Before this project I had only heard of Zooniverse in fleeting conversation relating to different projects being done in different years, however, when I logged on my imagination ran wild with the sheer variety of projects alone. Zooniverse being the world’s’ largest crowdsourcing platform enables many different projects to come to fruition. So, for this assignment I chose to review Planet Four, a tool which maps out Mars’ southern polar region.
The Process undertaken
The process used for each of these projects is quite simple: find the features, mark them out and update the image provided. Most of the images are from NASA’s HiRISE satellite and are very high in quality, making the task of discerning the features easier. However, some of the images are from older satellites and are not high in quality. The task becomes more difficult as the images are just not detailed enough to make a good decision on features and the like.
The really interesting part of the process is figuring out what is what as you are looking at an alien landscape you have to forego what you might think a particular landscape feature is, as on Mars, the environment is very different from Earth’s. In a way , you begin to interpret data based on the categories laid down in front of you. Each project has an “About” section where you can learn about different features and what causes them, etc, which is a massive help and eliminates some ambiguity.
From the outset you start mapping interesting features on the surface of Mars. These features are listed as using tools “blotches”, “fans” and “interesting features”. You select which of the tools the surface feature corresponds to. These “blotches” and “fans” can be a number of geographical features, most notably meteor impacts, or escaping gas. These geographical features augment the surface of Mars regularly, which means the surface is constantly changing shape.
After I processed a few images, I moved onto “Planet Four: Ridges”, a sister project that maps out polygonal ridges on the surface of Mars. This is a simple “true or false” questionnaire accompanied by an image. You have to select if there are polygonal ridges in the image to process and that is that. As polygonal ridges are rare on Mars, a large portion of the mapping here is skipping images, however, polygonal ridges can be formed by water or mineral deposits, so the importance of finding and classifying the ridges can be a very fruitful endeavour. What we are doing on this project is essentially surveying the surface of a different planet to find habitable elements for future generations.
Another sister project is “Planet Four: Terrains” Where you collaborate to map out the south pole of Mars, an icy region not too dissimilar to our polar regions here on Earth. From processing the images of the south pole, I came across an image of a crater and a channel network but this image included what appeared to be clouds, something I did not know was that Mars does not just have clouds, but different types of clouds, like here on Earth.
Implications of what I contributed
The implications of what was undertaken are far reaching. Like Open Street Map where map information is crowdsourced to bring more detail to regular maps which can be used for a variety of scenarios, the data being collected for Planet Four will be used to map out the surface of Mars, to build topographical maps of the landscape, and to further understand our closest neighbour in the Solar System. Scientists, government agencies and entrepreneurs are already laying the foundations for the colonisation of Mars and Planet Four is another cog in that engine.
The images on Planet Four are mainly from the southern polar region, which is an area of Mars we know very little about, which leads to a greater need for exploration.The reason why the project is based solely on the southern polar region is because NASA and the ESA have not yet made a comprehensive map of this region as of yet.
The southern polar region is a part of the planet where ice and wind shape the landscape, which means it is forever changing. The ability to figure out different ground patterns and features shaped by the element helps us understand better not only the landscape but the weather on the planet..
Along with the physical implications of Planet Four, there are the educational side effects also. For instance, as I explained earlier, I did not know there were clouds on Mars. If you were to get a class of fifth year secondary students to also contribute to this project, they would leave with a greater understanding of our universe, geography and physics. The remarkable feature of this tool is how easy to understand and use, which makes the task of processing the images far more easier and enjoyable. I feel these tools could and should be drafted into secondary school curricula because of this.
Another implication is the reward factor attributed to this task. As you are essentially mapping out another planet, the reward centre of your brain tends to kick in and spurs you on to do more work, I had to force myself off the computer at times to do other work. I feel this factor is quite important as it makes the task thoroughly enjoyable.
What I learned from this experience
After two weeks of processing images on all three sister projects of Planet Four, I have learned a number of things. Firstly, I learned about the power of crowdsourcing as this project is massive in scale, no one person or department can effectively conduct a project of this scale relatively quickly. This gives the scientists who lead this project the data they need to lay down in the map of Mars quickly and competently, something which has never happened before in the field of planetary sciences.
Secondly, as I has previously referenced, is the self learning aspect. I have come to know more about Mars as a result of this project. Another aspect of learning from this is how this type of crowdsourcing (much like Open Street Map) brings communities together, there is a forum/chat function available in the project for people to discuss their findings and different features they may not be sure they are looking at. I have also learned of the value of using the collective minds of the people to contribute and complete a task, which is a very powerful tool that can be utilised in many different ways.
I have also learned about the precedent this sets for future projects of this kind. Harnessing the collective power of our minds to create an organic super computer is a highly effective way to sift through vast swathes of data to achieve a goal like Planet Four. Not only is it cheaper to conduct research this way, it is also less time consuming. If a department within NASA or the ESA were to conduct this data processing, they would need serious computer power, some sort of A.I. to discern the different features in the images, which can be incredibly expensive. This project negates that expense in a very practical way
How I could apply it to my minor
As I could not find any project that directly related to my minor (Religion, Gender and Sexuality), I chose the project I was most interested in. However, that is not to say any of the techniques or processes used can be applied to my minor subject. This kind of crowdsourcing can be applied to translate old text, re-create old religious documents and reimagine old religious artefacts.
The possibilities are endless for crowdsourcing I believe, the only thing we need is to develop the correct tools and methodologies to create these projects ethically and with purpose. With advances in technology almost weekly at this point, it is not hard to see how much easier it will become to organise and execute crowdsourced projects in the near future. Internet speeds are also increasing rapidly, this will also give this kind of research that extra boost.
I found this zooniverse project highly engaging and very interesting, the scope of the project is quite big, like mapping out the southern polar region of Earth would be also. The amount I have learned about Mars since starting the project has been surprising, I did not expect to learn much from this project but the geography on Mars is so varied and alien it really hits home that you are looking and mapping a completely different world.
For me it is like a dream come true, as when I was younger there was nothing like this out there, it is a true measure of just how much our technology has advanced in the last 15 years alone. I look forward to what kind of technology becomes available to us in the future if this is the standard that we have now.