects of Citizen Science.

Very briefly our message was:

  • The digital age is producing data faster than researchers can keep up with it.
  • Design the right interface and the public will be happy to help out.
  • Given good instructions the public can classify things just as accurately as “professionals.”
  • It’s an inspiring concept and a great way to get people interested in science.

Marek was first up and spoke about the creation of the Zooniverse, from it’s early days after a conversation in a pub to the current 8 live projects and 400,000 registered volunteers.

Chris was next on how Solar Stormwatch came to be part of the Zooniverse. He was discussing the huge amount of data that the STEREO mission was producing with Chris Lintott and wondering how it was all going to be analysed and before long another zooniverse project was born. As a result Chris said he was delighted to suddenly have 12,000 research assistants.

I was there to explain why I started taking part in Citizen Science and what I get out of it. There’s more about me here  but my story is simple. I’m a latecomer to science after not studying it at school. The Apollo missions sparked a life-long interest in astronomy and astronomy was what I was hoping to get more involved in when, by chance, I found stardust@home and then Galaxy Zoo. I was in the right place at the right time. Science, it seemed, wanted volunteers to help out. Volunteers like me. Being involved in Citizen Science really has made a difference. It’s given me the confidence and motivation to start studying again and I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to several conferences like this one where I hope some of my enthusiasm rubs off. I can’t help thinking that if Zooniverse-style Citizen Science had been around when I was at school my story would have been very different.

Then we highlighted 3 citizen science projects: Solar Stormwatch, Moon Zoo and the UK Ladybird Survey.

The UK Ladybird Survey


The question and answer session produced some good questions covering all aspects of Citizen Science.

  • Are volunteers classifications accurate (yes, for Galaxy Zoo we are at least on a par with experts)
  • What do you do about rogue classifiers (crowdsourcing has built in error correction)
  • How are papers based on Citizen Science treated (just as rigorously as any others)
  • How do we recruit volunteers (conventional and social media)
  • How many people taking part visit the forum (not enough!!)
  • And a couple of people asked how they could start their own Citizen Science project

Someone also asked if volunteers should be involved in leading the research. My response was that I’m quite happy being led – being one of Chris’ 12,000 research assistants – but liked the fact that the data was made available so that anyone had the opportunity to do their own research if they wanted to.

The live audience participation in Moon Zoo Boulder Wars was a success.

There is a  Twitter storyfy of Day 2 here or you can search the hashtag #SCC2011.

The conference tweet tag cloud by @andrea_fallas

We had lots of guests on both the Solar Stormwatch and Moon Zoo forums that night. I just hope some of them stay to see what all the fuss is about.


Jules is a volunteer moderator for the Solar Stormwatch and Moon Zoo forums

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Solar Stormwatch Community Poster

SSW_thumb

As part of the Zooniverse’s Advent Calendar we’ve been producing massive, author posters, built up of the names of the people who take part in our various projects. Solar Stormwatch’s community poster is Day 14 of our calendar and features an image not from STEREO but from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO).

This image was taken about 17:50 UT on December 6th this year. The prominence seen in this image is nearly a million kilometers across! Although the entire Earth would be just a few pixels tall on this image, the 25,000 volunteers who gave their permission to have their names published by the project are found written larger than this in 12pt font!

You can download the image in a large 5000-pixel size (22 MB) or in a smaller 3000-pixel size (8 MB).

Solar Stormwatch Image of the Year

ssw_imageofyear

STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) is a solar observation and space weather detection mission launched in October 2006 comprising two nearly identical spacecraft, one orbiting ahead of Earth (STEREO A), and one behind (STEREO B.) This enables stereoscopic imaging of the Sun and solar phenomena such as coronal mass ejections (CME’s or solar storms). These are violent eruptions of matter from the sun, a billion tons of material travelling at a million miles an hour, that can disrupt satellites and power grids and put astronauts on the International Space Station at risk. Images are returned to Earth from a range of cameras aboard the twin spacecraft which when analysed not only help us understand why solar storms happen but also enable the speed and direction of storms to be calculated providing an early warning system of Earth bound storms. That’s where Solar Stormwatch comes in. The mission has produced over 25 terabytes of data – more than 100,000 images – which are made into short videos for Stormwatchers to analyse.

But solar storms are not the only thing the cameras have captured. Dust, comets and planets make regular appearances in the videos. The STEREO spacecraft are now further away from the Earth than they are from the Sun but at the start of the mission the Earth and Moon were up close in the field of view. Because the cameras were designed to detect the tenuous and faint light scattered by the solar wind (100 million million times fainter than the Sun) the bright Earth-Moon system caused all sorts of odd reflections in the camera optics.

The Solar Stormwatch picture of the year is, in fact, a picture of an optical effect! The Earth is just out of view on the right. The intensely bright sunlight reflecting off the Earth produced internal reflections in the telescope attached to the STEREO B camera causing a bright flare with a “ghost” ring to appear on the image. Fondly known as the “White Doughnut” is has made an appearance in several Solar Stormwatch videos but Stormwatchers thought that this appearance was a particularly beautiful one.

[Many thank to The Solar Stormwatch Forum moderator Jules for putting this post together and organising the vote for the Image of the Year]

Spreading the Word

When Chris Davis mentioned on the forum that he would be speaking at an event promoting Citizen Science I thought I’d go along and combine a bit of sightseeing with a bit of crowdsourcing. Last Tuesday’s Celestial Skies: Public Eyes evening was billed as an event to discover how people power is shaping modern astronomy. The DANA Centre in London had invited Chris to talk about Solar Stormwatch along with Zookeeper Rob Simpson to give an overview of Zooniverse projects and Stuart Eves from Surrey Satellite Technology Limited to talk about his research into William Herschel and the mystery of Uranus’ 6 moons and ring. Each speaker was given 10 minutes to do their stuff. Ali Boyle, curator of astronomy at the Science Museum made sure things ran to plan.

