Zooniverse: The Art of Crowdsourcing

As part of our Digital Humanities module that focuses on digital tools and methodologies, I was introduced to the idea of crowdsourcing information using online platforms. It was then that I discovered Zooniverse and how this platform enables people all over the world to contribute to research projects.
Crowdsourcing is a method of collecting information from a number of different sources. Crowdsourcing most commonly takes place online where anyone with access to the project or platform can contribute information. However, the idea of crowdsourcing information has been around for many years; take for example the national annual census. This method of sourcing information from a crowd; either on or offline and allowing them to contribute to your work is often employed by scientists and researchers. In recent years and as technology has been and is constantly evolving and improving, there has been an increase in the number of professionals using crowdsourcing as a resource. From research projects to thousands of online surveys, people from various different occupations have begun employing these methods. The ways in which crowd-sourcing can help different groups of people are endless. For entrepreneurs and businesses, crowd-sourcing opinions can greatly reduce the risk of loss they may incur by releasing a new product. For researchers and scientists, the potential to have millions of people around the world contribute to their large-scale projects can significantly reduce the time taken to receive and analyse results to complete their projects.
Before the World Wide Web became the most popular application of the internet used around the world, gaining information from the majority of the population of a country seemed like a near impossible feat. Despite with the importance of the national census, having a form hand-written and sent away by post from each household in the country within a specified timeframe causes many difficulties for governmental departments. It is for these reasons that more and more institutions and professionals are looking to adopt online methods for carrying out crowdsourcing. The ease at which one can contribute to crowdsourced projects online also increases the number of people willing to part take and contribute in such projects. Because there is now so much emphasis on collaborative working in the digital world, it comes as no surprise that there are multiple applications and websites that allow users to collaborate and contribute to various different projects online. One such website is called Zooniverse.

Amazon Rainforest

The Zooniverse platform allows for a number of researchers and scientists to have their projects openly available to anyone with a Zooniverse account. These Zooniverse volunteers can contribute to the work in any of the available projects of their choice. These contributions in turn help the owners of their chosen project to make significant amounts of progress with regards to completing their work. Once you have logged onto your Zooniverse account you can choose to one of the ten topics of projects that most interest you. Some of the project topics include; climate, literature, and medi
cine. In each of these topics there are a handful of projects to choose from. Before you begin working on any project you can explore what the aim of a particular project is and what is required of you to contribute to the work.
As I have a great interest in the environment and climate change I decided to search for a project within the ‘Nature’ category. Then you can look at the descriptions accompanying the projects in your chosen topic. I chose a project entitled ‘Amazon Aerobotany’ after reading about the aim of the project and how it would be beneficial to climate and environmental research. The aim of this project was to monitor the life cycles and phenomena of the forestry within the Amazonian rainforest. From the monitoring of the trees within the rainforest, the botanists behind the project wanted to find out what affect global warming and human interaction was having on the rainforests plant life.
For this project I was faced with a series of images of the Amazon rainforest. These images that you are shown give you an aerial-view of a particular section of the rainforest. Within these images there are three types of tree crowns that you are to search for are: ‘leafless crowns’, ‘flowering crowns’, and ‘Huasaí palm trees’. In the introduction to this project I was shown example images of what each of these tree crowns would look like in the images. Along with these images was a supplementary written description on how the appearance of these crowns may differ from image to image depending on the quality and lighting in the photo. These sample images and descriptions are readily available to you for every aerial-view image you are faced with to help with any difficulties you may experience while identifying the different tree crowns. With regard to the interface of Zooniverse you are shown on large image in the centre of the screen. Accompanying this image of the rainforest is a panel in which you are asked if you have been able to identify any of the three crowns in the image. If you select ‘yes’ as your answer you are then required to select which type of tree crown you have identified and circle these crowns on the image. If you are unable to identify any of the three crown types you are then shown the next image of another section of the rainforest to work on.
From reading the description of the project I discovered that [1] the botanists in the Amazon had previously spent much of their time walking through the rainforest, trying to identify the tree crowns from ground level. This was a very slow and painstaking process and so they began to experiment other ways to carry out their research. Now these botanists use aerial photography to capture images of sections of the rainforest from above and upload these images onto Zooniverse. Here with the help of thousands of Zooniverse users the time taken to survey each area of the rainforest has decreased dramatically. This additional input from the Zooniverse volunteers allows for these scientists to then analyse all the results gathered from the contributors, rather than spending their time trying the identify the tree crowns from images themselves.
Having now worked on Amazon Aerobotany, I feel that I learned a lot about the importance surrounding the monitoring and conservation of plants and their lifecycles. I had not previously considered that biologists were keeping track of the tree life cycles of the rainforest, as it is more common to hear of the danger of extinction faced by the animals that inhabit it. I was also surprised to find out how much Zooniverse has helped with their work. Zooniverse had allowed for more than two thousand volunteer users to contribute to the work carried out by the Amazon Aerobotany team. With over [2] seventy four thousand classifications made already by these Zooniverse users, this only accounts for fifty-two per cent of the project completed. From these figures alone it is clear that these researchers would not have made a fraction of this progress in their work without the help of users on the Zooniverse platform. This highlights how beneficial both crowdsourcing and Zooniverse in particular is for helping professionals with their work.

The idea of collaborating online for group projects was first introduced to me in my first year of college. Due to the number of group projects were have been assigned to work on, I have now become a regular user of various collaborative and communication platforms. Since incorporating applications such as; Google drive, Google docs, and Slack, sharing content and working collaboratively has never been easier and suits a busier student’s lifestyle. The idea of crowdsourcing, to me, is a continuation of this online collaborative work. The only real difference I can see between a standard group project and a crowd sourced project is the anonymity and the sheer numbers of the people working on a project together. What really struck me about Zooniverse in particular was the high number of volunteers there are online that are willing to help on large-scale projects.
Although volunteering in a crowd sourced project was a new experience for me, I have relied on crowd sourcing for a previous project of my own. I had created an interactive map, marking the major cultural and linguistic points throughout Cork city. For this project I used the social media site Twitter to reach out to my followers to ask for their help and contribution on my project. On Twitter I asked my followers if they had any additional information or some personal knowledge about cultural aspects in Cork that I may have overlooked. From reaching out to these strangers on social media I received messages containing some extra content I had been looking for to include on my interactive map. I also received some images of various pieces of street art containing old Irish phrases that have been appearing around the city over the past year. I had never previously considered relying on people I did not know to help me on a project. However, had I not reached out to my social media followers, the finished product of my map would not have been of the same standard. From this experience alone I understood what kind of benefits sites such as Zooniverse could have for people working on extensive and detailed projects, such as Amazon Aerobotany.
To conclude, I have enjoyed my experience using Zooniverse. I also now have a new sense of appreciation for the ways in which the internet and the World Wide Web can be used to help professionals further their work and research. Although I may not have a need to use Zooniverse or another platform like it in the future for my own work, it is certain that crowdsourcing is something that many academics and students will use at some point in their careers, even if it takes place on social media.


[1] https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/rainforestexpeditions/amazon-aerobotany/about/research
[2] https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/rainforestexpeditions/amazon-aerobotany

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