Massification and Inspiration through online learning – Part two of two: Humans and computers; when galaxies collide!

Photo courtesy of Abigail Grant.

The closing session of the Sloan Consortium  18th international conference for online learning followed the two themes that I set out in my first post; Massification and Inspiration. The wittily delivered presentation, “Citizen Science- Authentic Participation in Research” was delivered to  an overwhelmingly US audience by fellow Brit Arfon Smith and left me feeling humbled, inspired and strangely proud.

Arfon Smith is Director of Citizen Science at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and Technical Lead of the web-based citizen science platform Zooniverse. He leads a team of developers, educators and scientists who build citizen science projects across a range of disciplines including solar physics, papyrology and biodiversity.


In July 2007 faced with what Smith described as a “data deluge” from the expanding number of deep space focused telescopes, a group of astronomers launched a website and asked members of the public for their help. Because it turns out humans can determine some things better than computers. Five years later via the website they set up; Galaxy Zoo, some  400,000 members of the public had signed up and produced more than 150 million galaxy shape classifications leading to more than 35 peer-reviewed publications.

Not content with contributing to the core project, a number of community volunteers began collaborations between themselves specifically around the “green peas” which they discovered and which the scientists told them to ignore.  Despite this discouragement the public persisted in their search, classification and analysis and finally proved to the scientists that yes indeed here was a completely new phenomena produced when galaxies collide!

When Smith and his team circulated a questionnaire to all the participants asking them why they gave so much dedicated time for free, the overwhelming response was “I like to contribute.”

An inspiring answer. There is hope for us all yet.

Here’s a link to his absolutely fascinating presentation http://bit.ly/S3EQNT

Nick Tellwright

Author: Nick Tellwright

Director of Online Development at INTO University Partnerships

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