The Key Questions of Cultural Heritage Crowdsourcing Projects

To sum up my series of posts on different considerations for crowdsourcing in cultural heritage projects I thought it would be helpful to lay out a set of questions to ask when developing or evaluating projects. I think if a project has good answers to each of these four genres of questions it is well on its way toward success.

Four Areas of Questioning

Human Computation Key Questions: 

  • How could we use human judgment to augment computer processable information? 
  • What parts of a given task can be handled through computational processing and which cant and of those parts that can’t can we create structured tasks that allow people to do this work?

It would be a waste of the public’s time to invite them in to complete a task that a computer could already complete. The value human computation offers is the question of how the unique capabilities of people can be integrated into systems for the creation of public goods.

Wisdom of Crowds Key Questions:

  • How could we empower and consult with the people who care about this?
  • What models of user moderation and community governance do we need to incorporate?

Unlike human computation, the goal here is not users ability to process information or make judgments but their desire to provide their opinion. Here the key issues involve finding ways to also invite users to help define and develop norms and rules for participation.

Scaffolding Users Key Questions:

  • How can our tools act as scaffolds to help make the most of users efforts?
  • What expertise can we embed inside the design of our tools to magnify our users efforts?
  • How can our tools put a potential user in exactly the right position with the right just in time knowledge to accomplish a given activity?

All of these questions require us to think about amplifying the activity and work of participants through well designed tools. In a sense, these questions are about thinking through the interplay of the first two issues.

Motivating Users Key Questions:

  • Whose sense of purpose does this project connect to? What identities are involved?
  • What kinds of people does this matter to and how can we connect with and invite in the participation of those people?
  • Are we clearly communicating what the sense of purpose is in a way that the users we are trying to work with will understand?

I think it is critical that cultural heritage projects that engage in crowdsourcing do so by connecting to our sense of purpose and I would strongly suggest that projects think about articulating the sense of purpose that a given project connects to when developing user personas and that that sense of purpose should be evident in the way a project is presented and described to the public.

Example Cultural Heritage Crowdsourcing Projects

Along with these questions I figured I would share a list of different kinds of projects I consider to be crowdsourcing projects in the cultural heritage domain. I’ve only included projects that I think are doing some of these things very well and I have also tried to list out a diverse set of different kinds of projects.

Citizen Archivist Dashboard
Where citizen archivists can tag, transcribe, edit articles, upload scans, and participating in contests all related to the records of the US National Archives.

User’s correct ocr’ed newspaper, upload images,  tagged items, post comments and add lists.

The GLAM-WIKI project supports GLAMs and other institutions who want to work with Wikimedia to produce open-access, freely-reusable content for the public.

Old Weather
Old Weather invites you to help reconstruct the climate by transcribing old weather records from ships logs.

Galaxy Zoo
Interactive project that allows the user to participate in a large-scale project of research: classifying millions of images of galaxies found in the Sloan Digital Sky.

UK Sound Map
The UK Soundmap, invited people to record the sounds of their environment, be it at home, work or play.

What’s on the menu
Help The New York Public Library improve a unique collection “We’re transcribing our historical restaurant menus, dish by dish, so that they can be searched by what people were eating back in the day. It’s a big job so we need your help!”

A place where you can help museums describe their collections by applying keywords, or tags, to objects.

Further Reading & Viewing

My thinking on these issues has been shaped by a range of different talks, presentations and papers. The list below is more of a greatest hits than a comprehensive bibliography.

Ahn, L. von. (2006). Human Computation. Google TechTalks.

Brumfield, B. W. (2012, March 17). Collaborative Manuscript Transcription: Crowdsourcing at IMLS WebWise 2012. Collaborative Manuscript Transcription. Retrieved April 25, 2012, from

Clark, A. (2008). Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford University Press, USA.

Crowdsourcing Cultural Heritage: The Objectives Are Upside Down

deterding, sebastian. (2011, February 19). Meaningful Play: Getting Gamification Right.

Ford, P. (2011, January 6). The Web Is a Customer Service Medium (

Gee, J. P. (2000). Identity as an analytic lens for research in education. Review of research in education, 25(1), 99.

Gee, James Paul. (2003). What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (New Ed.). Palgrave Macmillan.

Holley, R. (2010). Crowdsourcing: How and Why Should Libraries Do It? D-Lib Magazine, 16(3/4). doi:10.1045/march2010-holley

Hutchins, E. (1995). How a Cockpit Remembers Its Speed. Cognitive Science, 19, 288, 265.

Juul, J. (2011, April 2). Gamification Backlash Roundup. The Ludologist.

Karen Smith-Yoshimura. (2012). Social Metadata for Libraries, Archives, and Museums: Executive Summary. Dublin, Ohio:: OCLC Research. Retrieved from

Oomen, J., & Aroyo, L. (2011). Crowdsourcing in the cultural heritage domain: Opportunities and challenges. Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Communities and Technologies (pp. 138–149).

Software as Scaffolding and Motivation and Meaning: The How and Why of Crowdsourcing

Libraries, archives and museums have a long history of participation and engagement with members of the public. I have previously suggested that it is best to think about crowdsourcing in cultural heritage as a form of public volunteerism, and that much discussion of crowdsourcing is more specifically about two distinct phenomena, the wisdom of crowds and human computation. In this post I want to get into a bit more of why and how it works. I think understanding both the motivational components and the role that tools serve as scaffolding for activity will let us be a bit more deliberate in how we put these kinds of projects together.

