Archives For citizen science

Help Count the Stars

January 1, 2015 — 1 Comment


Here’s a fun thing to do this January: help count the stars to see how dark the sky is near you. While you’re looking for Comet Lovejoy, take a moment to count some stars for a school project.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been helping A-Level student, and fellow Witney resident, Jesse Lawrence with a BSA Crest Award project. He opted to go for something with a local twist and has decided to map the quality of the dark skies around Witney. Now he’s embarked on the last phase of his project: crowdsourcing a dark sky map by recruiting volunteers (that’s you!).

It would be fantastic if you could add your own observations to the project. All you have to do is count the stars an fill in this form. For now, you need to be located in the Northern Hemisphere.

Although this began as a local project, the system is up and running and will work at scale so please fill in the form from anywhere – not just Witney.

You have to go out on a clear night and then report your location (your postcode or lat/long) along with the faintest star you can see in the Plough (or saucepan, or big dipper, in Ursa Major). You just need to use Jesse’s map on the online form at Find the faintest star that you can see from those marked with letters on the form. That helps identify the limit of brightness for your location. Repeats over several nights will help average a better result, as will multiple people observing from the same spot over time.

Screenshot 2015-01-02 21.23.12

The results appear on a live-updated map, which you can see at The more people that join in, the better the final map will be.


‘Something awesome from the Zooniverse every day’ was the tagline that we came up with, almost a year ago, for a new Zooniverse blog: Daily Zooniverse. Grant Miller had recently arrived to work at Zooniverse HQ in Oxford and I had a todo list of things I’d always wanted to try but hadn’t found the time for. The Daily Zooniverse was right at the top.

The Zooniverse has spawned more than 30 citizen science projects, generated almost 100 peer-reviewed academic publications, and engaged more than one million people! Surely we had the capacity to share one cool thing every day? That was the challenge I laid at Grant’s feet last year and he has risen to it. Somehow, for the past 359 days, Grant has managed to post something (anything!) Zooniverse-related to the blog at

Team birthdays, project status updates, suggested projects, and galaxy of the week are some examples of the blog’s regular features. There are the new projects that launch, the cool things the community find on Talk, and the awesome finds that just appear from seemingly nowhere. I love following this blog because it adds little bit of Zooniverse into my RSS feed each day. I often see things I didn’t know about myself!

Screenshot 2014-09-08 08.53.32

Congratulations to Grant on the blog’s birthday this week! Find the blog at or follow it via RSS, Twitter, Facebook, G+, and Tumblr.

Screenshot 2014-09-04 10.33.03

This Month’s edition of Wired (UK) includes a feature article about citizen science and crowdsourcing research. It has interviews with yours truly, as well as many lovely people from the citizen science crowd, including buddies Chris Lintott, Kevin Schawinski, and Amy Robinson.

It also has notes about my new collaboration with fellow TED Fellow Andrew Bastawrous and our plans to use the Zooniverse to help cure blindness around the world. As you can imagine I’m pretty psyched about that! You can watch Andrew’s great TED talk below for more about his work.


The article is written by João Medeiros and you can find it in Wired UK either physically or via their many digital apps. It will be online at a later date. The only correction I feel the need to state is that more than 400,000 people have taken part in Galaxy Zoo – not 4,000 as it says in the article!

Today is the start of the UK National Meeting in Portsmouth. I’ll be there tomorrow, and running the NAM Hack Day on Wednesday with Arfon Smith – which is going to be awesome. Today at NAM, the nation’s astronomers will discuss the case for UK involvement in the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope project – the LSST. The LSST is a huge telescope, and a massive undertaking. It will change astronomy in a profound way.

A photograph and a rendering mix of the exterior building showing the dome open and road leading away from the site.

A photograph and a rendering mix of the exterior LSST building, showing the dome open and road leading away from the site.

With every image it takes, the LSST will be able to record very a large patch of sky (~50 times the size of the full Moon). It will take more than 800 images each night and can image its* entire sky twice a week! Billions of galaxies, stars, and solar system objects will be seen for the first time and monitored over a period of 10 years. Crucially it will use it’s rapid-imaging power to look for moving or ‘transient’ things in the night sky. It will be an excellent tool for detecting supernova, asteroids, exoplanets and more of the things that move from night-to-night or week-to-week. For example, the LSST could be used to detect and track potentially hazardous asteroids that might impact the Earth. It will also help us understand dark energy – the mysterious force that seems to keep our universe expanding – by mapping the precise location of billions of galaxies.

I’ve recently become LSST:UK’s Public Data Coordinator - think ‘chief hacker’ if you prefer. The LSST’s unprecedented archive of data will be a resource we can tap into to create new kinds of public outreach tools, data visualisations, and citizen science. In recent years, we at the Zooniverse have pioneered citizen science investigations of data in astronomy**. The citizen science and amateur astronomy communities around the UK, and the world, will be able to access the amazing data that comes out of the LSST both through structure, Zooniverse-style projects but also in a more freeform manner. The potential for discovery will be on a scale we haven’t seen before. It’s very exciting.

