Crowdsourcing in the Digital Humanities: A Reflection

Crowdsourcing is a topic that I’ve long had mixed feelings about. On the one hand it’s an ode to the idea of an open web- the idea that the  internet is a place where people, regardless of who they are, can exchange information, learn from each other, and build exciting new things. On the other hand the practice can sometimes feel exploitive and hurting the professions which they draw from. As part of my Introduction to Digital Humanities class through George Mason’s Graduate Certificate in Digital Public Humanities I had the opportunity to engage in two projects: Transcribe Bentham and Trove. The following is a reflection on that experience.


Thinking about Crowdsourcing

I want to start this reflection by thinking about why crowdsource in Digital Humanities to begin with. From what I’ve encountered, both in this program and others, it seems like there are two primary reasons crowdsourcing projects begin: Public engagement and lack of resources. Many libraries and scholars have information they want to share with the world, but get stuck in the same dusty academic journals read by their peers. Crowdsourcing offers an engaging way to bring the public into both the research process and the results. These same institutions and individuals often struggle with funding and man-hours. Crowdsourcing allows cash-strapped projects with a limited staff to accomplish much larger goals.

As Melisa Terras commented in her presentation on Transcribe Bentham1, a successful crowdsourcing project doesn’t survive on a desire to engage the public or the need for extra man-power. Rather, really engrossing crowdsourcing projects are based upon putting information out on the web that people will be interested in as-is. The Bentham papers, for example, are interesting just as photocopies- the subject matter appeals to historians, philosophers, criminologists and sociologists, just to name a few. I have a collection of World War II era receipts and check books, but it is doubtful that I would be able to generate enough interest in my collection to get help from the crowd since economic data from that time period is of interest to a very narrow selection of society.

That doesn’t mean a project must contain hundreds of subject headings. The New York Public Library’s Building Inspector’s data set doesn’t seem immediately interesting. All users do is look at old tax maps of the city.  What makes the project successful is the multiple interactive tools users can use. The interface feels more like a game than an academic project. But what multiple tools really does is prompt users to understand the maps from different angles. So although the subject matter is New York City building shapes, the Library has expanded the subject into address, colors and places of interest. This helps users think about how the city they know compares to the one represented on their screen, which fuels their interest (at least it did for me).

I think the best use of crowdsourced labor is in detail work. As digital humanists, we’ve already done the work of creating digital content, now we can rely on the public to dot our I’s and cross our T’s. Giving the crowd simple tasks that breakdown a larger project is effective because it doesn’t overwhelm the user. Trove’s interface was really easy. Just type in the box what you can read. If you want, add tags and comments. Or don’t do any editing, just create tags. Whatever the user feels like doing that day drives the project forward. I thought Transcribe Bentham was a bit too involved. I think it could be improved by adding buttons for commonly used code. Also, the only thing to do is try to make sense of Bentham’s handwriting. If a user tires of that task, they leave the project altogether. And when they navigate to a new website or turn from their computer, there’s no grantee they’ll be back.

In general, crowdsourcing Digital Humanities projects seems like a positive endeavor. Both the institutions and public are benefitting from these projects. Maybe it’s just because I’m a contract archaeologist who paid for a few more field schools than she should have, but shouldn’t people be compensated for their expertise? And maybe this comes from someone whose job is threatened by drones taking her place, but aren’t these volunteers taking jobs away from people who worked really hard to learn these skills and find themselves struggling to find work? I confronted this issue most strongly in Transcribe Bentham. TEI encoding is a skill that takes a serious time commitment to hone. On the one hand, I personally would like to contribute to the project just to practice and better learn the language, so I’m being paid in experience. On the other hand, there are people on there that already have that expertise that are compensated in recognition and a feeling that they’re part of a greater good. I’m not suggesting that these aren’t valuable or worthwhile things, but it does take money to live.

In truth, I don’t really know, but I think the questions are worth asking. It’s certainly frustrating as someone with a Master’s degree to see the people who ensured me that joining their program (I’ve joined many and am not trying to point out any one here) would help get me a job, then giving my job away to less qualified people. But, I certainly see the value of these projects. Why wait fifty years either waiting for grant money or paying a series of interns minimum wage to do something that can be accomplished in a fifth of the time for much less cost?  And all these other positives emerge as well? I especially can’t argue with a project the puts knowledge out into the world and into the hands of “the people.” I often complain of academics hording knowledge, and crowdsourcing is a terrifically effective way of sharing that knowledge and allowing the public into the Ivory Tower to use our expertise for their needs.

Perhaps the answer to this monetary musing is the community really successful crowdsourcing projects have developed. The reward of contributing can be knowing you’ve done something meaningful with your time. Or it could be following the development of the larger project, as Trove makes available. Or, I did not experience this in my short foray as a contributor- but I suspect it does happen, real relationships are formed between people who share an interest in a topic. I can even imagine friends talking about their latest edits. The anthropologist in me knows that feeling part of a community is, well, priceless. I think something many crowdsourcing projects could benefit from is discussion boards. Most projects have a way of ranking members as a way of recognizing their hard work (and to spur that competitive spirit), but it’s the collaborative aspect of crowdsource projects that will motivate contributors to see a project through.

1 Terras, Melisa. Transcribe Bentham. 7 August, 2015. https://youtu.be/XB2J4pJQodo

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