Crowdsourcing, Deep Reading, and Narrative: Part 1

Last post we wound up with a lot of feedback, and happily, much of it far beyond statements declaring fealty to either crowdsourcing or OCR, but rather, consisting of amazing discourse about the best ways to make use of crowd and computers alike.  We’re very appreciative — and humbled!  We knew so little going in, and got gentle and great feedback saying that, DUH, there is much happening out there.   We also got some insightful comments from folks simply sharing their own experiences converting various kinds of scans into movable type — both as volunteers and project coordinators.

We get the strong sense that our community is excited and ready to move forward.  But one thing we might be able to do is to “gear up” more collectively.  Not piecemeal, with 1000 different projects all working in isolation, but maybe in ways where the transcription experience, the data produced, and the science generated from those data are all enhanced.  Furthermore, we are now fully convinced, based on the excellent feedback we received, that there are real, concrete social and educational benefits to crowdsourcing that have henceforth been under-explored and perhaps unappreciated — again, built around thinking more collectively.  We want to now dig a little deeper, using the comments we received as groundwork for further inquiry.

So, we have a trilogy of blog posts planned: Post 1 will discuss some of this feedback in depth. Post 2 will LIST some of the new (to us) projects that we were forwarded via email and in the comments — particularly some projects that may be outside the normal bounds of natural history or museum work.  And Post 3 will summarize all of this material and any new comments into something concrete about practice.  If we do our job well, there will be lots of fodder from the community to develop into next steps e.g. collaborations, proposals, angry letters to the editor.   If not, well… you can always go back to watching beluga whales getting serenaded by a mariarchi band.   Onwards to comments.

As in the last post, we do hope (nay, live!) for your comments and feedback.  Throughout this post we will be asking more questions than offering answers; if you have sharable thoughts, please, don’t hesitate to post them!  This whole community thing only works when we talk to each other.

From Chris Norris:

“Most of the successful examples of crowdsourcing museum/science-based work that I’ve seen involve tapping pre-existing communities of either professional or avocational workers… Unless, of course, you manage to invent the taxonomic equivalent of WoW as a hook.”

Chris brings up two excellent points here: 1) for many disciplines, there are already crowds of skilled workers, and 2) Narrative and rewards (even virtual) are addictive.  While a taxonomic MMORPG is likely ill advised for our purposes (though “Spore” did see modest success) there are narratives to natural history work that could work as powerful motivators in digitization.
We hope Chris does not mind, but we’d like to expand his first point a bit: we argue that we cannot forget these pre-existing communities that may already be eager to help us — communities on which we already rely and have relied for decades, in the form of lab volunteers, field voluneers, and docents.

Andy Bentley similarly picked up on this gamification/incentivization/reward thread:

“The major issue is getting these “humans” interested in doing something like this. I agree with other posters that turning this into a game has great potential. Something like Farmville where people only get to add animals to their farm/zoo/aquarium once they have transcribed the data associated with that specimen from a collection somewhere. If you have a particular affinity to a certain type of animal/plant/organism you can stock your farm/zoo/aquarium with as many of that thing as you like after you have transcribed that many label records…”

What do you, dear readers, think of this sort of scenario?  Is this enough of a narrative hook? Label digitization would require considerably more work per reward — careful work — than something like Farmville.  Would too much gamification lead to a decrease in real digitization, as people attempt to cheat (or “game”) the system for easier rewards?  What real-life rewards do people get out of transcription endeavors?

This leads us to some comments from Ben Brumfield, our winner for “Most Insightful” comment last post (all comments were insightful, but Ben wrote us an incredibly thoughtful novella of a reply), which touch on what might be the rub here:

“There is a lot of work being done on volunteer motivation for these projects, and not all research points to gamification as the solution to engagement issues. Other motivating factors – connection to the mission, sense of doing real work, collaboration with fellow volunteers, and the immersive nature of (some) transcription work–may be more motivating, and at least a few of these factors may be in direct conflict with game features.”

“In the case of the Julia Brumfield Diaries, the manuscript is a narrative. Transcription is a form of deep reading, and transcribing something like a diary can be an incredibly immersive experience, particularly if the volunteer can follow their own natural – usually chronological – workflow. Gamification practices … disrupt this flow, whereas message-boards or annotation tools can foster a community of volunteers checking each others’ work and researching each others’ problems.”

“Both Old Weather and the North American Bird Phenology Program are located somewhere in between these extremes. Ships’ logs are not terribly immersive — it’s hard to identify with a midshipman making observations, especially when that midshipman changes with each watch. However, they have a chronological structure which the Zooniverse/Vizzuality folks have managed to enhance through their mapping tools.”

We are impressed with the idea of “deep reading” — “the slow and meditative possession of a book” (Birkets 1994) (what a lovely phrase!) – as applied to science as opposed to literary texts. Much of what Ben describes has to do with finding narrative momentum within the otherwise tedious process of transcription.  Diaries have their own built-in, chronological momentum, and ships’ logs have a sort of spatial momentum, which, as Ben points out, Old Weather has capitalized on via mapping tools.  As transcribers read ships’ logs, they are cartographically carried across the ocean, and thus encouraged to imagine a life in a different time, on the high seas, as opposed to a life in the here and now, mayhaps in a cubicle.

Is there something about the real-re-imagined, of being both a part of making, and apart from, a history?  And is there something about re-imagining the formerly real collaboratively, as opposed to alone?  What narrative momentum can be found for transcribing natural history collections labels?  Can we tie this to exploration and the natural wonder of discovery?

From Javi de la Torre:

“The question is… [can] we as a community coordinate enough to use citizen science as a service to digitize faster our collections? Can we agree on an infrastructure where money from collection is spent on digitalizing collections and the transcriptions is kept by projects like this?”

Javi makes a great point and we want to dissect it a bit; we think there are multiple ways to think about community, coordination and rewards.  Different projects clearly need to make a coordinated effort to develop best practices in transcription.  But we also need to think about this as a challenge to bring people together across pages and images and projects in order to discuss their activities, share their knowledge, and feel a sense of community.  Such community building may be especially important because, despite the name, crowdsourcing is — in many other ways — a solitary task performed via keyboard and computer screen.  Individual, localized projects need to be linked in the same way that individuals are linked by working on a project.

We are inclined to argue that there will be necessary heterogeneity and diversity in digitization initiatives; the breadth, depth and scope of currently existing projects shows that there’s more than one way to digitize a notebook, and that small, local efforts can be just as effective as large national ones — we’ll go further into examples of these in our next post.  But we do think we can definitely stand to be more coordinated in few areas, particularly in our use and implementation of metadata standards, and maybe more importantly, in our community’s continued support of, and conversations about, different digitization initiatives.  We argue that the value of the experience and the quality of the data improve when community develops around these projects.

We’ll try to unpack these thoughts in more detail in an upcoming post, but for now want to close with a comment from Kathy Wendolkowski, a volunteer on “Old Weather” who captures this idea of community-in-solitary perfectly:

“Within the project, we have developed a very close knit community – many of my fellow transcribers have become friends – even though I doubt we will ever meet face to face. We have explored things mentioned in the logs with further research, we tell jokes to each other, talk out the music we like, and in general, have made this a part of our everyday lives.”

Next post, Part 2: Digitization efforts from the other side of the aisle, as it were – geneology, digital humanities, and more.


About Andrea

Andrea is a Ph.D. student in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and is supported by the Center for Informatics Research in Science and Scholarship.
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One Response to Crowdsourcing, Deep Reading, and Narrative: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Session Proposal: Crowdsourcing - THATCamp American Historical Association 2012

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