Mapping Historic Skies

At the 2019 Museums and the Web Conference in Boston, MA, members of the Collections and Zooniverse teams at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium participated in an App Crit for their collaborative project, Mapping Historic Skies (MHS). The MHS project invited visitors to the Adler Planetarium to use an interactive app to help Adler staff process images of historical star maps. The ultimate goal of this project was to create a database of constellation depictions in art from Adler collections, allowing users to browse centuries of depictions for any constellation. The project was built using Zooniverse, the world’s largest platform for online crowdsourced research, and the MHS interactive (featured onsite at the Adler) was hosted on the Zooniverse mobile application. An online component on Zooniverse.org included an additional workflow—once images had been segmented into individual constellations via the Adler interactive, online volunteers were asked to identify those constellations by following a decision tree that guided them through the identification process without requiring participants to have any previous knowledge of constellations or astronomy. The Adler Planetarium quickly discovered that though this project had been envisioned as a crowdsourcing project focused on the end result, this project became one of the Adler’s best engagement tools. 

In November 2019 the app debuted in a new exhibition at the Adler, Chicago’s Night Sky, and our concept of an interactive crowdsourcing project—designed for an in-exhibit experience —came to fruition. We had an experience that allowed guests to interact with our collections, while inviting them on to our research team. When the Adler closed in March 2020 due to COVID-19 safety concerns, the project pivoted so that both workflows were available online only.

At the time of launch, the MHS project was receiving about 1,400 classifications a day for the first four weeks, with classifications tapering off to around 500 classifications per day and holding steady for the next three months. Upon closure we saw these classifications steadily increase with peak days over 2,300 classifications for almost two months. MHS retained an average daily classification rate of around 1,000 through mid-July. This uptick in participation is linked to a factor of 2 to 5 Zooniverse-wide increase in classification rate during the early pandemic periods of people looking for online activities, and in particular online educational activities, with MHS and Zooniverse being included on lists published by the National Endowment for Humanities and on public access radio programs, respectively.

A unique feature of Zooniverse is the ‘Talk’ message board system, included with each project on the platform. Since its early days, Zooniverse has incorporated message boards into projects in order to support direct engagement between the research team and the volunteer community. ‘Talk’ was also designed explicitly to enable participants to flag unusual or rare objects they came across while classifying, to enable ‘serendipitous discovery’. This is an acknowledgement that, though volunteers may initially engage with a dataset with a specific task or instruction in mind, platforms which support public volunteer engagement need a built-in way for volunteers to point out additional information to researchers running the project, ask questions, or share interesting moments from their experience on the platform. Since the project’s launch in November 2019, more than 7,000 Zooniverse volunteers have posted 3,600 comments in over 2,000 discussion threads. For our Collections staff this was a unique opportunity to engage in daily conversations with users about objects, cultural questions, artistic questions; and these conversations not only proved to be one of the more rewarding aspects of the project but also helped to spark new ways of using and speaking about these collections. 

The strength of the Mapping Historic Skies project is that it changed the onus of power over collections. Adler guests and Zooniverse users were allowed to interact with not only Adler collections but also Adler staff in a very welcoming environment. By using the Zooniverse platforms functionality the projects were able to iterate and evolve based on user feedback, expanding the project and helping it change to suit issues as users encountered them. The projects focus on inviting anyone into the research process by creating workflows that required no specialist knowledge also helped to keep engagement high, while spawning conversations on Talk boards about new discoveries within the collections. The iteration, and sustained engagement have meant that as we processed the 3,558 cropped images  from the first five subject sets, we have seen a 98% accuracy rate for constellation identification; which is far beyond our expectations. Mapping Historic Skies helped demonstrate to the Adler, and beyond, that these interactive crowdsourcing projects can work online and onsite as ways to engage with collections, spark conversations, create new views in to collections, and still generate usable metadata and products for the institution.