As the RASC Star Party Coordinator for the Ottawa Centre, I asked members for information on two surveys for our approach in 2018. I don’t intend to be a simple slave to the survey (Mike M warned me that way could lead to madness!), but I did want some input on various elements to help guide my thinking. This post is designed to give some of the results of the survey. I divided the survey into two separate surveys on Survey Monkey, one about the overall approach and one about the actual dates. The response rate wasn’t astronomical (no pun intended), with about 40 people having views on the approach but only 20 having views on the dates.
The Survey about the Approach
Q1: The first question was a simple one — for our monthly star parties, did they want to only have them at Carp (15%), hold the main ones at Carp but have some extra ones elsewhere (53%), or mostly Carp but move them around (32%)? There are different ways to splice those findings. Some two-thirds definitely want all the main ones at Carp; however 85% are open to at least some (main or extra) at other locations. When I read the comments provided, I’m left with clear interest in FLO and the East End.
Q2: Interestingly, when I got to Q2, people had a clear diversity of views on where to add “extra” locations that were more spread out than the comments on Q1 — sure, 25% want to go East, but 20% want to go South, 14% want to go Central, and only 7% wanted to go North. However, more interesting was the preference that the direction wasn’t as important as finding a way to link up with the sidewalk astronomy crowd (48%). The comments mirrored Q1 responses, but added in the Dominion Observatory, the Experimental Farm, AstroPontiac, Vincent Massey Park, and the Mill of Kintail.
Q3: This Q was a bit of a variation on Q2, more asking it in a slightly different way — if we went for a “darker” area, outside of Ottawa, where do people want to try? 47% are willing to do something “dark” at FLO or the Mill of Kintail site. 30% are willing to try Luskville (the AstroPontiac site, which I admit I am a member of the board for, as I think it’s a great option for the future). 47% are also willing to consider other sites beside those, looking for small community options. The views in the comments were quite different though…Several noted that as soon as we are “outside” Ottawa, we’ll lose the public aspect, as well as some of the members. It is just too far to go. Others want to go even farther — Plevna, Kingston, Frontenac and Luskville show up as options.
Q4: This question was a bit more about the infrastructure we have on site to support the star party. I didn’t have a lot of ideas in this one, or rather, I didn’t have a lot of pre-thinking of ideas, so I was hoping people would offer up some comments to flesh it out. Interestingly, some jumped out in the options pretty fast…24% want bathroom options, something Mike M. had mentioned to me as something we could look into anyway, before the survey, and for me it was asking for validation. With a quarter flagging it as desirable, I think that’s pretty good validation. I also know that a number of people have complained about the proximity of the upper bowl headlights when people are leaving — people are getting in their car, setting up fans and settings, finally pulling out, etc., all while their headlights are blinding the stargazers below. The only thought I had from a diagram I saw of a professional star park in the U.S. was some sort of barrier between the parking and the viewing — and since we don’t own the land, this would have to be some sort of tarp. I confess I have ZERO idea how to pull this off, but 20% of the respondents liked the idea, the second highest ranked item of interest.
You know what else was interesting about this question? I gave people an option at the end to choose “You’re overthinking this, keep it simple”. 15% of respondents ticked this box…they’re not looking for a lot of extra bells and whistles complicating the outing. For me, this is kind of a threshold then … people were pretty close to the same ranking for this as they were about limiting parking and car mobility in the lower bowl (15%), setting up a kiosk (12%), more formal signage (6%), a setup / help and newbie zone (3%). And while I would love to just go with that 15% as my threshold to determine “above” that level were solid contenders and below were “nice to haves”, I realized after the survey was up and running that I screwed up. This question should have allowed for multiple options to be selected, but somehow when I converted the Qs to all have that feature, I missed it for this one. Soooo, a lot of the comments reflected that…they asked for multiples of the above. It is clear though that the two biggies are the bathroom and light blocker, although the rest might have ranked higher too though if they had the chance to add a second or third vote.
Other suggestions added manually were ID badges for everyone (not sure how that would work, honestly, as I can’t even see faces that often, let alone read a badge on their chest!); no smoking signs; better instructions on how to park facing up and out, or the tarp. Another idea that was included was against the portable toilets in favour of using the library bathrooms, but I can’t see how that would be viable for the library from a security or even a liability standpoint. All good ideas to consider though.
