A New Year’s resolution for start-ups, PRs and journalists writing about museums

Some technology in a museum

Dear journalists, start-ups, agencies and PR folk,

I get that you want to talk about how amazing some new app, product or company is, but can you please do so without resorting to lazy, outdated cliches?

I’ve seen far too many articles make un-evidenced claims like ‘museums don’t realise people have different preferences in their galleries’ or that museums are ‘repeatedly turning a blind eye to technology, rather than recognizing it could be used to deliver an experience unique to every visitor’. If your app, product or company is good enough, you shouldn’t need to do the ‘competition’ down to stand out, and besides, sometimes my eyes hurt from rolling so hard.

I know that traditionally everyone makes New Years resolutions for themselves, but in the spirit of disruption (ha! not really) I’d like to suggest a New Years resolution for you:  leave those cliches about dusty old museums behind and find out what people in your city love about their museums. Find a new angle for your piece, one that recognises that museums don’t always get it right but that they’ve probably been thinking about the best uses of technology for their audiences longer than you have.

Museums have been experimenting with new technologies for decades. The post-2008 financial cuts might have reduced the number of digital pilot projects across the sector as a whole but most museums are still investing in improving the visitor experience, engaging wider audiences and making a difference in the lives of their communities. You probably don’t need to lecture them on what they could be doing – they already know, and wish they had more resources to do cool things.

You could even check out past papers and discussions at conferences and groups like the Museum Computer Network (MCN), Museums and the Web, the Museums Computer Group (MCG), MuseumNext, the Visitor Studies Group (VSG), the many fantastic museum technology, design and audience research blogs, the #musetech hashtag (when agencies aren’t spamming it) and much, much more if you wanted some inspiration or to learn what’s been tried in the past and how it worked out…

Yours in museums,


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 http://10most.org.uk/ Research object histories
Ancient Lives http://ancientlives.org/ Humanities, language, text transcription
British Library Georeferencer http://www.bl.uk/maps/ Locating and georeferencing maps (warning: if it’s running, only hard maps may be left!)
Children of the Lodz Ghetto http://online.ushmm.org/lodzchildren/ Citizen history, research
Describe Me http://describeme.museumvictoria.com.au/ Describe objects
DIY History http://diyhistory.lib.uiowa.edu/ Transcribe historical letters, recipes, diaries
Family History Transcription Project http://www.flickr.com/photos/statelibrarync/collections/ Document transcription (Flickr/Yahoo login required to comment)
Herbaria@home http://herbariaunited.org/atHome/ (for bonus points, compare it with Notes from Nature https://www.zooniverse.org/project/notes_from_nature) Transcribing specimen sheets (or biographical research)
HistoryPin Year of the Bay ‘Mysteries’ https://www.historypin.org/attach/project/22-yearofthebay/mysteries/index/ Help find dates, locations, titles for historic photographs; overlay images on StreetView
iSpot http://www.ispotnature.org/ Help ‘identify wildlife and share nature’
Letters of 1916 http://dh.tcd.ie/letters1916/ Transcribe letters and/or contribute letters
London Street Views 1840 http://crowd.museumoflondon.org.uk/lsv1840/ Help transcribe London business directories
Micropasts http://crowdsourced.micropasts.org/app/photomasking/newtask Photo-masking to help produce 3D objects; also structured transcription
Museum Metadata Games: Dora http://museumgam.es/dora/ Tagging game with cultural heritage objects (my prototype from 2010)
NYPL Building Inspector http://buildinginspector.nypl.org/ A range of tasks, including checking building footprints, entering addresses
Operation War Diary http://operationwardiary.org/ Structured transcription of WWI unit diaries
Papers of the War Department http://wardepartmentpapers.org/ Document transcription
Planet Hunters http://planethunters.org/ Citizen science; review visualised data
Powerhouse Museum Collection Search http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/menu.php Tagging objects
Reading Experience Database http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/RED/ Text selection, transcription, description.
Smithsonian Digital Volunteers: Transcription Center https://transcription.si.edu/ Text transcription
Tiltfactor Metadata Games http://www.metadatagames.org/ Games with cultural heritage images
Transcribe Bentham http://www.transcribe-bentham.da.ulcc.ac.uk/ History; text transcription
Trove http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper?q= Correct OCR errors, transcribe text, tag or describe documents
US National Archives http://www.amara.org/en/teams/national-archives/ Transcribing videos
What’s the Score at the Bodleian http://www.whats-the-score.org/ Music and text transcription, description
What’s on the menu http://menus.nypl.org/ Structured transcription of restaurant menus
What’s on the menu? Geotagger http://menusgeo.herokuapp.com/ Geolocating historic restaurant menus
Wikisource – random item link http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Special:Random/Index Transcribing texts
Worm Watch http://www.wormwatchlab.org Citizen science; video
Your Paintings Tagger http://tagger.thepcf.org.uk/ 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.

