Case study: Galaxy Zoo | University of Oxford

Case study: Galaxy Zoo

What needed media coverage?

Galaxy Zoo, a citizen science project which needs members of the public to help classify millions of new images of galaxies through a website. The website was created by Oxford University scientists in partnership with an international team of astronomers. Classifying galaxies helps scientists to understand how galaxies evolved over time and to test theories about the nature of the Universe. 


Why was media coverage important?

Because there are so many images, and humans are far better than computers at making classifications, getting large numbers of people visiting the Galaxy Zoo website to classify galaxies was crucial. Potential users had to know about the website, and the media was the obvious communication channel to a large audience of the general public.

Chris Lintott, an astrophysicist in Oxford’s Department of Physics, was one of the founders of the project and is one of its academic leaders. He says: ‘The projects in Galaxy Zoo rely on getting hundreds of thousands of people to help us in the task of classifying galaxies - and without publicity we couldn't find them. Despite being web projects, connections with traditional media outlets are critical, and we couldn't have found them on our own.’


What was the role of the Press & Information Office?

Longstanding engagement with the project right from its launch in 2007, to publicise each new stage – recruiting ‘citizen scientists’ and showcasing Oxford’s research.

Launch in 2007

  • Writing and disseminating a news release in advance of the project launch
  • Working with the BBC to get particular coverage

Exciting finds

  • 2008 news release on discovery of 500 overlapping galaxies
  • News release on the discovery of ‘Hanny’s Voorwep’ - a mysterious cosmic object
  • Creating webpage of related images for journalists
  • Science Blog article on study of graceful decline of red spiral galaxies

 Launch of second phase, Galaxy Zoo 2, in 2009: 

  • News release in advance of the launch of GZ2
  • Arranging for GZ volunteers and team members to be interviewed for TV and radio
  • News release on comparing images for colliding galaxies

Media coverage received

Galaxy Zoo launch (2007):
The Times
BBC Six O’Clock News

BBC News Online

Today Programme

(Also: many smaller news outlets and blogs)

Galaxy Zoo (2008/9):
BBC News Online
New Scientist
Times online
Oxford Mail
The Guardian

Galaxy Zoo 2 launch (2009):

Today Programme

BBC Breakfast

BBC News Online
Universe Today


Results for the project

By spring 2011, more than 320,000 people had taken part in Galaxy Zoo and sister project Moon Zoo, making over 150 million classifications, producing a wealth of valuable data and sending telescopes on Earth and in space chasing after their discoveries.

Launch in July 2007:

  • Within 24 hours of the launch, the site was receiving 70,000 classifications an hour
  • During the first year more than 50 million classifications were submitted by almost 150,000 people

Launch of second phase, Galaxy Zoo 2, in 2009:

  • During the first two days the website got 12 clicks per second
  • In the 14 months the site was up, Galaxy Zoo 2 users helped to make over 60 million classifications

Chris Lintott says: ‘Without the initial publicity, Galaxy Zoo would have remained a small side project. Instead, we run citizen science projects involving about 100 scientists and a team of full-time developers. It's not an exaggeration to say that the publicity we received has completely changed the way many astronomers deal with large data sets. We even have people discovering their own planets!’


In their words

Press Officer Pete Wilton worked with Dr Lintott and his Oxford colleagues to promote Galaxy Zoo right from the start.

‘When Chris Lintott called me about a web-based project they had coming up called “Galaxy Zoo”, I don’t think anyone realised quite how big it would become,’ he says.

‘Inviting web volunteers to help classify images of galaxies was a fascinating idea and I thought the key thing was to get across that anyone could do it, that it was fun, and that people would be contributing to real science.

‘I worked with Chris to write a news release that I hoped got across the enthusiasm of the team behind the project. The plan was to send this out embargoed, so the media would report it all on one day – launch day – to try and get a splash of publicity that would encourage people to visit the new website and start classifying.

‘Thinking it might work for TV, I got in touch with BBC One science correspondent Christine McGourty, who came down to film a piece with some of the team and some sixth-formers we drafted in to demonstrate the website. Getting on the Six O’Clock TV News is always tough, and we got bumped by another story, so only a very short clip was shown – though that was still well worth having, as the programme has about five million viewers.

‘What really made a difference, though, was that Christine also wrote a great piece for BBC News Online. And because it got on the news diary, the Today programme also ran an item. This BBC coverage spread over the internet as people emailed each other the links and talked about it online.’

When Galaxy Zoo launched in July 2007, the team thought that it might take at least two years for visitors to the site to work through all one million galaxies there to be identified. Within 24 hours of the launch, the site was receiving 70,000 classifications an hour. ‘We had so many responses that our server melted!’, Chris comments. During the first year more than 50 million classifications were submitted by almost 150,000 people.

2008 saw one of the most exciting discoveries of the project, when Hanny Van Arkel, a Dutch schoolteacher and Galaxy Zoo volunteer, posted an image to the Galaxy Zoo forum and asked 'What's the blue stuff below?'.

No one knew. The object became known as the 'Voorwerp' - Dutch for 'object' – or ‘Hanny’s Voorwerp’. BBC News Online, New Scientist, Times Online, CNN and others all reported the mysterious find. Astronomers were so intrigued they did follow-up telescope observations as well as measurements from the Swift satellite.

After the overwhelming response, the Galaxy Zoo team realised they could ask volunteers to do more, so when they designed Galaxy Zoo 2, they took 250,000 of the best and brightest of the original sample of galaxies and asked people more detailed questions.

Pete says: ‘There was a really great human story to tell about what the Galaxy Zoo volunteers got out of the project, and the media kept citing it as a great example of “citizen science”.

‘When we were planning the publicity for GZ2, Graham Satchell, a reporter for BBC Breakfast TV, phoned and asked if he could interview Chris and some of the volunteers. This turned into a really great piece, telling the story of how people had been inspired by the project - in some cases to do a science degree! The day it aired they put the report on the front of the entire BBC website which was incredible.’

This time the servers didn’t melt but during the first two days the website got 12 clicks per second. In the 14 months the site was up Galaxy Zoo 2 users helped to make over 60 million classifications.


Why it worked

Pete says: ‘Our news releases played on people’s natural curiosity about space to get them interested in becoming “armchair astronomers” and believe that they could have fun on the site and contribute to real science.

‘The online articles, especially from the BBC, created a ‘word-of-mouth’ effect where people were forwarding links to each other and keeping the story alive as the project progressed.

‘By promoting it as a great success story for citizen science, and highlighting the human stories behind the discoveries, we were able to interest TV and radio in the project and reach an even larger audience.’

Of working with the Press & Information Office, Chris says: ‘It was a fantastic experience. Having had bad experiences with other places, I was a little worried about approaching them, but they were great at listening to what was important to us and then suggesting appealing ways to frame the story.’

Of the overall success of the media push, Chris says: ‘I think the most critical thing is the first conversation: if we can’t explain why we're excited in the first couple of sentences, then we're not going to get anywhere with the journalists. Wonderful images help too, of course.’


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