Crowd-Sourcing with a Human Face

Visual Resources staff recently attended the “Cultural Heritage at Scale” symposium sponsored by Vanderbilt University Libraries. The event was open to scholars of any description and the crowd was a mix of the science-minded and humanities-minded alike. The “big idea” that directed the symposium was “crowd-sourcing with a human face”, and talks revolved around how different organizations are using volunteers to help them complete massive digital projects. Each speaker discussed the technical details of developing and maintaining a large-scale crowd-sourced project, but several broader themes emerged over the course of the day: motivating volunteers; expanding access to hidden collections; and encouraging users to think about the data differently.

Julie Allen, postdoctoral associate at the Florida Museum of Natural History, discussed the museum’s partnership with the citizen science platform Zooniverse to transcribe handwritten and typed notes relating to natural history specimens. She focused particularly on several methods of motivating volunteers: lowering the barrier of entry to the project, acknowledging user milestones on Zooniverse, hosting on-site transcription events at natural history museums, and framing their individual contribution as an important contribution to science at large. The museum is considering ways of revamping the project’s platform so users “feel more like a biologist.” Eric Schmalz, community manager for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, also discussed motivating volunteers for the History Unfolded project by setting specific, achievable target goals and personally addressing the contributions of each volunteer.

Each featured speaker eventually touched on their project’s underlying goal of expanding access to an otherwise hidden collection, whether it be natural history specimens, handwritten clinical charts, World War II-era newspaper articles scattered across repositories nationwide, or art dealer stock books and sales catalogs. For Eric Schmalz, the ultimate goal of the History Unfolded project is simply to encourage people to learn more about contemporary American attitudes toward the experience of Jews during World War II. Matthew Lincoln, data research specialist for the Getty Provenance Index Remodel Project, hopes that converting the 1.5 million records in the index to a linked open data format will encourage art historians to use more data in their own work and to examine art history from new vantage points.

Check out these and other projects discussed during the symposium:
Notes From Nature: Citizen Science Transcription (Zooniverse)
Getty Provenance Index Research Project
History Unfolded
Crowdsourcing Labels from Electronic Medical Records to Enable Biomedical Research (Grant)
Ushahidi (Map-Based Data Collection)

Photographs by Jon Erickson, Science and Engineering Library:  (above) Visual Resources staff Millie Fullmer and Shelby Merritt with Steve Baskauf, Vanderbilt senior lecturer in biological sciences, and Caroline Voisine, Tennessee State Library and Archives;  and symposium speakers Matthew Lincoln and Julie Allen (middle) and Eric Schmalz (below).

— Shelby Merritt

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