It’s here! Crowdsourcing our Cultural Heritage is now available

My edited volume, Crowdsourcing our Cultural Heritage, is now available! My introduction (Crowdsourcing our cultural heritage: Introduction), which provides an overview of the field and outlines the contribution of the 12 chapters, is online at Ashgate’s site, along with the table of contents and index. There’s a 10% discount if you order online.

If you’re in London on the evening of Thursday 20th November, we’re celebrating with a book launch party at the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities. Register at http://crowdsourcingculturalheritage.eventbrite.co.uk.

Here’s the back page blurb: “Crowdsourcing, or asking the general public to help contribute to shared goals, is increasingly popular in memory institutions as a tool for digitising or computing vast amounts of data. This book brings together for the first time the collected wisdom of international leaders in the theory and practice of crowdsourcing in cultural heritage. It features eight accessible case studies of groundbreaking projects from leading cultural heritage and academic institutions, and four thought-provoking essays that reflect on the wider implications of this engagement for participants and on the institutions themselves.

Crowdsourcing in cultural heritage is more than a framework for creating content: as a form of mutually beneficial engagement with the collections and research of museums, libraries, archives and academia, it benefits both audiences and institutions. However, successful crowdsourcing projects reflect a commitment to developing effective interface and technical designs. This book will help practitioners who wish to create their own crowdsourcing projects understand how other institutions devised the right combination of source material and the tasks for their ‘crowd’. The authors provide theoretically informed, actionable insights on crowdsourcing in cultural heritage, outlining the context in which their projects were created, the challenges and opportunities that informed decisions during implementation, and reflecting on the results.

This book will be essential reading for information and cultural management professionals, students and researchers in universities, corporate, public or academic libraries, museums and archives.”

Massive thanks to the following authors of chapters for their intellectual generosity and their patience with up to five rounds of edits, plus proofing, indexing and more…

  1. Crowdsourcing in Brooklyn, Shelley Bernstein;
  2. Old Weather: approaching collections from a different angle, Lucinda Blaser;
  3. ‘Many hands make light work. Many hands together make merry work’: Transcribe Bentham and crowdsourcing manuscript collections, Tim Causer and Melissa Terras;
  4. Build, analyse and generalise: community transcription of the Papers of the War Department and the development of Scripto, Sharon M. Leon;
  5. What’s on the menu?: crowdsourcing at the New York Public Library, Michael Lascarides and Ben Vershbow;
  6. What’s Welsh for ‘crowdsourcing’? Citizen science and community engagement at the National Library of Wales, Lyn Lewis Dafis, Lorna M. Hughes and Rhian James;
  7. Waisda?: making videos findable through crowdsourced annotations, Johan Oomen, Riste Gligorov and Michiel Hildebrand;
  8. Your Paintings Tagger: crowdsourcing descriptive metadata for a national virtual collection, Kathryn Eccles and Andrew Greg.
  9. Crowdsourcing: Crowding out the archivist? Locating crowdsourcing within the broader landscape of participatory archives, Alexandra Eveleigh;
  10.  How the crowd can surprise us: humanities crowdsourcing and the creation of knowledge, Stuart Dunn and Mark Hedges;
  11. The role of open authority in a collaborative web, Lori Byrd Phillips;
  12. Making crowdsourcing compatible with the missions and values of cultural heritage organisations, Trevor Owens.

These are a few of my favourite (audience research) things

On Friday I popped into London to give a talk at the Art of Digital meetup at the Photographer’s Gallery. It’s a great series of events organised by Caroline Heron and Jo Healy, so go along sometime if you can. I talked about different ways of doing audience research. (And when I wrote the line ‘getting to know you’ it gave me an earworm and a ‘lessons from musicals’ theme). It was a talk of two halves. In the first, I outlined different ways of thinking about audience research, then went into a little more detail about a few of my favourite (audience research) things.

There are lots of different ways to understand the contexts and needs different audiences bring to your offerings. You probably also want to test to see if what you’re making works for them and to get a sense of what they’re currently doing with your websites, apps or venues. It can help to think of research methods along scales of time, distance, numbers, ‘density’ and intimacy. (Or you could think of it as a journey from ‘somewhere out there’ to ‘dancing cheek to cheek’…)

‘Time’ refers to both how much time a method asks from the audience and how much time it takes to analyse the results. There’s no getting around the fact that nearly all methods require time to plan, prepare and pilot, sorry! You can run 5 second tests that ask remote visitors a single question, or spend months embedded in a workplace shadowing people (and more time afterwards analysing the results). On the distance scale, you can work with remote testers located anywhere across the world, ask people visiting your museum to look at a few prototype screens, or physically locate yourself in someone’s office for an interview or observation.

