CROWDSOURCING IN CULTURAL HERITAGE: A practical guide to designing and running successful projects


Have you ever wanted to recruit hundreds of members of the public to assist with tasks like making cultural heritage collections findable online? Or to connect with passionate volunteers who’ll share their discoveries with you?

Crowdsourcing in cultural heritage is a broad term for projects that ask the public to help with tasks that contribute to a shared goal or research interest related to cultural heritage collections or knowledge (Ridge, 2013). As participants receive no financial reward, the activities and/or goals should be inherently rewarding for those volunteering their time. This definition is partly descriptive and partly proscriptive, and this chapter is largely concerned with describing how to meet the standards it implies.

One of the key challenges that projects face is creating interfaces that turn a series of tasks that create and validate usable outputs, whether transcribing, describing, researching or contributing to source collections, into an enjoyable experience. As crowdsourcing is inherently productive in intent, each activity should contribute to a meaningful, collective goal. This chapter will help cultural heritage and digital humanities practitioners plan, design and document crowdsourcing projects with rewarding tasks and processes that contribute to a meaningful wider outcome. Understanding the motivations of cultural heritage organisations and the behind-the-scenes work that goes into building a crowdsourcing project should also help academics and others seeking to collaborate with or study crowdsourcing projects and cultural heritage institutions.

This chapter introduces key principles and stages in developing crowdsourcing projects and designing interfaces and communications that link to participant motivations. Based on the author’s extensive practical experience and theoretical engagement with the field, it discusses topics including: choosing appropriate measures of success for evaluating projects; finding the right balance between productivity and engagement; validating and integrating the results of crowdsourced tasks into core collections systems; motivating organisations and volunteers to participate; and understanding the organisational and personal impact of crowdsourcing.

Crowdsourcing in cultural heritage

Crowdsourcing as we know it has been transformed by technology, but cultural heritage, scientific and other knowledge-based projects have a long history of asking people to voluntarily collect information and objects.1 From the 1850s, Joseph Henry’s meteorological observation project at the Smithsonian asked volunteers to submit weather observations via the still-new telegraph network (Smithsonian Institution Archives, 2012). Later, participants’ own research and contact with the wider scientific community was facilitated through correspondence with the Smithsonian’s second Secretary, Spencer F. Baird, so that each group benefitted in ways that were meaningful to them (Goldstein, 1994).

Some aspects of crowdsourcing—particularly 'citizen science’ and ‘citizen history’—also draw on a more recent history of public participation in scientific research (Bonney et al., 2009). Citizen science projects involve members of the public assisting professional scientists with research (Raddick et al., 2010), most commonly through data processing tasks like image classification but potentially also through fieldwork or observation tasks, data analysis or research design (Bonney et al., 2009). Humanities scholars interested in public participation in scholarly research may find the significant body of prior work on this topic by citizen science researchers particularly valuable.

An example from the humanities also neatly encapsulates many aspects of crowdsourcing. The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) appealed for examples and definitions of words from the public in the 1850s and in 1879 (Gilliver, 2012). Indexing, storing and managing the slips of paper subsequently received was a considerable task, as was coordinating and targeting requests for information about specific words. The OED continues to appeal to the public for help defining or providing examples of words in the present day.’

These early projects sought to gather data at a geographic and quantitative scale not possible for lone individuals by extending existing leisure activities like observing wildlife or reading historical books with additional documentation and communication tasks. However, the manual work of compiling the information received was time-consuming, and projects could easily fall behind in processing and analysing the incoming data.

The availability of the web as a platform has transformed crowdsourcing. Data can be easily entered via websites or applications, automatically validated against set criteria and aggregated with other data. Sites can acknowledge and thank contributors immediately, and if tasks are carefully designed, they can even provide instant feedback on the quality of contributions. For institutions that previously relied on volunteers having physical access to collections or records, remote contributions based on digital images relieves physical conservation requirements and pressures on venue space and hours.

Reaching potential participants is also easier online. Social media and specialist email lists or discussion boards can reach broad or niche audiences to advertise a project, according to the skills or numbers needed to complete tasks. In addition to traditional scholarly publications, email newsletters and blog posts can provide more timely and accessible updates on progress and developments. Unlike volunteer projects that require attendance at specific locations and times, crowdsourcing volunteers can contribute from anywhere in the world at any time of day or night, choosing tasks that match their interests and the time they have available.

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