Moving forward: modelling and indexing WWI battalions

A super-quick update from my CENDARI Fellowship this week. I set up the wiki for In their own words: linking lived experiences of the First World War a week ago but only got stuck into populating it with lists of various national battalions this week. My current task list, copied from the front page is to:

If you can help with any of that, let me know! Or just get stuck in and edit the site.
I’ve started another Google Doc with very sketchy Notes towards modelling information about World War One Battalions. I need to test it with more battalion histories and update it iteratively. At this stage my thinking is to turn it into an InfoBox format to create structured data via the wiki. It’s all very lo-fi and much less designed than my usual projects, but I’m hoping people will be able to help regardless.
So, in this phase of the project, the aim is find a personal narrative – a diary, letters, memoirs or images – for each military unit in the British Army. Can you help? 

Looking for (crowdsourcing) love in all the right places

One of the most important exercises in the crowdsourcing workshops I run is the ‘speed dating’ session. The idea is to spend some time looking at a bunch of crowdsourcing projects until you find a project you love. Finding a project you enjoy gives you a deeper insight into why other people participate in crowdsourcing, and will see you through the work required to get a crowdsourcing project going. I think making a personal connection like this helps reduce some of the cynicism I occasionally encounter about why people would volunteer their time to help cultural heritage collections. Trying lots of projects also gives you a much better sense of the types of barriers projects can accidentally put in the way of participation. It’s also a good reminder that everyone is a nerd about something, and that there’s a community of passion for every topic you can think of.

If you want to learn more about designing history or cultural heritage crowdsourcing projects, trying out lots of project is a great place to start. The more time you can spend on this the better – an hour is ideal – but trying just one or two projects is better than nothing. In a workshop I get people to note how a project made them feel – what they liked most and least about a project, and who they’d recommend it to. You can also note the input and output types to help build your mental database of relevant crowdsourcing projects.

The list of projects I suggest varies according to the background of workshop participants, and I’ll often throw in suggestions tailored to specific interests, but here’s a generic list to get you started.

10 Most Wanted Research object histories
Ancient Lives Humanities, language, text transcription
British Library Georeferencer Locating and georeferencing maps (warning: if it’s running, only hard maps may be left!)
Children of the Lodz Ghetto Citizen history, research
Describe Me Describe objects
DIY History Transcribe historical letters, recipes, diaries
Family History Transcription Project Document transcription (Flickr/Yahoo login required to comment)
Herbaria@home (for bonus points, compare it with Notes from Nature Transcribing specimen sheets (or biographical research)
HistoryPin Year of the Bay ‘Mysteries’ Help find dates, locations, titles for historic photographs; overlay images on StreetView
iSpot Help ‘identify wildlife and share nature’
Letters of 1916 Transcribe letters and/or contribute letters
London Street Views 1840 Help transcribe London business directories
Micropasts Photo-masking to help produce 3D objects; also structured transcription
Museum Metadata Games: Dora Tagging game with cultural heritage objects (my prototype from 2010)
NYPL Building Inspector A range of tasks, including checking building footprints, entering addresses
Operation War Diary Structured transcription of WWI unit diaries
Papers of the War Department Document transcription
Planet Hunters Citizen science; review visualised data
Powerhouse Museum Collection Search Tagging objects
Reading Experience Database Text selection, transcription, description.
Smithsonian Digital Volunteers: Transcription Center Text transcription
Tiltfactor Metadata Games Games with cultural heritage images
Transcribe Bentham History; text transcription
Trove Correct OCR errors, transcribe text, tag or describe documents
US National Archives Transcribing videos
What’s the Score at the Bodleian Music and text transcription, description
What’s on the menu Structured transcription of restaurant menus
What’s on the menu? Geotagger Geolocating historic restaurant menus
Wikisource – random item link Transcribing texts
Worm Watch Citizen science; video
Your Paintings Tagger Paintings; free-text or structured tagging

NB: crowdsourcing is a dynamic field, some sites may be temporarily out of content or have otherwise settled in transit. Some sites require registration, so you may need to find another site to explore while you’re waiting for your registration email.

