JISC 10: Community and collections and the power of the crowd

As the speakers at this seminar demonstrated, there are clear benefits to crowd sourcing and engaging with the community outside university walls. There are excellent (and frequently unexpected) research results.  Engaging with the community helps promote university work to a wider public. There are also considerable profile and prestige benefits. On a more personal level, the work can often inspire and move researchers and the public alike. Talking us through their experiences were Kate Lindsay who worked on the University of Oxford’s Great War Archive, Arfon Smith from University of Oxford’s Galaxy Zoo, William Perrin a local web innovator and community activist and Katherine Campbell from the BBC alongside David Prudames from the British Museum who have been working on the BBC and British Museum collaboration on the History of The World.

The Great War Archive

Kate Lindsay started her talk by highlighting some of the wonderful material that has been gathered and the moving connections that have been made thanks to The Great War Archive.

Her first slide was of a matchbox that one Sergeant George Cavan threw from a train as his company departed for France. The box contained a note for his life and miraculously, it made it back to her. Sadly, however, Cavan didn’t. Just  days after throwing the matchbox, he was killed near Ypres. As if this story weren’t already touching enough, when the war archive team blogged about it, a relation of Cavan’s posted a comment saying he had always known the story but never seen what the matchbox looked like.

Kate’s next slide was of a photo of three soldiers. Emma, the widow of one the men (who was seated, holding a stick) had kept the faded image on her mantelpiece for 50 years after he died in action. It was only when the photo was digitally scanned and expanded that it was noticed that he had written her name in the mud at his feet with the stick he was holding.

Kate explained that these amazing stories – and dozens more like them – came to light thanks to an experiment. When they were establishing a comprehensive digital archive relating to the First World War poets, researchers at Oxford discovered that there was considerable interest in wider ephemera. So they decided to see how much they could collect between the months of March and June 2008 – and how little money they could do it for. They set up a website with a simple uploading interface, and also ran a few roadshows to bring in submissions from members of the public who might be daunted by digital technology. “We had 6,500 submissions in three months,” said Kate. “Only one of these had to be rejected – and that was because it was an item from the wrong war.”

The effectiveness of such crowd-sourcing is ably proved by the resulting collection, which is full of fascinating and valuable material, but also simple economics. While the items submitted to the Poetry Archive cost an average of £40 to process, the average cost in the wider war archive was £3.50. “And that was only because we accepted items by post and it took staff time to upload them,” says Kate.

Following on from this success they are starting a new project: RunCoCO.

Galaxy Zoo

Arfon Smith described Galaxy Zoo  as crowd-sourced astronomy. Computers are really bad at classifying pictures of galaxies, but people aren’t. So Galaxy Zoo has enlisted thousands of amateur researchers to help categorise millions and millions of pictures of star systems.

We had a million pictures that we wanted to categorise, explained Arfon. “We tried giving some of the task to a PHD student. He looked at 50,000 galaxies, but he wasn’t so keen at looking at a further 950,000.” So they opened Galaxy Zoo.

It was an immediate success. Just over two years after launch, Galaxy Zoo has 250,000 registered users. As well as processing far more data than individual astronomers, or even groups of them, could hope to do in a lifetime, these online researchers have produced more reliable results than the professionals, since many people can give an opinion on the same picture.

So far 16 peer review journals have been produced as a result of the project. The amateur researchers have all given their time for free. As a survey discovered their over-riding motivation is a desire to contribute to scientific research. “Something that is both humbling and validating,” says Arfon.

The success of Galaxy Zoo has also spawned further projects such as ACRE – a fascinating attempt to gather in old royal naval weather data and digitise it, so we can learn more about global warming.

William Perrin

William Perrin’s career as a community archivist and activist was sparked off when he looked out of the window of his flat in Kings Cross to see a gang fill up an abandoned car with fireworks and set it alight. “And if you haven’t seen a firework display inside a car, you haven’t lived,” he says. He realised that he had a choice of either leaving his home or trying to do something to sort out the anti-social behaviour around it.

He opted for the latter course, setting up http://www.kingscrossenvironment.com, and using it to highlight local problems and to pressure the council and police to do something about them. Over the years he and fellow volunteers added so many articles to the site that he realised it was “turning into an extraordinary ethnographic snapshot of a local area.” What’s more, he was also coming to discover that there were dozens of similar local community websites around the country – and that he could help others set up even more. As this map http://openlylocal.com/hyperlocal_sites and links show they now cover all corners of the country.

They are all written from within the hearts of local communities, generally for free and sometimes (as in the case of Sheffield) generating millions of pages of content.  Now the National Digital Archive is in the process of preserving and storing them and the phenomenal snapshot of local history that they are creating.

A History Of The World

The History Of The World  project is a huge BBC project running alongside the prestigious series of Radio 4 broadcasts A History of The World in 100 objects. Alongside pages on the items from The British Museum featured in the programme, members of the public have been invited to upload material on objects that they own or that come from within their community. It will provide a lasting legacy and record produced by collaboration and public participation.