The Zooniverse is an amazing collection of web-based Citizen Science projects that use the efforts and abilities of volunteers to help researchers deal with the flood of data that confronts them. It started with the launch of one of those projects, the Galaxy Zoo, in 2007. The project, led by the astrophysicist Chris Lintott, was an unexpected success with massive participation from the public: more than 50 million galaxies were classified during its first year, contributed by more than 150,000 people. Brutally impressive.
Not only that, but it also proved very useful for the academic community (as they describe in their About), because these contributions from the public “produced many unique scientific results, ranging from individual, serendipitous discoveries to those using classifications that depend on the input of everyone who has visited the site. So they went on to extend this model beyond galaxy research to other scientific fields, grouped under the Zooniverse umbrella.
The main takeaways for the Tech4Democracy community are:
- The Cognitive Surplus is very real and very powerful if harnessed well (I know this is obvious, but good to see confirmations).
- The incentives for the participation of the crowds (i.e. guaranteeing that their inputs will be meaningful) are crucial, as I argue when making the case for Online Empowered Participation. As the Galaxy Zoo puts it: “This commitment to producing real research – so that you know that we’re not wasting your time – is at the heart of everything we do.“
If scientists are able to engage the crowds so successfully, why are politicians failing so notoriously?