In which I am awed by the generosity of others, and have some worthy goals

Grand Canal Dock at night, DublinA quick update from my CENDARI fellowship working on a project that’s becoming ‘In their own words: linking lived experiences of the First World War‘. I’ve spent the week reading (again a mixture of original diaries and letters, technical stuff like ontology documentation and also WWI history forums and ‘amateur’ sites) and writing. I put together a document outlining a rang of possible goals and some very sketchy tech specs, and opened it up for feedback. The goals I set out are copied below for those who don’t want to delve into detail. The commentable document, ‘Linking lived experiences of the First World War’: possible goals and a bunch of technical questions goes into more detail.

However, the main point of this post is to publicly thank those who’ve helped by commenting and sharing on the doc, on twitter or via email. Hopefully I’m not forgetting anyone, as I’ve been blown away by and am incredibly grateful for the generosity of those who’ve taken the time to at least skim 1600 words (!). It’s all helped me clarify my ideas and find solutions I’m able to start implementing next week. In no order at all – at CENDARI, Jennifer Edmond, Alex O’Connor, David Stuart, Benjamin Štular, Francesca Morselli, Deirdre Byrne; online Andrew Gray @generalising; Alex Stinson @ DHKState; jason webber @jasonmarkwebber; Alastair Dunning @alastairdunning; Ben Brumfield @benwbrum; Christine Pittsley; Owen Stephens @ostephens; David Haskiya @DavidHaskiya; Jeremy Ottevanger @jottevanger; Monika Lechner @lemondesign; Gavin Robinson ‏@merozcursed; Tom Pert @trompet2 – thank you all!

Worthy goals (i.e. things I’m hoping to accomplish, with the help of historians and the public; only some of which I’ll manage in the time)

At the end of this project, someone who wants to research a soldier in WWI but doesn’t know a thing about how armies were structured should be able to find a personal narrative from a soldier in the same bit of the army, to help them understand experiences of the Great War.

Hopefully these personal accounts will provide some context, in their own words, for the lived experiences of WWI. Some goals listed are behind-the-scenes stuff that should just invisibly make personal diaries, letters and memoirs more easily discoverable. It needs datasets that provide structures that support relationships between people and documents; participatory interfaces for creating or enhancing information about contemporary materials (which feed into those supporting structures), and interfaces that use the data created.

More specifically, my goals include:

    • A personal account by someone in each unit linked to that unit’s record, so that anyone researching a WWI name would have at least one account to read. To populate this dataset, personal accounts (diaries, letters, etc) would need to be linked to specific soldiers, who can then be linked to specific units. Linking published accounts such as official unit histories would be a bonus. [Semantic MediaWiki]
    • Researched links between individual men and the units they served in, to allow their personal accounts to be linked to the relevant military unit. I’m hoping I can find historians willing to help with the process of finding and confirming the military unit the writer was in. [Semantic MediaWiki]
    • A platform for crowdsourcing the transcription and annotation of digitised documents. The catch is that the documents for transcription would be held remotely on a range of large and small sites, from Europeana’s collection to library sites that contain just one or two digitised diaries. Documents could be tagged/annotated with the names of people, places, events, or concepts represented in them. [Semantic MediaWiki??]
    • A structured dataset populated with the military hierarchy (probably based on The British order of battle of 1914-1918) that records the start and end dates of each parent-child relationship (an example of how much units moved within the hierarchy)
    • A published webpage for each unit, to hold those links to official and personal documents about that unit in WWI. In future this page could include maps, timelines and other visualisations tailored to the attributes of a unit, possibly including theatres of war, events, campaigns, battles, number of privates and officers, etc. (Possibly related to CENDARI Work Package 9?) [Semantic MediaWiki]
    • A better understanding of what people want to know at different stages of researching WWI histories. This might include formal data gathering, possibly a combination of interviews, forum discussions or survey


Goals that are more likely to drop off, or become quick experiments to see how far you can get with accessible tools:
    • Trained ‘named entity recognition’ and ‘natural language processing’ tools that could be run over transcribed text to suggest possible people, places, events, concepts, etc [this might drop off the list as the CENDARI project is working on a tool called Pineapple (PDF poster). That said, I’ll probably still experiment with the Stanford NER tool to see what the results are like]
    • A way of presenting possible matches from the text tools above for verification or correction by researchers. Ideally, this would be tied in with the ability to annotate documents
    • The ability to search across different repositories for a particular soldier, to help with the above.


Linking lived experiences of WWI through battalions?

