Critical Reflection: Crowdsource Transcription

Crowdsourcing is the process of obtaining information or input into a particular task or project, by enlisting the services of a large number of people. Typically via the internet.[1] A ‘citizen historian’ experience refers to a crowdsourced project which benefits or aids a historical study. Examples of this includes Old Weather and Transcribe Bentham. The Old Weather experience helps historians and scientists recover weather observations made by ships since the nineteenth century, through the transcription of the ship logs. Once completed these transcriptions are useful to the analysis of weather patterns and predictions. Historians can also track past ship movements and tell the stories of the people on board.[2] Transcribe Bentham, similarly allows participants to help historians uncover information by transcribing historical documents – Bentham through copying out using digitalised manuscript onto an online text editor.

Old Weather creates an atmosphere where users can transcribe in a light hearted environment. Gamification of the site allows it to look friendly and inviting. The use of cartoon images along with the storyline, of going on a voyage and leader boards with ranks such as ‘captain’ all add to the light heartedness of the experience. The Old Weather experience also allows its contributors to have the ability to move on from a certain ship log, even if all the information has not been transcribed. This conveys a less demanding feel to taking part. Transcribe Bentham also has this feature of not having to complete everything. It also is very simplistic in how and what it asks users to record. Bentham blends both heavyweight and lightweight peer production. [It] attracts an anonymous crowd of one-time or irregular volunteers, along with a smaller cohort of mutually supportive and loyal transcribers. The makers suggest that they created a user-friendly an interface and simplified the transcription process as much they could. However, as transcribing Bentham’s handwriting is a complex and time-consuming task which requires considerable concentration and commitment[3]

Both websites however, do have aspects which make them difficult to use. The process Old Weather, uses is complex. It has too many optional fields to fill out, the numbers in the log are hard to make out and therefore makes it problematic to transcribe the correct if any information. Transcribe Bentham on the other hand is easier to transcribe, but the setup of the site is unattractive and interested. This hinders the maker’s ability to draw in help from non-academics. Volunteers for Bentham were mostly well educated, often associated with academia or had a professional background, and had a prior interest in history and philosophy; many of the crowd also had an interest in digital humanities and were IT literate.[4]

In conclusion, only about six percent of humanist scholars go beyond general purpose information technology and use digital resources and more complex digital tools in their scholarship,[5] which suggests that crowdsourcing activities such as Old Weather and Transcribe Bentham are still not used by historians as much as they were originally aimed to. Scholars are about equally divided as to whether widespread adoption of digital tools should happen in their field of history.[6]

[1] Oxford Dictionaries, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/crowdsource

[2] Old Weather, http://www.oldweather.org/

[3] Building A Volunteer Community: Results and Findings from Transcribe Bentham (2012), Vol.6, No.2, http://digitalhumanities.org:8081/dhq/vol/6/2/000125/000125.html

[4] Ibid

[5] Building Better Digital Humanities Tools: Toward broader audiences and user-centred designs (2012), Vol.6, No.2, http://digitalhumanities.org:8081/dhq/vol/6/2/000136/000136.html

[6] Ibid

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