How Galaxy Zoo Got Going: 3 Key Lessons

How Galaxy Zoo Got Going: 3 Key Lessons

In this blog I'm going to show you how to enlist the power of the crowd to solve your problem -- key lessons I learned from the co-founder of Galaxy Zoo as the team created a website to solicit the crowd to help them identify and catalogue galaxy images.

In my last post, I spoke about how the citizen-science site Galaxy Zoo began as a way for users to help scientists identify elliptical galaxies. The site's co-founder, astrophysicist Kevin Schawinski, had set himself and his colleagues the task of cataloguing 1,000,000 galaxies by looking through photographs taken from the new generation of sky-scanning telescopes.

The scientists had anticipated that a few people, perhaps a dozen, might be interested in clicking on galaxies and identifying them. So they were totally unprepared for what happened next.

Not only did registered users on the site identify more galaxies in one hour than Schawinski himself had been able to identify in an entire week of 10-hour days, but so many people had signed up to contribute that the site server literally melted down. "The cable we were using melted, and we were offline," said Schawinski. "The project nearly died there."

Luckily, a colleague was able to cobble together a few other servers to allow the site to resume. "Now, all our servers are cloud-based," Schawinski explained. "We've learned from the website getting knocked offline to put such things in the cloud. There are no physical servers. If you launch a new project, it's going to bring in new people and you have to be ready to meet the bandwidth."

For someone who wanted to replicate a similar effect in a different area of crowdsourcing than that of Galaxy Zoo, here are three key recommendations:

  1. The site should have a clean design. "Our designer used a very clean interface," Schawinski told me. You don't want to clutter anything or make it difficult to understand. "With one of our newer projects, when we ask people to help us find planets around other stars, there's a strong and clear call to action: 'We need your help trying to find planets.'"
  2. The site should have a very low barrier to getting started. It's important that the user can literally get started without any delay looking at the data. "With our latest site, you press on an arrow and you're in the data looking at images to analyze. In this site, little pop-up bubbles explain things as you click through, so the tutorial is seamless and painless." Schawinski continued, "You have to have the mechanisms by which a new user gets spun very short and sweet so that they can start contributing almost immediately."
  3. The site should have and allow for a community. "You have to build an online community that can organically self-organize, and you have to provide them the tools to do so," Schawinski told me. "Once you've hit on a subject that attracts passionate users, providing them with online discussion forums is very important. People who know more help teach new people. And then -- and this is the fascinating part -- the citizen scientists get together and self-organize and start their own research projects. These citizen scientists can make discoveries using data that might not have been examined in a particular way before."

In my next blog I'm going to write about how engaging the crowd can bring about breakthrough results, as "non-experts" look at the data in a novel fashion and come up with striking results. I'll also talk about how Galaxy Zoo was able to morph and move into its next phase, Zooniverse.

NOTE: Over the next year, I'm embarking on a BOLD mission -- to speak to top CEOs and entrepreneurs to find out their secrets to success. My last book Abundance, which hit No. 1 on Amazon, No. 2 on the New York Times and was at the top of Bill Gates' personal reading list, shows us the technologies that empower us to create a world of Abundance over the next 20 to 30 years. BOLD, my next book, will provide you with tools you can use to make your dreams come true and help you solve the world's grand challenges to create a world of Abundance. I'm going to write this book and share it with you every week through a series of blog posts. Each step of the way, I'll ask for your input and feedback. Top contributors will be credited within the book as a special "thank you," and all contributors will be recognized on the forthcoming BOLD book website. To ensure you never miss a message, sign up for my newsletter here.

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