The LSST is a public-private partnership and is led by the United States. The unique scientific opportunities presented by the LSST have led to the formation of a group of astronomers from more than 30 UK universities. We’ll be asking for funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council to support UK participation in the project.

Spinnaker Tower from the Gosport Ferry

Spinnaker Tower from the Gosport Ferry

If you’re at NAM this week, then I’ve love to talk about LSST, hacking on data, and Zooniverse. On Wednesday you’ll find me in the Park Building, at the University of Portsmouth at the GitHub/.Astronomy NAM 2014 Hack Day. I’ll also be at the GitHub drink up on Tuesday night at The White Swan from 7pm – where you can enjoy some of the finest cask ales, draught beers and wines in Portsmouth – and GitHub are paying! More details at

* i.e. the sky visible from its location – not literally the entire sky
** We’ve now had more than 1 million volunteers pass through our digital doors.

Operation War Diary Screenshot

Working at the Zooniverse means that I get to indulge many of my interests beyond astronomy, like history. In January we launched a project in partnership with the Imperial War Museum and the National Archives called Operation War Diary. It’s a ‘citizen history’ site that asks the public to tag and transcribe more than one million war diaries, and other handwritten notes, produced on the western front during the First World War. 2014 is the centenary year of the start of the war and we hope that this project will recover information that had been all but lost over the last one hundred years.

The results of this project are starting to appear now. The project is meant to run for several years, but there are already new ways to explore and understand the data thanks to effort of the tens of thousands of people who have taken part in Operation War Diary. As an example, the video below is an animation of the casualties reported in the diaries tagged so far. You can also see this map online at

This map was created by Operation War Diary developer Jim O’Donnell and it’s not a final map by any means but it shows the power of crowdsourcing these kinds of tasks. If that all intrigues you, you can involved here – and read more about the project in this blog post. You can follow Operation War Diary on Facebook and Twitter too!

I shared this today, in a presentation, as an example of the many projects created by the Zooniverse team, which could be described as ‘Social Machines’. I work as part of a project called SOCIAM, which is investigating these Social Machines as a research topic.

Social machines were predicted in the early days of the web and are an emergent, social entity typified by large group of people working together online to achieve things neither the machine nor the human network could otherwise achieve. Zooniverse projects are a great example of a social machine for scientific discovery, which is why we were invited to join this collaboration.

Dave DeRoure's 'classic' social machines explanation chart

Dave DeRoure’s ‘classic’ social machines explanation chart


Social machines often involve very large-scale human participation; they may generate large volumes of data; and they may try to solve social or technical problems from the reverse perspective. Wikipedia is a social machine too, for example, as is Reddit, eBay, and Ushahidi.

Operation War Diary and the other Zooniverse projects combine people in a way that can only be achieved through the web, and many of the participants then contribute in new and unexpected ways*, enriching the overall output of the platform. This makes it a notable social machine, and a great citizen science platform.

Sorry – this has been a rather rambling post. So to conclude here’s a link to many more Operation War Diary maps, prodded by Jim, on CartoDB:

[* See Spanish Flu in Old Weather, Yellow Balls in MWP, Green Peas in Galaxy Zoo]

This was recorded at the Citizen Cyberscience Summit in London in February – it’s me summarising the Zooniverse for anyone out there that might like to try out our own brand of Citizen Science.


Just over three years the Zooniverse launched the Milky Way Project (MWP), my first citizen science project. I have been leading the development and science of the MWP ever since. 50,000 volunteers have taken part from all over the world, and they’ve helped us do real science, including creating astronomy’s largest catalogue of infrared bubbles – which is pretty cool.

Today the original Milky Way Project (MWP) is complete. It took about three years and users have drawn more than 1,000,000 bubbles and several million other objects, including star clusters, green knots, and galaxies. It’s been a huge success but: there’s even more data! So it is with glee that we have announced the brand new Milky Way Project! It’s got more data, more objects to find, and it’s even more gorgeous.

Screenshot 2013-12-12 11.58.42

This second incarnation of my favourite Zooniverse project[1] has been an utterly different experience for me. Three years ago I had only recently learned how to build Ruby on Rails apps and had squirrelled myself away for hours carefully crafting the look and feel for my as-yet-unnamed citizen science project. I knew that it had to live up to the standards of Galaxy Zoo in both form and function – and that it had to produce science eventually.

Building and launching at that time was simpler in one sense (it was just me and Arfon that did most of the coding[2]) but so much harder as I was referring to the Rails manual constantly and learning Amazon Web Services on the fly. This week I have had the help of a team of experts at Zooniverse Chicago, who I normally collectively refer to as the development team. They have helped me by designing and building the website and also by integrating it seamlessly into the now buzzing Zooniverse infrastructure. The result has been an easier, smoother process with a far superior end result. I’ve essentially acted more like a consultant scientist, with a specification and requirements. I’ve still gotten my hands dirty (as you can see in the open source Milky Way Project GitHub repo) but I’ve managed to actually keep doing everything else I now to day-to-day at the Zooniverse. It’s been a fantastic experience to see personally how far we’ve come as an organisation.