Q5: I had read of a few theme nights in other star party centres (some online, some physical), and I wondered if there would be interest from the group. So I threw up a BUNCH of ideas to see if any caught some interest. Shockingly, all of them did. Really? I thought I was just throwing stuff at the wall to see if any would stick. Oh, sure, we’re not talking a cult movement here, but there was some interest:
- Spotlight on the Moon (32%)
- Partnering with other groups (26%)
- Solar viewing party (26%)
- Special outing to North Frontenac? Denbigh? Peterborough? (24%)
- Newbie Night — What scope is right for you? (24%)
- Spotlight on a Planet (special target of the month) (18%)
- Introduction to Astrophotography (18%)
After that, we’re down to smaller levels of interest (Conjunction night at 15%, Partners night at 15%, Tech night at 12%, Messier marathon at 12%, etc. However, when we got to the comments, I found the take a bit different than I had above. One said all of the above, and another said none of the above (preferring to keep it focused on observing), but there was interest in both Observing options and Learning options, like links to Grade 9 Astronomy classes, or passports for the kids with stickers for using different scopes or seeing different options (generally using gamification for the younger viewers to keep them interested with a goal and a reward). Another would love to see a Mallincam in action. All good food for thought, not sure how to action some of them, even ones that were my idea in the first place. But all good input.
Q6: The last question was a thinly disguised survey of interest in helping with some of these extras and if people wanted more info. Let’s face it, the largest “friction” in any transaction is almost always one of information. If you don’t know about a product, you can’t buy it; if you don’t know how to compare them, you can’t choose one; if you don’t have the info, you’ll often spend a lot of time getting it before you can buy. It’s classic behavioural economics. So, in this case, while the “purchase” is free in the sense of volunteering to help, I wanted to know where you felt you didn’t have enough info to make a decision or how to get involved if you were interested. While the sample size was smaller, with many people skipping this question, 53% of those who did respond wanted more info about how to help newbies, including perhaps not bringing a scope that night so you’re free to help newbies set up. 46% were interested in helping with the “theme” nights. And 15% were potentially interested in becoming party marshals.
The Survey about the Dates
I made a potential mistake when I launched the survey, and I wasn’t able to correct it in time for other respondents. For the dates, I assumed we would go with the same approach as previous years — aim for the Friday first, with the Saturday as the first backup date, and the following weekend the third and fourth backups. But someone questioned almost immediately if we separated the Friday and Saturday dates, would we see a preference emerge between the two? Unfortunately, once the first person has responded, the design is locked on the survey. You can change it after that, but you have to discard their responses. I decided to leave it as is, rather than throw away the responses of some eager beavers, so we’ll see how the results work.
Q1 – April: I gave people the option to tell me it was too cold, and 6% agreed (although one wanted to start in March!!!), but 65% also want to do something on International Astronomy Day (April 21st), or 44% would opt for the weekend before (April 13/14th).
Q2 – May: 59% want May 11th, rest were split evenly.
Q3 – June: 53% prefer June 8th, but 47% would go for June 15th, so basically a coin toss.
Q4 – July: 65% want July 13th, and another 47% would go for July 20th.
Q5 – August: The 17th pulled in the most hits, just after StarFest, with 54%.
Q6 – September: The 14th was the most popular with 65% response.
Q7 – October: The 19th pulled a response rate of 54%, while the 12th had a respectable 40% too.
Q8 – November: Interestingly, the anti-cold crowd showed up for this one with 30% thinking it was too cold to bother. However, they were slightly outvoted by the 41% who were interested in trying something for the 9th.
I mentioned my error in approach above, but it was slightly mitigated by the option of a question (Q9) about which date to try for — Fridays or Saturdays. However, 44% preferred them to always be on Friday first and Saturday as the backup. Equally though, if I combine a few other options, an almost equal number were open to some variation, just not agreement on what it would look like.
