Zooniverse.org is a platform for “people-powered research”: it involves crowdsourcing to enable large-scale research. It is the web’s largest platform for crowd participation in academics, with over fifty diverse projects and topics to choose from, ranging from physics to literature to biology (Zooniverse, no date). For my first assignment for DH2002 Digital Tools & Methodologies II, I was required to participate in one or more of these projects and reflect on the experience.
I chose to contribute to the project Operation War Diary. It involves the annotating of over 1.5 million pages of World War One unit war diaries provided by the National Archives, in co-operation with the Imperial War Museum and Zooniverse (Operation War Diary, no date). After creating an account, one chooses which of the 51 unit war diaries provided to work on. The diary is then opened on a page, ready to be annotated. A quick tutorial instructs the user on how to go about the task – for example, specifying the type of page (diary page, report, orders) and annotating various features, such as dates, times, places and people. There are also more specific tags regarding unit activity, including “Under Fire”, “Unit Movement” or “In the line”, and army life, for instance “Parade”, “Inspection” or “Religion”. When finished annotating a page, the user can click on the timeline button in the top right-hand corner and see the result in the format of a timeline. There is also the option of a “Talk” button, where one can draw the community’s attention if one finds noteworthy detail while annotating.
The platform designed for this project is effective, thorough and intuitive. The many options in each category – for instance, the many types of casualties which can be specified – demonstrate that the authors of the project are familiar with this material and have considered their objectives carefully. The idea that the user is not required to transcribe the entire page, but only annotate certain details, also impressed me. The project organisers knew that a full transcription of the diaries would give them more unorganised data and less volunteers: naturally, one is less willing to participate in a project involving much menial work. Unorganised data requires more time and energy to process and categorise.
Notwithstanding, there were a few limitations to the platform as well. It is cleverly-designed enough to have given me most of the pages I transcribed in chronological order, so that I could methodically follow the soldiers’ adventures; I would much more have preferred, nevertheless, to have been able to choose which page to annotate. Once or twice (I admit), I accidentally clicked “Finished” before I had filled everything in – but the platform did not allow me to return to the page and amend or add anything. Such restrictions would be non-existent if I were doing this with a physical diary.
Tagging and annotating unit war diary pages gave me the idea of implementing a similar method to my minor subject, German. One could annotate a digitised version of a German piece of literature, such as a poem (see an example of an annotated article which I produced for one of my other modules – the concept is very similar). This could serve the purpose of note-taking or even teaching. For example, difficult words or literary techniques could be annotated to create what could be called interactive footnotes. Overall, the learning experience would be rendered more engaging and interactive.
Contributing to Operation War Diary was also an occasion for me to experience and reflect on the methodologies of this type of project: digitising, crowdsourcing and educating. It is taking advantage of collective intelligence in order to process digitised data – and also to educate the crowds.
There are three advantages to digitising documents: access, preservation and manipulation (O’ Keefe, 2016). Diaries are not only rendered legible, but can also be effortlessly searched and accessed by anyone in the world, thanks to their being tagged with metadata. Thus, the many restrictions that existed on the access of knowledge prior to the digital age are removed. The physical documents may be enduring the imprisonment of a dark archive somewhere, but they are alive and accessible in virtual form. Secondly, virtual items do not undergo decay with increased viewing and usage, unlike their physical counterparts, and can therefore serve the purpose of preservation. Finally, digitisation in many cases allows for more flexible manipulation of the artefact. For instance, I can mark and annotate diary pages without damaging the originals.
The methodology of crowdsourcing in such a project as this has both advantages and disadvantages. Naturally, it is an ingenious way of accomplishing the enormous feat of annotating over 1.5 million pages. But it also engages the public in the contribution of data for public usage. The sense of community that develops encourages participants to take an interest in the project and be involved; after all, it is easier to accomplish something with the help, or at least the company, of others. People are familiar with it before its launch and are more likely to view a project to which they contributed, resulting in a ready-made, interested and educated audience. In addition, collaboration raises society’s overall interest in the material and heightens public awareness, so the project benefits from crowdsourcing in a long-term manner.
What I think is particularly appropriate to Operation War Diary is that this community-engaged project produces a sense of authorship among the public. It is right that the new content (that is, the metadata) is user-generated since the original content was produced by the nations’ (British and Irish) people as well. Patriotism and a sense of heritage are imbued into the public in a different manner than if the war diaries had simply been annotated by a team of scholars and then released for public viewing. Since it is the work of the community, it is fitting that the Operation War Diary website states that “all of the data produced by Operation War Diary will eventually be available to everyone free of charge”(Operation War Diary, no date).
