2013 in review: crowdsourcing, digital history, visualisation, and lots and lots of words

A quick and incomplete summary of my 2013 for those days when I wonder where the year went… My PhD was my main priority throughout the year, but the slow increase in word count across my thesis is probably only of interest to me and my supervisors (except where I’ve turned down invitations to concentrate on my PhD). Various other projects have spanned the years: my edited volume on ‘Crowdsourcing our Cultural Heritage’, working as a consultant on the ‘Let’s Get Real’ project with Culture24, and I’ve continued to work with the Open University Digital Humanities Steering Group, ACH and to chair the Museums Computer Group.

In January (and April/June) I taught all-day workshops on ‘Data Visualisation for Analysis in Scholarly Research‘ and ‘Crowdsourcing in Libraries, Museums and Cultural Heritage Institutions‘ for the British Library’s Digital Scholarship Training Programme.

In February I was invited to give a keynote on ‘Crowd-sourcing as participation‘ at iSay: Visitor-Generated Content in Heritage Institutions in Leicester (my event notes). This was an opportunity to think through the impact of the ‘close reading’ people do while transcribing text or describing images, crowdsourcing as a form of deeper engagement with cultural heritage, and the potential for ‘citizen history’ this creates (also finally bringing together my museum work and my PhD research). This later became an article for Curator journal, From Tagging to Theorizing: Deepening Engagement with Cultural Heritage through Crowdsourcing (proof copy available at http://oro.open.ac.uk/39117). I also ran a workshop on ‘Data visualisation for humanities researchers’ with Dr. Elton Barker (one of my PhD supervisors) for the CHASE ‘Going Digital‘ doctoral training programme.

In March I was in the US for THATCamp Feminisms in Claremont, California (my notes), to do a workshop on Data visualisation as a gateway to programming and I gave a paper on ‘New Challenges in Digital History: Sharing Women’s History on Wikipedia‘ at the Women’s History in the Digital World‘ conference at Bryn Mawr, Philadelphia (posted as ‘New challenges in digital history: sharing women’s history on Wikipedia – my draft talk notes’). I also wrote an article for Museum Identity magazine, Where next for open cultural data in museums?.

In April I gave a paper, ‘A thousand readers are wanted, and confidently asked for’: public participation as engagement in the arts and humanities, on my PhD research at Digital Impacts: Crowdsourcing in the Arts and Humanities (see also my notes from the event), and a keynote on ‘A Brief History of Open Cultural Data’ at GLAM-WIKI 2013.

In May I gave an online seminar on crowdsourcing (with a focus on how it might be used in teaching undergraduates wider skills) for the NITLE Shared Academics series. I gave a short paper on ‘Digital participation and public engagement’ at the London Museums Group‘s ‘Museums and Social Media’ at Tate Britain on May 24, and was in Belfast for the Museums Computer Group’s Spring meeting, ‘Engaging Visitors Through Play‘ then whipped across to Venice for a quick keynote on ‘Participatory Practices: Inclusion, Dialogue and Trust‘ (with Helen Weinstein) for the We Curate kick-off seminar at the start of June.

In June the Collections Trust and MCG organised a Museum Informatics event in York and we organised a ‘Failure Swapshop‘ the evening before. I also went to Zooniverse’s ZooCon (my notes on the citizen science talks) and to Canterbury Cathedral Archives for a CHASE event on ‘Opening up the archives: Digitization and user communities’.

In July I chaired a session on Digital Transformations at the Open Culture 2013 conference in London on July 2, gave an invited lightning talk at the Digital Humanities Oxford Summer School 2013, ran a half-day workshop on ‘Designing successful digital humanities crowdsourcing projects‘ at the Digital Humanities 2013 conference in Nebraska, and had an amazing time making what turned out to be Serendip-o-matic at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University’s One Week, One Tool in Fairfax, Virginia (my posts on the process), with a museumy road trip via Amtrak and Greyhound to Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburg inbetween the two events.

In August I tidied up some talk notes for publication as ‘Tips for digital participation, engagement and crowdsourcing in museums‘ on the London Museums Group blog.

October saw the publication of my Curator article and Creating Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives through Design with Don Lafreniere and Scott Nesbit for the International Journal of Humanities and Arts Computing, based on our work at the Summer 2012 NEH Advanced Institute on Spatial Narrative and Deep Maps: Explorations in the Spatial Humanities. (I also saw my family in Australia and finally went to MONA).

In November I presented on ‘Messy understandings in code‘ at Speaking in Code at UVA’s Scholars’ Lab, Charlottesville, Virginia, gave a half-day workshop on ‘Data Visualizations as an Introduction to Computational Thinking‘ at the University of Manchester and spoke at the Digital Humanities at Manchester conference the next day. Then it was down to London for the MCG’s annual conference, Museums on the Web 2013 at Tate Modern. Later than month I gave a talk on ‘Sustaining Collaboration from Afar’ at Sustainable History: Ensuring today’s digital history survives.

In December I went to Hannover, Germany for the Herrenhausen Conference: “(Digital) Humanities Revisited – Challenges and Opportunities in the Digital Age” where I presented on ‘Creating a Digital History Commons through crowdsourcing and participant digitisation’ (my lightning talk notes and poster are probably the best representation of how my PhD research on public engagement through crowdsourcing and historians’ contributions to scholarly resources through participant digitisation are coming together). In final days of 2013, I went back to my old museum metadata games, and updated them to include images from the British Library and took a first pass at making them responsive for mobile and tablet devices.

Has Christmas changed how your audience sees your site?