Another update from my CENDARI Fellowship at Trinity College Dublin, looking at ‘In their own words: linking lived experiences of the First World War’, which is a small-scale, short-term pilot based on WWI collections. My first post is Defining the scope: week one as a CENDARI Fellow. Over the past two weeks I’ve done a lot of reading – more WWI diaries and letters; WWI histories and historiography; specialist information like military structures (orders of battle, etc). I’ve also sketched out lots of snippets of possible functions, data, relationships and other outcomes.

I’ve narrowed the key goal (or minimum viable product, if you prefer) of my project to linking personal accounts of the war – letters, diaries, memoirs, photographs, etc – to battalions, by creating links from the individual who wrote them to their military unit. Once these personal accounts are linked to particular military units, they can be linked to higher units – from the battalion, ship or regiment to brigade, corps, etc – and to particular places, activities, events and campaigns. The idea behind this is to provide context for an individual’s experience of WWI by linking to narratives written by people in the same situation. I’m still working out how to organise the research process of matching the right soldier to the right battalion/regiment/ship so that relevant personal stories are discoverable. I’m also still working out which attributes of a battalion are relevant, how granular the data will be, and how to design for the inevitable variation in data quality (for example, the availability of records for different armies varies hugely). Finally, I’m still working out which bits need computer science tools and which need the help of other historians.

Given the number of centenary projects, I was hoping to find more structured data about WWI entities. Trenches to Triples would be useful source of permanent URLs, and terms to train named entity recognition, but am I missing other sources?

There’s a lot of content, and so much activity around WWI records, but it’s spread out across the internet. Individual people and small organisations are digitising and transcribing diaries and letters. Big collecting projects like Europeana have lots of personal accounts, but they’re often not transcribed and they don’t seem to be linked to structured data about the item itself. Some people have painstakingly transcribed unit diaries, but they’re not linked from the official site, so others wouldn’t know there’s a more easily read version of the diary available. I’ve been wondering if you could crowdsource the process of transcribing records held elsewhere, and offer the transcripts back to sites. Using dedicated transcription software would let others suggest corrections, and might also make it possible to link sections of the text to external ‘entities’ like names, places, events and concepts.

Albert Henry Bailey. Image:
Sir George Grey Special Collections,
Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19150909-39-5

To help figure out the issues researchers face and the variations in available resources, I’m researching randomly selected soldiers from different Allied forces. I’ve posted my notes on Private Albert Henry Bailey, service number 13/970a. You’ll see that they’re in prose form, and don’t contain any structured data. Most of my research used digitised-but-not-transcribed images of documents, with some transcribed accounts. It would definitely benefit from deeper knowledge of military history – for a start, which battalions were in the same place as his unit at the same time?

This account of the arrival and first weeks of the Auckland Mount Rifles at Gallipoli from the official unit history gives a sense of the density and specificity of local place names, as does the official unit diary, and I assume many personal accounts. I’m not sure how named entity recognition tools will cope, and ideally I’d like to find lists of places to ‘train’ the tools (including possibly some from the ‘Trenches to Triples’ project).

If there aren’t already any structured data sources for military hierarchies in WWI, do I have to make one? And if so, how? The idea would be to turn prose descriptions like this Australian War Memorial history of the 27th AIF Battalion, this order of battle of the 2nd Australian Division and any other suitable sources into structured data. I can see some ways it might be possible to crowdsource the task, but it’s a big task. But it’s worth it – providing a service that lets people look up which higher military units, places. activities and campaigns a particular battalion/regiment/ship was linked to at a given time would be a good legacy for my research.

I’m sure I’m forgetting lots of things, and my list of questions is longer than my list of answers, but I should end here. To close, I want to share a quote from the official history of the Auckland Mounted Rifles. The author said he ‘would like to speak of the splendid men of the rank and file who died during this three months’ struggle. Many names rush to the memory, but it is not possible to mention some without doing an injustice to the memory of others’. I guess my project is driven by a vision of doing justice to the memory of every soldier, particularly those ordinary men who aren’t as easily found in the records. I’m hoping that drawing on the work of other historians and re-linking disparate sources will help provide as much context as possible for their experiences of the First World War.

Update, 15 October 2014: if you’ve made it this far, you might also be interested in chipping in at ‘Linking lived experiences of the First World War’: possible goals and a bunch of technical questions.