Big open data leads to citizen science

Read an article the other day in ScienceLine about the Astronomical Data Explosion.  It appears that as international observatories start to open up their archives and their astronomical data to anyone and anybody, people are starting to do useful science with it.

Hunting for planets

The story talked about a pair of amateur astronomers who were looking through Kepler telescope data which had recently been put online (see to find anomalies that signal the possibility of a planet.  They saw a diming of a particular star’s brightness and then saw it again 132 days later. At that point they brought it to the attention of real scientists who later discovered that what they found was a 4 star solar system which they labeled Tatooine.

It seems with all the latest astronomical observations coming in from Kepler, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and Hubble observatories are generating a deluge of data. And although all this data is being subjected to intense scrutiny by professional astronomers, they can’t do everything they want to do with it.

Consequently, in astronomy today we now have come to a new world of abundant data but not enough resources to do all the science that can be done.  This is where the citizen or amateur scientist enters the picture. Using standard web accessible tools they are able to subject the data to many more eyes each looking for whatever interest spurs them on and as such, can often contribute real science from their efforts.

Citizen science platforms

It turns out is one of a number of similar websites put up by Zooniverse to support citizen science in astronomy, biology, nature, climate and humanities. Their latest project is to classify animal found in snapshots taken on the Serengheti (see

Of course crowdsourced scientific activity like this has been going on for a long time now with Boinc projects like SETI@Home screen savers that sifted through radio signals searching for extra-terestial signals. But that made use of the extra desktop compute cycles people were waisting with screen savers.


In contrast, Zooniverse started with the GalaxyZoo project (original retired site here). They put Hubble telescope images online and asked for amateur astronomers to classify the type of galaxies found in the images.

GalaxyZoo had modest aspirations at first but when they put the Hubble images online their servers were overwhelmed with the response and had to be beefed up considerably to deal with the traffic.  Overtime, they were able to get literally millions of galaxy classifications. Now they want more, and the recent incarnation of GalaxyZoo has put the brightest 250K galaxies online and they are asking for even finer, more detailed classifications of them.

Today’s Zooniverse projects are taking advantage of recent large and expanding data repositories plus newer data visualization tools to help employ human analysis to their data.  Automated tools are not yet sophisticated enough to classify images as well as a human can.

One criteria for Zooniverse projects is to have a massive amount of data which needs to be classified.  In this way, science is once again returning to it’s amateur roots but this time guided by professionals.  Together we can do more than what either could do apart.


I suppose it was only a matter of time before science got inundated with more data than they could process effectively.  Having the ability to put all this data online, parcel it out to concerned citizens and ask them to help understand/classify it has brought a new dawn to citizen science.


Photo credits:
Twin Suns on Mos Espa by Stéfan
BONIC running SETI@Home by Keng Susumpow
Galaxy Group Stephan’s Quintet by HubbleColor {Zolt}