Hands up if someone you know gave or received a mobile phone or tablet over the holidays? And how long was it before they snuck away to quietly checked their favourite social networks or the sales with their new device? Some people will end up on a cultural heritage site. Sometimes it’s because they now have a device to hand to look up random questions that arise while they’re watching Downton Abbey or they’re looking for entertainment for future commutes; others might try booking tickets for a show from their kitchen or keeping the kids quiet with a few games.

What will they see when they hit your site? Will the games and interactives have disappeared for Apple devices without Flash, will they struggle to fill in forms on your non-responsive site – or will they be welcomed to a site optimised for their device?

Of course the short answer is, yes, Christmas (and the past few years) have changed how audiences see your website. This post is a guide to using Google Analytics to put numbers against that statement and working out where you need to improve the experience for visitors on mobiles and tablets, but if you don’t have access to Google Analytics then just assume lots of visitors are on mobile and make sure your site will work for them. There’s no substitute for trying to perform typical visitor tasks with real devices, but emulators for iPadstablets, TVs, mobilesresponsive design, etc can help you get started. And if you’re promoting content on social media and don’t have a mobile/tablet ready site, then you’re effectively inviting people over then slamming the door in their face, so just fix your site already.

If you do have access to Google Analytics, here are some tips for assessing the impact of all that gift-giving and working out the velocity of change in mobile and tablet visits on your site to understand what you’re facing in the coming year (and getting to grips with Analytics while you’re at it). Understanding how quickly your audience is changing and what people are doing on your site will a) help you decide which key tasks and sections to test with actual devices, PageSpeed Insights etc, and b) prioritise technical changes in the immediate future.

This assumes you know the basics of using Google Analytics – if you need a refresher, try the guides to Google Analytics Healthcheck and Google Analytics Segments I wrote for the Audience Agency’s Audience Finder (though some of the screens have changed since then).

View mobile and tablet visits with built-in Google Analytics Segments and custom date ranges

The simplest way to assess how much of your website traffic is from mobile or tablet devices is to navigate to the Audiences/Mobile/Overview report, then click on the dates on the top right-hand corner and set the left-hand date to a year or two in the past and the right-hand date to now. You’ll probably see a gradual increase in total visits over time, and some information underneath that about the total numbers of visits from ‘desktop’, ‘mobile’ and ‘tablet’ devices.

For a more useful breakdown of the number of desktop, mobile and tablet devices over time on other reports – whether Content reports like popular, Landing and Exit pages, location (‘geo’) or how people got to your site (aka ‘acquisition’) – you need to apply some Segments. To open the Segments option box, click the small down arrow next to ‘All visits’, as in the screenshot.

This will open a screen (below) showing a range of built-in segments. For now, click ‘Mobile Traffic’ and ‘Tablet Traffic’ to add them to the selected Segments list. Click ‘Apply’ and view the breakdown of visits by device over time. Hover over the lines for more detail. You can change reports and the segments will stay selected until you unselect them. (For later: explore other built-in segments, and learn how to make your own to answer questions that matter to your organisation.)

Tips: viewing stats by week rather than by day can help any patterns stand out more clearly. If you get a lot of traffic overall, you’ll be able to see the difference in mobile/tablet visits more clearly if you take out the ‘All Visits’ segment.

Using the built-in date range fields to compare change over time

One of the key pieces of work I did for the Culture24 Let’s Get Real project involved calculating the ‘velocity’ of change in mobile visits for a range of museums and arts organisations (see Section 8, ‘Understanding mobile behaviours’ in the project report). If you want to get a sense of how quickly your audience is changing (e.g. to make a case for resources), you can compare two date ranges. 
First, click the date range on the top right-hand corner to open the custom date options. Enter a date range that covers a period before and after the holidays, then tick ‘Compare to: Previous Period’ and add the same dates for an earlier year there.  Tip: copying and pasting then changing the dates is quicker than navigating to them via the left-hand side calendar.
The screenshot below shows the results on the Behaviour Overview report, including key indicators like the increase in time-on-site on tablets and the overall increase in visits from mobiles and tablets. As you can see, both mobile and tablet traffic is higher in the past week. This may even out as people head back to work, but the only way you’ll know is by looking at your own stats.

Tips: if there are odd spikes or gaps in your stats, you might want to pick your dates around them (or add an explanatory annotation).  If you have the data, try comparing the same time of year over e.g. 2011/12 to see the difference a couple of years have made. If you want to dive into the numbers to understand the devices more, the ‘Browser & OS’ report is useful, or explore the ‘Primary Dimensions’ on the ‘Devices’ report.

Learn Analytics by answering questions specific to your site

Working with participants in the Let’s Get Real project reminded me that having a specific question to answer is a good way to find your way through the mass of options in Google Analytics, so for bonus points, pick one or two of these to answer:

  • What traffic was there to your website on Christmas Day? 
  • How did they get there and what were they looking at? 
  • What kinds of transactions or interactions have people attempted on your site in the last six weeks? 
  • Where do you lose people? Does it vary by device or is another factor more important?
  • On which pages or site sections do tablet visitors spend the most time? What about mobile visitors? 
  • Was the increase in device usage larger this holiday or in previous years?
  • And following a comment from the Guardian’s Tom Grinsted, how do visit demographics differ on weekends/weekdays? What about morning/daytime/evening visits?
Some museums have been blogging about their own investigations into mobile and tablet visits to their sites: for example, Graham Davies, National Museum Wales, wrote The steady march of the mobile device; the V&A’s Andrew Lewis wrote Making visitor information easier for mobile phone users.