Rob was up first and talked about the success of Galaxy Zoo and how that led to the creation and expansion of the Zooniverse. He mentioned all the current projects including Old Weather and the upcoming Milky Way Project and Papyrus Zoo. Chris was next and did a great job of telling people about all things Solar Stormwatch and Stereo in his allotted 10 minutes and managed to cover details of the Stereo mission and the twin spacecraft, basics of solar physics, the idea behind Solar Stormwatch and what stormwatchers do. Stuart told the fascinating story of why he thinks William Herschel discovered Uranus’ ring 190 years before its official discovery in 1977 and why Uranus is shown as having 6 Moons on an 18th century orrery (built using Herschel’s observations) at a time when only 2 had been discovered.

Then followed a practical taster session with computers set up to have a go at Hubble Zoo, Moon Zoo and Solar Stormwatch. Lots of people tried out the sites and I saw a couple of groups working their way diligently through the Solar Stormwatch tutorials. Several people said that they would have a go at home when they had more time.

A Q&A session followed with some quality questions from the audience.

The first question concerned Earth’s magnetic field flipping.
Chris answered this one and said that this happens every 100,000 years or so and explained how a record of the magnetic field at the time was trapped in layers of sedimentary rocks.

Is there a link between climate change and solar activity?
Another one for Chris who explained that while a small amount of global warming could be down to solar activity the majority of it is man made. More here.

How did scientists feel about having amateurs involved?
Rob said that although a few professional scientists were naturally sceptical at first the majority welcomed the use of amateurs into the world of data collection. He stressed that while computers can do many things they are not so good at the complicated pattern recognition required for Zooniverse projects and there are only so many undergrads and PhD students around to use as data collectors! Chris said he was rather pleased to suddenly have 10,000 research assistants to help him out.

What is some people deliberately set out to spoil the results?
Rob assured everyone that each image or video is classified several times and that the nice Citizen Scientists by far outnumbered the idiots. (He actually used a slightly more colourful description but the effect is the same!)

Why do people do Citizen Science?
Rob answered this and referred to Jordan Raddick’s motivation study carried out using Galaxy Zoo data where the most popular reasons people gave for taking part were an interest in astronomy and being able to contribute to science.

The evening rounded off a bit of a solar themed day having spent most of the afternoon in the Science Museum where I saw these:

A quarter size model of SOHO
London Science Museum

De revolutionibus – Copernicus daring to make the Sun rather than the Earth the centre of the universe

The DANA Centre is a good venue for this type of event. They use the cafe space to host a variety of science themed talks so food and drink is available. If you get the chance I’d recommend going along.

The Natchos are good too.


Jules is a volunteer moderator for the Solar Stormwatch forum

Art, chat and NASA inspired baking

Happy Half-Birthday Solar Stormwatch….part 3

What’s the last thing you would expect when joining a forum? Making some good on-line friends maybe? Or actually meeting up with the people you post with (and finding that they really are OK!)? Or discovering hidden artistic talents? Or (and I think this might win) enjoying the culinary efforts of a lead team member who just happens to have a STEREO spaceship shaped biscuit cutter courtesy of NASA? Grin

Told you that one would win!

As well as a place to discuss the science and ask questions the Solar Stormwatch forum has developed into a place to chat with friends and share a virtual cup of tea or coffee and a slice of virtual cake.

The sense of community is important for some participants. It adds another dimension to taking part in the project. It might not be the busiest forum out there but it is somewhere people can drop in whenever they want advice, information, contact with other stormwatchers or team members or just to chat. Some people prefer to lurk – we always have guests – and that’s fine. In fact the majority of people who take part in Solar Stormwatch don’t use the forum at all, which is not unusual. You tend to find this with many projects. However, forums are not only where interesting discussions take place but where interesting finds pop up. Galaxy Zoo found the Voorwerp. Moon Zoo is looking for Moon bridges and Solar Stormwatch found circular storms. So anyone reading this who hasn’t discovered the forum yet – please consider coming along and joining in. It’s the place where the science team raise issues and ask for our help with extra projects. And the place where that unusual discovery is waiting to be made. Don’t miss out!

One forum thread in particular has something of a cult following. The Sun Art thread has attracted several arty types and the results are spectacular. Here’s just a taste courtesy of algwat, Christelle, Deanimation, Quialiss, Galactic Momma, me and resident artist Caro.

All pictures are based on single frames from Solar Stormwatch videos or related images of the Sun.

Posting on a forum is one thing but what about actually meeting up with people? Other forums do it but many people involved in the Zooniverse projects are new to forums and are naturally wary. It’s quite a big step coming out from behind your avatar and shaking hands but after 3 years of meeting people from forums I can highly recommend it. A small group of us had a Solar Stormwatch meeting back in March 2010 when we hijacked a Solar event at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

One of the highlights of the meeting was sitting in the Endeavour Room at the top of one of the Observatory buildings at the biggest round table you have ever seen surrounded by old solar and astronomical equipment. Another highlight was these:

Biscuits in the shape of STEREO spacecraft! Never did establish whether it was STEREO A or B! Team member Chris Davis brought them and took an empty container back home. And the biscuit cutter really was from NASA.

We also got caught up in Word Cup fever and had our own World Cup Competition to find the solar storm that looked most like the FIFA World Cup Trophy.

The real thing
The winner! (Herve Stevenin.)

So in 6 short months we have helped collect hundreds of solar storms, found comets, planets, lots of dust, a World Cup trophy look-alike and established a truly international community.

Here’s to the next 6 months!


Jules is a volunteer moderator for the Solar Stormwatch Forum.