Community-engaged project: Zooniverse

As part of my Digital Tools and Methodologies module, we were given the task to join the people-powered research platform that goes by the name of “Zooniverse”, choose between a number of user-generated content(UCG) projects that we were personally interested in, and participate and contribute as best we could within that project.

To understand and appreciate the different objectives that each project brings, I decided to pick three projects that appeared to contrast one another. The three projects that caught my eye were: Jungle Rhythms, Chicago Wildlife Watch and Galaxy Zoo.

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The Process

The process I undertook for each project was fairly straightforward. Each needed a volunteer with a good eye to answer a few questions, alongside a photo associated with their field of study, or topic of said project.

The project I began with, and the one I’m going to focus on in this post is Jungle Rhythms. The Jungle Rhythms project’s aim is to “try to link long term observations of tree life cycle events with weather data”, and this in turn will help specialists to understand the future of the tropical African rainforest. They are doing this by transcribing the handwritten table, that scientists stationed at the Yangambi research station in the Republic of the Congo created.

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Summary Table

In the example I’ve placed above, we get something that looks like image (b). First of all, It asks us if the centre rectangle (the yearly section) is visible in the image displayed to us, and if pencil marks are present. Every time I repeated this process I was given a similar image so all my answers were the same. Answering “Yes” to this question, I am then met by another, but more interactive question: “Outline the centre rectangle (yearly section). Please make 6 marks total — four at the corners and two at the half-year points.”

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Screen capture of the process

I found the next question a bit trickier, as the attributes were hard to distinguish, and some could even be dust or dirt on the transcripts. I was asked to “mark all hand-drawn pencil marks within the yearly section.” I had to mark solid lines with a red line and crosshatched lines in blue, (these indicate the presence of a life cycle event). If I came across a big X before hand written text, I was to mark it with a crosshair, (this indicates that a tree has died, or been removed from the study).

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My finished result

When I completed this task, I was then given an overview of the answers I had given, and a link to talk about this specific image with others in the community, who were contributing also, if I was stuck on classifying it.

The Implications of my contribution

At the end of the FAQ on the Jungle Rhythms website, it explains what will happen with the processed data:

“After the completion of the project all data will be released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license. This open source license guarantees open access to the data and derivatives.”

All of this data could in turn help researchers understand plant functioning that dates back to 1937. All of the information we provide them with from our contribution, will help them determine the dispersal potential and growth responses in a changing climate. There is an ongoing question of whether the rainforests are getting drier or wetter. According to this article, the African rainforests are getting drier as “scientists studying the trend say it’s likely to be due to natural fluctuations in the Indian and Pacific ocean temperatures which affect the climate.”

What I’ve learned & How I can apply this to my own work

I’ve learned more about the benefits of crowd-sourcing from contributing to these projects. I think that it is a completely underrated initiative, and I wasn’t aware of websites such as Zooniverse that help share these magnificent projects. I’ve also learned a lot about the processes of crunching all of this data from the various blog posts these projects have, alongside their website. From reading the blog about the process of Jungle Rhythms by Koen Hufken, It’s shown me that there’s a lot of work still to be done, even after the community has contributed.

One way of how I could apply these crowd-sourcing initiatives to my own work at the moment, would be through another module I am studying this semester. My team and I are assigned the task of creating a Data Management Plan for the Cork LGBT Archive. Part of this plan is gathering data, such as letters, images, video, audio. They have already been categorised into broad categories, but we would still have to narrow down on what information is specifically present in that data, to fully understand it. Having a crowd-sourced project set up would help the archive immensely with decreasing the work-load. Of course a review of what’s been contributed would need to be put in place, but ultimately the idea would be a great help to this project.

I enjoyed working on this assignment immensely, and the thought that I’m contributing to a good cause at the same time is very gratifying. I look forward to using this crowd-sourcing initiative in the future to create my own UCG project, or by continuing to contribute to others.


Crowd-Sourcing and Impact in the Humanities

I read the article “More than a business model: crowd-sourcing and impact in the humanities” by Stuart Dunn, a lecturer in Digital Humanities at King’s College London.

Crowd-Sourcing –  “the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people and especially from the online community rather than from traditional employees or suppliers”, as explained by Merriam Webster.

In the early days of crowd-sourcing, it was focused on furthering the aims of for-profit businesses. So anyone that had access to the internet, who had a lot of time and enthusiasm, were able to participate in design competitions, micro- tasks and distributed production. The aim of this was to build on the company’s status and help them out a little bit.

Dunn wrote that  “Crowd-sourcing was about the public having impact, and reaping whatever reward the project offered – money, or the prospect of winning it, prestige, seeing your design on the mass-produced t-shirt – and not the public being impacted.” The people who are who are helping to crowd-source projects, want the companies to collaborate with them, so both parties are impacted. A survey was done for this article, and the “Super-Contributors” to these projects answered that they want to be part of the conversation, not just the process. They mostly have a desire to be useful, and see what happens on the inside, rather than being limited to just providing info and getting a fancy prize for it. They wish to learn about the content and see how the projects are organised.

Dunn gives some advice to ensure a “reciprocated impact of a humanities crowd-sourcing activity”.

  1. Not every question or problem you come across will  be susceptible to crowd-sourcing as a solution.
  2. Small groups of people have done the most valuable amount of work by sustaining their intellectual engagement throughout the project.
  3. It would be a good idea to have a contributor’s forum so that mutual problem solving is an option, by having support discussions put in place throughout the forum for particular projects. This helps to create a space full of non-institutional people working on your project, and also creates more exposure for the discussions about your project on a social media platform.

Google have recently open-sourced TensorFlow, a software library for machine learning. They hope people will contribute to the code to make their software even better, giving people a chance to make a change in machine learning.

You can find Stuart Dunn’s article “More than a business model: crowd-sourcing and impact in the humanities” Here.

Here is the TensorFlow website, where you can find more info on the project itself and why Google chose to open source it.