The new MWP is being launched to include data from different regions of the galaxy in a new infrared wavelength combination. The new data consists of Spitzer/IRAC images from two surveys: Vela-Carina, which is essentially an extension of GLIMPSE covering Galactic longitudes 255°–295°, and GLIMPSE 3D, which extends GLIMPSE 1+2 to higher Galactic latitudes (at selected longitudes only). The images combine 3.6, 4.5, and 8.0 µm in the “classic” Spitzer/IRAC color scheme[3]. There are roughly 40,000 images to go through.


An EGO (or two) sitting in the dust near a young star cluster

The latest Zooniverse tech and design is being brought to bear on this big data problem. We are using our newest features to retire images with nothing in them (as determined by the volunteers of course) and to give more screen time to those parts of the galaxy where there are lots of pillars, bubbles and clusters – as well as other things. We’re marking more objects –  bow shocks, pillars, EGOs  – and getting rid of some older ones that either aren’t visible in the new data or weren’t as scientifically useful as we’d hoped (specifically: red fuzzies and green knots).

It’s very exciting! I’d highly recommend that you go now(!) and start classifying at – we need your help to map and measure our galaxy.


[1] It’s like choosing between your children

[2] Arfon may recall my resistance to unit tests

[3] Classic to very geeky infrared astronomers


We’re expanding the Zooniverse team in Oxford and we’re looking for web developers. You need to be able to work in Oxford (which is a lovely place to work) and you need to want to change the way science is done! There are four positions we need to fill:

Each of these roles has different responsibilities and there’s a range of skills that we’re after. We’re creating a core team of developers here in Oxford to work alongside our Chicago-based developers – but on different, new parts of the Zooniverse. You’ll not be building citizen science projects on a daily basis: instead these positions will mostly deal with infrastructure, pipelines and tools for citizen science. In my opinion it’s an amazing opportunity for any developers out there who love science. You will work within a team of about 10 people here in Oxford Astrophysics.

We’re really excited about the project that these people will be the core part of and I definitely encourage coder-type scientists and science-type coders to apply. The University is a great employer with a good pension scheme, mostly flexible hours and they’re very friendly towards families. We are a mixed group of developers, scientists and something in-between. Best of all, like the Zooniverse: we’re awesome.

So come, join us!


We recently posted news of a Planet Hunters planet discovered as part of a seven-planet system. Like all the Planet Hunters stars this is one seen in data from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. Dubbed Kepler-90 this system is a peculiar microcosm of our own Solar System, with small (probably rocky) worlds in the middle, and larger (probably gaseous) worlds on the outside. The major different being that the outermost planet in this system is as far from the star as Earth is from the Sun. The other six planets in this system were already known about, but thanks to volunteers on Planet Hunters ( we now think that there are seven worlds circling this stars, which is just a little brighter than our Sun.

New PH Planet

To celebrate this fact I have created a model of the whole planetary system in Celestia, an awesome, cross-platform, open-source package that lets you explore space. You can download the Celestia files model directly here or watch the video below to be taken on a tour of Kepler-90 and it’s seven worlds.

In this video, I’ve given the newly discovered Planet Hunters candidate some fetching green rings – which we do not have any evidence for or against. Also keep in mind that we know very little about what most exoplanets look like, so we’ve used artistic license to give them all different appearances, often using the surface of what might be analogue worlds in our Solar System. Maybe you can spot some familiar surfaces amongst them!

This system has some great features that make it interesting. The outermost world is roughly the the size of Jupiter but orbits at almost exactly the Earth-Sun distance of 1AU. A Jupiter-like world in an Earth-like orbit has been seen before in Planet Hunters discoveries. The middle planet in this system is at the same distance from this star as Mercury is from our Sun, but is six times as large. The rest of the planets whizz around in even smaller orbits. This star is a little hotter than our Sun so they are pretty scorching places with surfaces temperatures in the hundreds of degrees – nearly a thousand for the innermost planets.

Inner System of KOI-351

The two innermost planets are roughly Earth sized and are really cool. The innermost one is 1.02x the diameter of Earth and the next is 1.18x. We assume that they are both rocky since they are so small. They orbit the star in just 7 days and 9 days respectively and are very close together. So close in fact that if you’re living on the inner, smaller planet then every few weeks, for about a week, the second planet appears in the sky about half the size of our full Moon.

Every year I see the rumour going round that Mars is going to be as big as the full moon. It will never happen for us – but on the tiny worlds circling Kepler-90, it happens all the time.

Update: The system used to be called KOI-351 but was given the name Kepler-90 just a day after this post went live. I have updated the name of the system in the text.

[Cross-posted on the Planet Hunters blog]

UNAWE's Citizen Science Astronomy Projects Poster - CAP conference 2013

This is a poster from CAP2013, which  am attending in Warsaw. Love the idea and the design. Follow @UNAWE on Twitter and find them online at