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The popular citizen science project, Galaxy Zoo, went super-sized at this year’s Oxford Christmas Light Festival (Friday 15 – Saturday 16 November 2019). Crowds of visitors to the vibrant annual seasonal celebration got a taste of the astronomical by helping researchers describe hundreds of images of galaxies, projected at massive scale onto to the buildings in Bonn Square. Voting with their feet in this life-sized interactive installation, revellers had a chance to do real science and to talk to researchers who helped make the Galaxy Zoo project such a success over the past decade.

How did it work?

The Galaxy Zoo team teamed up with Tom Wilkinson and Tom Fuller (Creative Media Wizards in the Public Affairs Directorate), a Knowledge Exchange Seed Fund and a little bit of help from MPLS to create this interactive light installation.

The idea came from discussions with the organisers of the Christmas Light Festival who were keen to get some science in the programme and placed us in Bonn Square alongside the Inclusive Santa’s Grotto, local community choirs and dancers (they’re keen to have even more science in 2020 so watch this space…). 

It didn’t take long to come up with something appropriate for the festival (interactive, fun, surprising and most importantly LIT UP), by combining a bunch of ideas people had been brewing up for some time.

Next we identified an appropriate wall, sorted out all the logistics (gazebos, a bright enough projector, and volunteers) and developed the way the interaction would work.

We had lots of high-tech ideas, but in the end the process was fairly simple. It still required the technological brains of The Toms to figure it out. Briefly, we used software that could essentially combine flashy graphics with images from the Galaxy Zoo website on a laptop, which could then be projected. On the ground, there were chalk paint images of an elliptical and spiral galaxy. People were then manually counted as they moved from one spot to the other, before a play station controller was used to control the graphics so that they responded to the winning classification.

We ran from 6pm to 10pm each night. Through rain and… cold and dark weather…

Master of ceremonies came in the form of Grant Miller, communications and project manager at Zooniverse, who had honed his skills from years of being pub quiz master at his local. He explained the activity, the science, kept the energy up, and took questions from punters. The key was to let people know they were doing real science and that they could do it at home where it was warm and dry.

Of course there were a couple people in high-vis keeping an eye on things to ensure crowds didn’t get too big, and to encourage people to come over and take part.

Last, but certainly not least, we had five researchers from Zooniverse and Astrophysics on hand who could talk visitors through the Zooniverse projects and generally answer their questions about space and science.

In total, the project cost £3,969. Thanks KE Seed Fund!

What was the point of all this?

Our aims were to:

-          Enhance the visibility of citizen science opportunities and Galaxy Zoo research to local and visiting publics - raise awareness of Oxford residents and tourists of the opportunity for them to help researchers, and make their own discoveries through the Zooniverse – encourage publics to go online and have a go at Zooniverse citizen science projects

-          Provide a positive experience of science, and an opportunity for interchange with scientists and to build understanding of contemporary research for public audiences who might not normally interact through existing channels and science events

-          Improve researchers’ understanding of public interest and questions in research, and build capacity for Zooniverse researchers’ direct engagement with the public

-          Inform and inspire public audiences with the beauty of space, and the fascinating science that looking at these images can reveal

Zooniverse image projected onto a building 

What was achieved?

We created an entirely new interactive light installation and created a giant Zooniverse sign that the Zooniverse team will be able to use in the future. In fact, they’re talking about using the above video to pitch it to a popular science-inclined music festival. The team said ‘this is best outreach we’ve ever done!’.

The Christmas Light Festival organisers were also really impressed and want to see more science in Bonn Square, so we hope a longer-term partnership with the festival is developing.

Over 300 people took part in the interactive activity (based on rudimentary counting), with further people talking to researchers. We had a great mix of people with their kids, but mostly young and older adults on their nights out, obviously people who were visiting the festival, and not forgetting Motsy the West Highland Terrier. Based on numbers from traffic cameras provided from the council, almost 6,340 people passed by the area over the two nights, adding to what we’re calling ‘soft audience exposure’. Over 53,000 people visited the Christmas Light Festival (they figure this out by looking at increased footfall in the city compared with the same hours the weekend before).

We haven’t totted up the online reach just yet, but the activity featured as the University’s video Christmas Card.

Importantly, through micro-interviews with pairs and groups of people who had just taken part in the interactive 70% of people said that they weren’t aware that they could help researchers online before and that they’d now go and look at Zooniverse to learn more, explore, help their kids, or just generally pass time (30% people were already aware of online citizen science, but 50% of those weren’t specifically aware of Zooniverse). Positive words were unanimously used when describing the experience, like ‘fascinating’, ‘energetic’, ‘fun’, ‘spiraltastic’, ‘amazing’ and ‘profound’.

Additionally, for a couple of our researchers it was their first time doing this sort of outreach, and so they had a formative experience of talking to members of the public.

All in all, we think we've achieved what we set out to achieve.

What did we learn?

As with any experiment, we learnt an awful lot about the specific practicalities of how to actually create the activity and how to run it.

  • We noticed that generally, because we were in a bit of a ‘nook’ created by the wall and our gazebos, and because crowds were passers-by and not in massive numbers, we found that people generally organised themselves and didn’t need very much corralling.
  • We learnt that filming the activity was quite tricky to do live, and with only one camera trying to capture the projection and people in the dark, it meant that quite a heroic effort was made to create the video above (all credit to Tom Fuller!).
  • Positioning and arrangement of the site was an interesting challenge. The tech tent had to be where it was, but the position of the researchers’ tent wasn’t conducive to attracting passers-by from the New Hall Inn Street end of Bonn Square, and we felt a little cut off from other things going on.
  • We also learnt that we should involve the festival organisers more to make sure that programming is smooth and works for all parties. We could have started earlier to capture more families for example, though reaching adults we might not normally reach was a big plus, too.
  • Hot drinks are important for morale.
  • Finally, we learnt to be conservative with our ambitions for how big to make a sign. The massive Zooniverse sign, masterfully crafted by a local carpenter, ended up JUST fitting into a Luton Van (whilst it was designed to fit in the van, it didn’t take into account the size of the doorway of the van), and required the efforts of five people experienced in moving stage gear around to get it into and out of the van (who thankfully were working at the festival). It also didn’t fit through the gate of the Physics building, but has, thankfully, found a home. Be careful when you say things like ‘it could be bigger’ during the design stage of a project, and check dimensions carefully.

Unpacking equipment for the light installation


This was a real team effort, and whilst it was ‘a bit scary’, we’re glad we did it.

We hope Enter the Zooniverse will grace the world again, so watch this space!

Zooniverse image projected onto a building