As the last question, I also wanted to check the link between Star Parties and the RASC meeting dates with no consensus at all. 32% said don’t move a RASC meeting date, even if the viewing was good that night; 11% thought we could move the meeting; 21% said have the viewing the next night; and 21% thought they could be held the same night. While there is no clear consensus and two different ways to interpret that low response rate, I think it is clear that there is no groundswell to consider moving dates. Hence, I won’t be suggesting RASC move a meeting date. And not for nothing, NONE of the preferred dates above were on RASC nights anyway, even if lots of people DID vote for those nights (at a higher rate than they said so for this question, hence the problem with interpreting it with such a low sample size).
So, where does that leave me as Star Party Coordinator?
After I had launched the surveys, I had a small extra idea…why not contact the Star Party Coordinators in other centres and see what they do that seems to work well? In an ideal world, I would have thought of that first and asked them BEFORE I surveyed our members to narrow some of the questions or add in other elements, but since I hadn’t thought of it early enough, I reached out to the other Centres anyway to see if they had interest in participating in a small survey too about what they already do. About half responded and are willing, and I’ve decided to use the results from this survey to help hone my questions to them. Which is my backended way of explaining that I’m not ready to completely pronounce as of yet.
One thing that became clear right away in engaging the other Centres is that we aren’t all using the same terminology. Since I am not a well-traveled astronomer, I was using our Ottawa-Centre terminology of a “monthly Star Party” to mean the monthly outing with observing plus public participation. Some other Centres divide those activities into multiple options:
- Monthly observing outings, but ONLY for members;
- Irregular outreach observing outings, open to the public;
- Special outreach observing “parties” for special events, some open to the public and some only to members; and,
- Annual star “parties”.
So when I asked them about Star Parties, some of them immediately responded to say, “Just once a year”. Because for them, that was a very specific activity. But when I poked further, they too have some of the above, they just don’t capture them as “star parties”. That’s a small digression, but it opened up my eyes a bit to some of the larger context for our own outings.
For example, some people expressed interest in some member only parties a little farther away from Ottawa, without the public viewing option. My first instinct was “no” because I didn’t see that as a star party like the others; my newer instinct after seeing what the other Centres were doing was to notice that is more like a “viewing party” without the public viewing benefits, and still within our wheelhouse. Equally, some of the other Centres do that at places equivalent to FLO, which some members were interested in linking up with more formally.
I think some things are likely easy to pronounce on early:
1. For dates, people are willing to start in April and go to November, so that gives us eight monthly observing sessions.
2. I think seven of those formal “monthlies” should stay at Carp, with one of the eight (July or August) moving to a second site that is open and accessible to the public, and that it should be somewhere in the East End. Consider it a “pilot” for future outings.
3. In addition, I think we should try for several “extra” viewings where if we are a “go” for our first date of the month, then:
- May: Try for an “extra” sidewalk outing that month too (East End somewhere);
- June: Try for an “extra” members only viewing at FLO or Mill of Kintail that month;
- July: Try for an “extra” sidewalk outing that month too (South End somewhere);
- August: Try for an “extra” members only viewing at a darker site (Plevna, Frontenac, Mill of Kintail, etc.);
- September: Try for an “extra” sidewalk outing that month too (Central somewhere);
- October: Try for an “extra” viewing at Luskville with AstroPontiac;
4. In terms of logistics, bathrooms and a tarp are popular items, so I’ll perhaps explore those this year. Of course, if others are interested in some of the other items and want to do the legwork on those, let me know! 🙂
5. A night “spotlighting” the moon and solar viewing were also of interest, so I can explore those two. Perhaps one of the sidewalk outings could combine solar too? I don’t have much experience with this myself.
6. We’ll also get you some info about getting involved, if you want to be, no real pressure. I will however come back to you for sub-organizers for the sidewalk events since people already have infrastructure in place for some that have been doing this for years already, no sense in “me” trying to coordinate those, other than possible dates.
One thing that came up in a couple of places, and I haven’t mentioned it above, was some interest in a StarFest-like camping option somewhere. There might be some options to do that with Luskville (and they do have the bathrooms there), but I’ll have to look into that. If others have options they wanted to suggest in the meantime, feel free. I am doubtful we’ll get to do ALL of the things above this year, but let’s give it a go.
As always, views are welcome. My goal is to have a formal schedule and proposal out to people by the end of March.