Partially Attended

an irregularly updated blog by Ian Mulvany

Talkfest, science and community

Thu Sep 1, 2011

1414 Words


So this is a short TalkFest event looking at the public, communities and online science. I’m sure there will be plenty of online discussion around this topic, below are some very rough notes that I took during the event. It was very enjoyable.

The people on the panel are D. Amy Sanders from the Welcome Trust, Rob Simpson, (a.k.a OrbitingFrog), Linda Davies and Stephen Cury. The panel was convened by Alice Bell

The audience is filled with the usual suspects.

Are community groups based around hobbies a good way to reach new audiences?

Amy is giving a little bit of information about some projects that connected scientists with some offline community groups. One of the main benefits of getting involved with a hobby group is that this group is usually engaged in a social activity, and so you can engage them during their time when they are open to engagement. That’s the main takeaway. It doesn’t have to be online, being face to face and being really social can be a good thing.

Galaxy Zoo

I almost don’t have anything to say about galaxy zoo other than that it is awesome. I’m sure that most of the people here know about Galaxy Zoo. The main theme off all of the projects that have been spawned from this is to help the public help researchers. Many of the new projects are no longer astronomy projects, they cover the moon (, old weather (, star formation in the milky way (looking within our own galaxy rather than at other galaxies, so it should fell that much closer to home (they also look at other bits in the images and they have so far found about 40 previously unknown galaxies), looking at light curves to find exoplanets (, papyri getting reassembled (, (if you had an app that helped users to describe the nature of community science projects would that be galazyzoo-zoo, or one that helped identify the locations of zoos:

Linda talking about the OPAL project (I don’t know anything about this)

OPAL is a community-driven research program, Linda had a hobby looking at lichens. There is an exploded pie chart, I personally am a fan of exploded pie charts. One of the big aims of the project is to get members of the public out into nature and get them naming things. This gives you an educated population and greatly increases your base for observers. They are using a host of methods to train people, new tech, a lot of work with schools. There is a lot of time spent connecting local authorities, people and scientists. They have had over 1/2 million people participating, and they have had millions of recordings. There are scientific teams across the country, those teams can lead off different research projects, these projects could be driven by the research group interest or by the community environment, e.g. one project has been looking for hedgehogs. This is very cool. They have created 40 hedgehog champions in hull who go out tagging hedgehogs (I guess she means virtually tagging them, and not spraying them with graffiti, thought that might be an interesting outcome of the project)

OPAL stands for Open Air Laboratories.

This is a very very cool project, and it is coordinating resources from across the UK, it’s just brilliant.

Stephen Curry - blogger!

Is Stephen a hobbiest blogger or not? Alice asks the question. He hates the word “hobby”, the things that people do in their spare time for fairly mild amusement? What scientists have time to do this in their spare time? An yet at the same time his hobby is blogging about science. One way to think about blogging is that it is writing in public for free, not quite as bad as masturbating in public, but sometimes it comes close (he admits that this is rather a caricature). He mentions that it is something that he does in his spare time, but something he feels compelled to do and that he enjoys doing. It sounds like William Rowan Hamilton’s justification for his poetry. It’s important to note that he does not yet feel at liberty to do this during his professional time, but that the environment is getting better. It is a good way of generating a discussion, and some of these discussion topics are of interest to his colleagues as well as to the community that he interacts with through the blog community.


  • Moderation and quality of the data collected. Interesting, there was a recent project that involved some community participation but in the end the quality of the data for the money spent could have been replicated by on RA. Rob mentions that they try to design experiments to be robust. For Linda the OPAL project is not just about gathering data, but also about getting people to get out into nature. Within OPAL they also try to design the experiments in a robust way, e.g. get people to report number of earth worms found, rather than reporting on species type. (Rob mentioned that galaxy zoo currently has 150 equivalent full time people involved as volunteers).

Stephen Curry mentions that by engaging a lot of people you have more public impact.

  • What access do the public have to the databases?

For OPAL all of the project data post clean up, goes onto the national database. The live data is also immediately available (free data, yay!!). Galaxy Zoo now has where all of the data is available.

Alice asks if published papers are tied back to the data, and generally the answer is yes.

  • What are the kinds of people who participate?

OPAL asks some personal questions, they target areas of deprivation (this is just getting cooler and cooler). They have two social scientists who are working on the project who will start publishing on this data.

  • question for Amy - do you choose the hobby or the people first?

The examples she talked about today was focussed on the people first, and used the hobbies as a way of reaching specific communities, e.g. wanted to engage with elderly people, ended up working with a crafts group.

  • did media coverage lead to identifiable bumps in increased participation?

For the OPAL project, simply yes.

  • Question for Stephen (from Cameron), do we have an ethical framework that can help us answer the question for what should be farmed out and what is the role of the professional researcher.

Stephen has no problem with that. His contract says something like 37.5 hours per week, but this is laughable, and anyone who works in a university knows that this is a legal fiction.

Hmm, no answer to that question.

Robb has an interesting answer, but I’m too tired to do his answer justice as it overlaps too much with some ideas that I’ve had about this topic.

  • what does the panel feel about the protein folding project? surely participation is it’s own reward?

Ah, the discussion is all kick off now, about people doing things for free, people who are doing

An example of where this has gone wrong, an arts graduate in Ireland asked knitters to create A4 pieces of knitting, but knitters said no.

(I mention the incentives thing again).

FarmVille does not educate anyone about agriculture

The 1 millionth lichen record was listed by an amateur, ecology and astronomy have a long history of amateur participation.

The term democratic is emerging in the discussion.

Actual amateur scientists have not been mentioned in this discussion yet, like the bio-hackers. Rupert Sheldrake is being mentioned (someone I also don’t know).

Someone mentions the polymath project. (I don’t think that the polymath example is representative, but I think the reason that I don’t think it is representative is because of an opinion that I’ve read somewhere and not because I’ve thought about it too much).

Is there scope to allow the amateur’s to level up with the main scientists?

When a new zooniverse app launches, does that lead to a drop of the other sites, Rob says that on the day of launch the other sites drop by bout 10%, but then gradually grow back to their orginial levels, there is very little canabalisation.

Someone mentions the question of what is science for, doing science in your garage may not help the world, as it may not get out of your garage.

Jack Stilgo .. oh, hey, we are finished now, and off to the pub!!

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