The disadvantages of crowdsourcing are far outweighed by its advantages, but are nevertheless worth mentioning to ensure an objective assessment of the project. For instance, some users may omit to record details that they may consider irrelevant, but are actually worth annotating, while other users may, out of sheer enthusiasm, overload the page with unnecessary annotations. We must also keep in mind that contributors to this project are voluntary, not paid, and will probably not overtax themselves on paying attention to details which may be difficult to decipher. Such inconsistencies and deficiencies would be avoided if those employed in the work were solely paid historians (or others experienced in this field, such as librarians). However, the overseers of the project prognosed such shortcomings and have made an effort to reduce them by designing the platform so that each page is annotated by more than one user (Operation War Diary tutorial, no date).
The final methodology, which I call crowd-educating, is what lends the project its momentum. It is important because, as a citizen humanities initiative, the project isn’t merely about treating its contributors as a voluntary workforce, but also as a body of thinking individuals ready to learn.
Citizen humanities is the involvement of citizens in humanities projects; it is a fairly new concept, which stems from a branch of crowdsourcing called citizen science (Kelly, 2013). This participation of public communities in humanities research has been rendered possible on a large scale with the advent of the digital age (Dunn and Hedges, 2012, p. 3); Operation War Diary is one such project that illustrates this.
Citizen science produces amateur researchers in the scientific world; citizen humanities develops the public’s appreciation of the humanities and produces more educated, thoughtful citizens. Let me give an example of how this works.
In total, I annotated about twenty pages. I found the work engaging and rewarding; I have a personal interest in history, and these first-hand accounts of the soldiers’ adventures drew me in. I chose to work on diaries of two Irish regiments, brigades of the 9th and 11th battalions of the Royal Irish Iniskilling Fusiliers, and I was lucky to be assigned diary pages detailing the Battle of the Somme. Other, minor, entries, such as the entry “Divine Service” every Sunday, or the account of a sports day, helped to enhance and vivify my envisagement of these Irish Catholic soldiers’ lives. I also began to understand the high level of discipline and organisation in the British army, what with daily diary entries, accurate summaries of casualties and attention to minute details, such as grid references. Already after only twenty pages or so, I have acquired a more personal insight into a soldier’s life at the Front, compared to a more general, summarising overview of the Great War that I might find in a history textbook.
My case is one among many. I am sure that other participants also found the project to be didactic. I believe that one gains something more from this type of project than just a sense of community and nationalism: knowledge. Thus, we see how citizen humanities projects play a role in the formation and education of the public.
To conclude, participating in Operation War Diary enabled me to understand the benefits of citizen humanities crowdsourcing projects. Not only researchers and institutions benefit, but also the community. The digital environment is a tool for enabling access, preservation and easy manipulation of the documents, as well as bridging people together by a common task. A sense of identity is created as participants discover their heritage. Finally, this project’s benefits are long-term as the information gathered will be an invaluable resource for future education and research.
Dunn, S. and Hedges, M., 2012. Crowd-Sourcing Scoping Study:
Engaging the Crowd with Humanities Research. Available at: http://crowds.cerch.kcl.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Crowdsourcing-connected-communities.pdf [last accessed 17th February 2017]
Dobreva, M. and Azzopardi, D., 2014. Citizen science in the Humanities : A promise for creativity. Available at: https://www.um.edu.mt/library/oar/handle/123456789/987 [last accessed 17th February 2017]
Kelly, A. R., 2012, Music, Mayans, Maps: Citizen science and the digital humanities. Available at: http://blogs.plos.org/citizensci/2013/06/03/music-mayans-maps-citizen-science-and-the-digital-humanities/ [last accessed 17th February 2017]
O’ Keefe, T., 2016. Digitising Your Collection. Available at: http://www.slideshare.net/dri_ireland/tim-keefe-dri-training-series-2-digitising-your-collection [last accessed 17th February 2017]
Operation War Diary, no date. About Operation War Diary. Available at: https://www.operationwardiary.org/#/about [last accessed 17th February 2017]
Zooniverse, no date. About Us. Available at: https://www.zooniverse.org/about [last accessed 17th February 2017]