Thing 11: Crowdsourcing


Andy Corrigan

Digital Library Co-ordinator, Cambridge University Libraries

& Cambridge Digital Humanities Associate


In 1848, Charles Darwin wrote to his friend and colleague J.S. Henslow:

“I believe there exists … an instinct for truth, or knowledge or discovery … & that our having such an instinct is reason enough for scientific researches without any practical results ever ensuing from them.”


The pursuit of truth, knowledge and discovery is an innate part of human nature that brings us together. It might even be said that our ability to collaborate has been key to the success of humanity from its earliest origins. It is no surprise then, that we continually find new ways to collaborate and expand our concept of crowdsourcing. Underpinned by advances in technology, researchers across a wide variety of disciplines have been able to successfully accomplish a life’s work in a fraction of that time. Crowdsourcing, however, isn’t always a suitable method and requires careful thought and consideration of the valid criticisms. Many tools and methods are available to facilitate crowdsourcing projects and navigating these Is key to success. The first consideration is one of scale – both in terms of what you hope to achieve, but also the resources at your disposal.



Zooniverse homepage image
Welcome to the Zooniverse

Welcome to the Zooniverse

homepage: https://www.zooniverse.org/


Launched in 2009, and now with well over 1.6 million users, one of the largest and most established platforms for crowdsourcing projects is Zooniverse. Originating in a huge-scale astronomy project to classify galaxies, the initial focus was on citizen-science but Zooniverse has grown and diversified with 75 current active projects spanning the sciences and humanities. You can help count penguin populations, advance knowledge of the Martian climate, shine a light on the contribution of women to science, or even brush-up on your Hebrew/Arabic to uncover the mysteries of ancient scribes – the content and scale are equally mind-blowing. If you’re wondering why all this can’t be done by computers, Zooniverse reminds us that humans are still better any many tasks!



Transcribe Bentham is often hailed as a pinnacle at which to aim amongst transcription projects. Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) was a philosopher and reformer, who in 1793 noted that ‘Many hands make light work. Many hands together make merry work’. At the heart of Transcribe Bentham is the Transcription Desk – a MediaWiki-based interface, the code for which is open-source and available for reuse. An aspect you might wish to consider is that Transcribe Bentham introduces us to the concept of generating a sense of competition by rewarding volunteers with points and a leader board, like an old fashioned arcade game.


In addition to generating larger scale information capture and data-sets, crowdsourcing can also be an activity more focused on engaging a community with its own story, such as Historypin, or even a method to encourage a community to share and gather its own stories such as RunCoCo.


You might also be wondering how to undertake a smaller project without a friendly team of software developers to hand though? Undertaking your own project without many resources at your disposal is daunting but it is achievable. Here at Cambridge Digital Library we have a team of software developers but demands on their time are high. The Covid19 pandemic presented the opportunity of a “captive” audience with time on their hands, so I set about planning a project that I could do under my own steam based on a collection of notebooks used by the botanist and natural historian Oliver Rackham. I used the tools and functionalities of GitHub to set up and manage a basic transcription workflow that can be used alongside our digitised content. In the last year over 70 of these notebooks have been transcribed, meaning their contents are now discoverable through our own search interface, but also Google, greatly increasing their value to further research.



Image from the website for Oliver Rackham's notebooks
The notebooks of Oliver Rackham

Transcribing the notebooks of Oliver Rackham using GitHub and Cambridge Digital Library, Image courtesy of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.


The tools and methods at our disposal are constantly increasing and advancing and the dawn of the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) has proven a game-changer (see Thing 10). The nuts and bolts of IIIF make it possible to pull images directly from multiple sources and display them in multiple ways, cutting out the burden of having to prepare and upload your images to your chosen platform separately. The National Library of Wales uses IIIF within the Omeka S content management system to create a quick and easy to use platform. Optimised for basic tasks such as tagging photographic archives, more complex annotations and capture models are possible via plug-ins. Focusing on transcription, FromThePage is another platform using IIIF to streamline the process of crowdsourcing. The Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, is using it to transcribe their unique collection of medieval and renaissance manuscripts.



The National Library of Wales crowdsourcing platform
The National Library of Wales crowdsourcing platform

The National Library of Wales crowdsourcing platform


It’s important to remember that these tools and methods aren’t a wand-waving magic solution. Crowdsourcing can undoubtedly achieve great things in relatively efficient ways, especially when funding for your grand plan is in short supply, but it doesn’t mean less work and involves adopting a number of roles you might not have expected, such as designer, publicist, manager and, not least, quality assurance. There are many valid concerns to consider:

· Will people do it? – Think about your target audience.

· Will they do it well? – Think about the skills of your target audience.

· Will they finish it? – Think about how to keep your volunteers engaged.

· Are there any ethical issues? – Think about managing personal information, how to credit people’s work, how it will be accessed, how it might be reused.


Task

Undertaking your own crowdsourcing project is a big task, but by signing up to perhaps two or three existing projects or platforms and having a go, you can gain valuable experience of the tools and methods available whilst considering the role they might have in your own work. Crowdsourcing can also present some great opportunities for learning activity, so you might also want to think about the role it could play in your own teaching practice, particularly at this time when in-person teaching is not always an option.


Further Reading

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