Crowdsourcing Jupiter


NASA's Cassini spacecraft on December 29, 2000, captured this image of Jupiter, showing its distinctive bands. (NASA/JPL/SSI)

There’s celestial excitement brewing because Jupiter has lost a belt. In addition to the famous red spot, Jupiter has two wide stripes that circle the planet and the Southern belt is gone. Apparently this has happened before, but it doesn’t happen often.

A good piece on explains that the surface of Jupiter is really a big old cloud and that a number of things could change it. They quote Kelly Beatty, senior contributing editor for Sky and Telescope magazine who says they have “some confidence” the belt will be back. He also said amateur astronomers were among the first to see the change.

This quote was especially interesting;

“There aren’t enough professionals to keep track of everything going on in the universe all the time,” Beatty says. “So in a sense, they rely on amateur astronomers — who have very good equipment, by the way — to actually keep an eye on things.”

Wow — professionals relying on enthusiastic, well-equipped citizens to help them gather information. Sounds a little like crowdsourcing, user generated content, citizen journalism or whatever ever catchphrase we use to describe using non-professionals in newsgathering. The difference seems to be that astronomers work with it while journalists fear the consequences.

First, the obvious differences; there aren’t giant corporations trying to shave costs and pay huge executive salaries through laying off astronomers and replacing their work with amateur donations. And, astronomy is a discipline that doesn’t need results NOW, on deadline, like journalism. They have time to evaluate the input from the helpful hobbyists.

But astronomers have not been funded like media was the past several decades. Journalists never thought we had enough backing but the truth is there was a lot of money going into newsgathering. And now the business model has changed and the staffing and funding has been cut swiftly and significantly.

This change has happened so quickly that it’s been like a blindside punch. We aren’t knocked out, but we’re woozy and disoriented. And we’ve lost some blood. The resources are slashed and the days are over when we could cover everything in the universe all the time.

It’s going to take time to get used to setting real priorities. Professional journalists should spend time on the stories and projects that benefit from their professional experience. Then take time to develop relationships with “citizen” journalists so that they know what professionals expect and how they can contribute. Maybe they can watch Jupiter while a smaller group of professionals look for the undiscovered stories.