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.Astronomy 5: What’s Next?

September 20, 2013 — 3 Comments

The .Astronomy 5 Unphoto – Credit: Demitri Muna

As the fifth .Astronomy came to a close on Wednesday, I felt as I always do at the end of these meetings: tired, emotional and super-excited. It’s hard to explain the energy at these events. There is something almost magical in the air as the participants ‘click’ (usually about an hour in) and then begin talking, making and doing great work.

.Astronomy is about actually doing something. As Kelle Cruz and I remarked yesterday – we like ‘people that do shit’. At .Astronomy you feel that if someone has an idea we should just all try and make it happen. It could be the best thing ever, and failure is just a chance to learn. It’s not a common attitude in astronomy and it’s certainly difficult for many early-career people to think that way.

I’ve always been lucky. My PhD supervisor was very willing to let me try crazy things (he let me get distracted by creating .Astronomy for a start!). At the Zooniverse we have spent years now, just pushing code live and making new things. They’re not always perfect, but we learn every time and we have left a trail of marvellous creations on the way. Each new thing learns from the last.

We also absorb the ideas of others quickly, and encourage collaboration with new people. It’s this approach that led to the creations of some of our most interesting projects recently, such as Snapshot Serengeti, the Andromeda Project and Space Warps.

During his Keynote talk Tony Hey (Microsoft Research) showed a quote I’ve not seen before.

“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” – General Eric Shinseki, retired Chief of Staff, U. S. Army

I think I might put this on my wall. It sums up perfectly how I see much of science and could easily be the motto of .Astronomy. Tony’s keynote was brilliant BTW and you can see it here. Tony spoke about the Fourth Paradigm and told the tale of how the availability of astronomical data led to the SDSS SkyServer, which sparked the creation of Galaxy Zoo, which sparked the Zooniverse. In a way, .Astronomy was partly sparked by Galaxy Zoo too.

The folks at .Astronomy have built many projects that embrace the web fully, with an ethos of sharing and participation. These projects are changing the way astronomy and outreach are done: Chromoscope, 365 Days of Astronomy, AstroBetter, Astropy, astro,js, and the Seamless Astronomy groups ‘Bones of the Milky Way‘ paper; there are more but these are excellent examples.

So after .Astronomy 5 I’m left wondering where to take it next in order to facilitate more of these projects. There were 40 hack day pitches at this year’s event. There were so many hack day reports the follow day (the 2-3 minute slots where people show off their results) that we had to over run into coffee and use up most of lunch time too. Many of those hacks will, I hope, soon be appearing on the .Astronomy blog when people have time to write them up. Some of them are already popping up on GitHub (e.g. d3po).

The other wonderful thing about the meeting was how it once again encouraged genuine debates and discussions that sound like they might actually lead to change. The unconference sessions on diversity in astronomy went beyond the usual format and did not fall in to the trap of collectively preaching to the choir. A document has been drafted with actionable ideas. I hope it is revisited soon. Similarly sessions of the future of academic publishing were not bogged-down in the usual complaints but actually became a real debate about practical things we could do differently.

There were also highly informative unconference sessions that would not have happened elsewhere; enthusiastic tutorials of Astropy, Authorea and the merits of combining noisy classifiers are all jumping to mind. These meetings organically emerge from the crowd at .Astronomy and they’re, interactive, productive, and brilliant.

So as I ponder on the future of .Astronomy (I’d love your thoughts) I’ll leave you with some of the wonderful video hacks that were produced at this year’s event. Don’t Call Me Colin is a song about a sad exoplanet from Niall Deacon, Emily Rice, Ruth Angus and others. There is also a timelapse of .Astronomy itself in action from Amanda Bauer.

Thank you to everybody who took part, gave their time to talk, help organise the event; and who followed along online. It was a great meeting and I’m already looking forward to the next one. Long live #dotastro!

.Astronomy 4

June 24, 2012 — Leave a comment

In 2008, in the midst of my PhD, I ran a conference called .Astronomy. The idea was to bring together all the other astronomers who were into the web and networks. It might not seem very long ago, but 2008 was before Twitter went mainstream and before everyone’s gran was on Facebook – to use one measure. We had data scientists, robotic telescope people, bloggers and others present (both in person and remotely).

The conference, which I held in my home institution in Cardiff, was a lot of fun and I got to meet a bunch if cool people. I was surprised when a clutch of the attendees came to me afterwards and asked if they could help run the next one.

Together we have gone on to organise three further, awesome events. Following Cardiff (Sep 2008) we had .Astronomy 2 in Leiden (Dec 2009) and 3 in Oxford (Apr 2011). In two weeks I’ll be attending .Astronomy 4 in Heidelberg. It’s being held in the newly built Haus der Astronomie, which is shaped like a spiral galaxy and looks gorgeous!

Haus der Astronomie
Haus der Astronomie

The event – I hate calling it a conference, as it feels like more than that – keeps improving, and evolving from meeting to meeting. They are all very informal affairs, and quite intense. I’m getting very excited about #dotastro 4, as it is known on Twitter. I’m really grateful to Sarah Kendrew for making the Heidelberg event happen this year. Being the local go-to person is a massive job, and she’s doing it fabulously!

One thing we’ve added this time is a shared, public Wiki for the participants. In just a few days it has already filled up with the crazy and brilliant ideas I’ve come to love and expect from .Astronomy. There are suggestions for a huge range of projects, from an automatic astronomy poetry generator to a service that can use the entire astronomical literature to generate new, unexpected hypotheses. The ideas on the wiki are all about trying to get the most out of the Hack Day, when everyone is free to build/create whatever they like with the others at the event.

.Astronomy is all about the relationships between the people who attend. We keep the event small, try to keep people in close proximity, and aim for an informal few days. I’ve gotten to know some of my favourite astronomers through .Astronomy and I know several working relationships that have emerged because of it. I have high hopes for number 4, and the buzz around it is growing. I think it’s going to be awesome.

You can learn more at http://dotastronomy.com follow us on Twitter @dotastronomy and follow all our fantastic Heidelberg participants via our conference4 list.