The How: To be a tool is to serve as scaffolding for activity

Helping someone succeed is often largely about getting them the right tools. Consider the image of scaffolding below. The scaffolding these workers are using puts them in a position to do their job. By standing on the scaffolding they are able to do their work without thinking about the tool at all. In the activity of the work the tool disappears and allows them to go about their tasks taking for granted that they are suspended six or seven feet in the air. This scaffolding function is a generic property of tools.

All tools can act as scaffolds to enable us to accomplish a particular task. At this point it is worth briefly considering an example of how this idea of scaffolding translates into a cognitive task. In this situation I will briefly describe some of the process that is part of a park rangers regular work, measuring the diameter of a tree. This example comes from Roy Pea’s “Practices of Distributed Intelligence and Designs for Education.”

If you want to measure a tree you take a standard tape measure and do the following;

  1. Measure the circumference of the tree
  2. Remember that the diameter is related to the circumference of an object according to the formula circumference/diameter
  3. Set up the formula, replacing the variable circumference with your value
  4. Cross-multiply
  5. Isolate the diameter by dividing
  6. Reduce the fraction

Alternatively, you can just use a measuring tape that has the algorithm for diameter embedded inside it. In other words, you can just get a smarter tape measure. You can buy a tape-measure that was designed for this particular situation that can think for you (see the image below). Not only does this save you considerable time, but you end up with far more accurate measurements. There are far fewer moments for human error to enter into the equation.

The design of the tape measure has quite literally embedded the equations and cognitive actions required to measure the tree. As an aside, this kind of cognitive extension is a generic component of how humans use tools and their environments for thought.

This has a very direct translation into the design of online tools as well. For example, before joining the Library of Congress I worked on the Zotero project, a free and open source reference management tool. Zotero was translated into more than 30 languages by its users. The translation process was made significantly easier through BabelZilla. BabelZilla, an online community for developers and translators of extension for Firefox extensions, has a robust community of users that work to localize various extensions. One of the neatest features of this platform is that it stripes out the strings of text that need to be localized from the source code and then presents the potential translator with a simple web form where they just type in translations of the lines of text. You can see an image of the translation process below.

This not only makes the process much simpler and quicker it also means that potential translators need zero programming knowledge to contribute a localization. Without BabelZilla, a potential translator would need to know about how Firefox Extension locale files work, and be comfortable with editing XML files in a text editor. But BabelZilla scaffolds the user over that required knowledge and just lets them fill out translations in a web form.

Returning, as I often do, to the example of Galaxy Zoo, we can now think of the classification game as a scaffold which allows interested amateurs to participate at the cutting edge of scientific inquiry. In this scenario, the entire technical apparatus, all of the equipment used in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the design of the Galaxy Zoo site, and the work of all of the scientists and engineers that went into those systems are all part of one big hunk of scaffolding that puts a user in the position to contribute to the frontiers of science through their actions on the website.

I like to think that scaffolding is the how of crowdsourcing. When crowdsourcing projects work it is because of a nested set of platforms stacked one on top of the other, that let people offer up their time and energy to work that they find meaningful. The meaningful point there is the central component of the next question. Why do people participate in Crowdsourcing projects?

The Why: A Holistic Sense of Human Motivation

Why do people participate in these projects? Lets start with an example I have appealed to before from a crowdsorucing transcription project.

Ben Brumfield runs a range of crowdsourcing transcription projects. At one point in a transcription project he noticed that one of his power users was slowing down, cutting back significantly on the time they spent transcribing these manuscripts. The user explained that they had seen that there weren’t that many manuscripts left to transcribe. For this user, the 2-3 hours a day they spent working on transcriptions was an important part of their day that they had decided to deny themselves some of that experience. For this users, participating in this project was so important to them, contributing to it was such an important part of who they see themselves as, that they needed to ration out those remaining pages. They wanted to make sure that the experience lasted as long as they could. When Ben found that out he quickly put up some more pages. This particular story illustrates several broader points about what motivates us.

After a person’s basic needs are covered (food, water, shelter etc.) they tend to be primarily motivated by things that are not financial. People identify and support causes and projects that provide them with a sense of purpose. People define themselves and establish and sustain their identity and sense of self through their actions. People get a sense of meaning from doing things that matter to them. People find a sense of belonging by being a part of something bigger than themselves. For a popular account of much of the research behind these ideas see Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us for some of the more substantive and academic research on the subject see essays in  The Handbook of Competence and Motivation and Csíkszentmihályi’s work on Flow.

Projects that can mobilize these identities ( think genealogists, amateur astronomers, philatelists, railfans, etc) and senses of purpose and offer a way for people to make meaningful contributions (far from exploiting people) provide us with the kinds of things we define ourselves by. We are what we do, or at least we are the stories we tell others about what we do. The person who started rationing out their work transcribing those manuscripts did so because that work was part of how they defined themselves.

This is one of the places where Libraries, Archives and Museums have the most to offer. As stewards of cultural memory these institutions have a strong sense of purpose and their explicit mission is to serve the public good. When we take seriously this call, and think about what the collections of culture heritage institutions represent, instead of crowdsourcing representing a kind of exploitation for labor it has the possibility to be a way in which cultural heritage institutions connect with and provide meaning full experiences with the past.