Numbers and ‘density’ (or the richness of communication and the resulting data) tend to be inversely linked. Analytics or log files let you gather data from millions of website or app users, one-question surveys can garner thousands of responses, you can interview dozens of people or test prototypes with 5-8 users each time. However, the conversations you’ll have in a semi-structured interview are much richer than the responses you’ll get to a multiple-choice questionnaire. This is partly because it’s a two-way dialogue, and partly because in-person interviews convey more information, including tone of voice, physical gestures, impressions of a location and possibly even physical artefacts or demonstrations. Generally, methods that can reach millions of remote people produce lots of point data, while more intimate methods that involve spending lots of time with just a few people produce small datasets of really rich data.

So here are few of my favourite things: analytics, one-question surveys, 5 second tests, lightweight usability tests, semi-structured interviews, and on-site observations. Ultimately, the methods you use are a balance of time and distance, the richness of the data required, and whether you want to understand the requirements for, or measure the performance of a site or tool.

Analytics are great for understanding how people found you, what they’re doing on your site, and how this changes over time. Analytics can help you work out which bits of a website need tweaking, and for measuring to see the impact of changes. But that only gets you so far – how do you know which trends are meaningful and which are just noise? To understand why people are doing what they do, you need other forms of research to flesh them out. 
One question surveys are a great way of finding out why people are on your site, and whether they’ve succeeded in achieving their goals for being there. We linked survey answers to analytics for the last Let’s Get Real project so we could see how people who were there for different reasons behaved on the site, but you don’t need to go that far – any information about why people are on your site is better than none! 
5 second tests and lightweight usability tests are both ways to find out how well a design works for its intended audiences. 5 second tests show people an interface for 5 seconds, then ask them what they remember about it, or where they’d click to do a particular task. They’re a good way to make sure your text and design are clear. Usability tests take from a few minutes to an hour, and are usually done in person. One of my favourite lightweight tests involves grabbing a sketch, an iPad or laptop and asking people in a café or other space if they’d help by testing a site for a few minutes. You can gather lots of feedback really quickly, and report back with a prioritised list of fixes by the end of the day. 
Semi-structured interviews use the same set of questions each time to ensure some consistency between interviews, but they’re flexible enough to let you delve into detail and follow any interesting diversions that arise during the conversation. Interviews and observations can be even more informative if they’re done in the space where the activities you’re interested in take place. ‘Contextual inquiry’ goes a step further by including observations of the tasks you’re interested in being performed. If you can ‘apprentice’ yourself to someone, it’s a great way to have them explain to you why things are done the way they are. However, it’s obviously a lot more difficult to find someone willing and able to let you observe them in this way, it’s not appropriate for every task or research question, and the data that results can be so rich and dense with information that it takes a long time to review and analyse. 
And one final titbit of wisdom from a musical – always look on the bright side of life! Any knowledge is better than none, so if you manage to get any audience research or usability testing done then you’re already better off than you were before.

[Update: a comment on twitter reminded me of another favourite research thing: if you don’t yet have a site/app/campaign/whatever, test a competitor’s!]

Sharing is caring keynote ‘Enriching cultural heritage collections through a Participatory Commons’

Enriching cultural heritage collections through a Participatory Commons platform: a provocation about collaborating with users

Mia Ridge, Open University Contact me: @mia_out or http://miaridge.com/

[I was invited to Copenhagen to talk about my research on crowdsourcing in cultural heritage at the 3rd international Sharing is Caring seminar on April 1. I’m sharing my notes in advance to make life easier for those awesome people following along in a second or third language, particularly since I’m delivering my talk via video.]

Today I’d like to present both a proposal for something called the ‘Participatory Commons’, and a provocation (or conversation starter): there’s a paradox in our hopes for deeper audience engagement through crowdsourcing: projects that don’t grow with their participants will lose them as they develop new skills and interests and move on. This talk presents some options for dealing with this paradox and suggests a Participatory Commons provides a way to take a sector-wide view of active engagement with heritage content and redefine our sense of what it means when everybody wins.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this – I’ll be following the hashtag during the session and my contact details are above.

Before diving in, I wanted to reflect on some lessons from my work in museums on public engagement and participation.

My philosophy for crowdsourcing in cultural heritage (aka what I’ve learnt from making crowdsourcing games)

One thing I learnt over the past years: museums can be intimidating places. When we ask for help with things like tagging or describing our collections, people want to help but they worry about getting it wrong and looking stupid or about harming the museum.

The best technology in the world won’t solve a single problem unless it’s empathically designed and accompanied by social solutions. This isn’t a talk about technology, it’s a talk about people – what they want, what they’re afraid of, how we can overcome all that to collaborate and work together.

Dora’s Lost Data

So a few years ago I explored the potential of crowdsourcing games to make helping a museum less scary and more fun. In this game, ‘Dora’s Lost Data‘, players meet a junior curator who asks them to tag objects so they’ll be findable in Google. Games aren’t the answer to everything, but identifying barriers to participation is always important. You have to understand your audiences – their motivations for starting and continuing to participate; the fears, anxieties, uncertainties that prevent them participating. [My games were hacked together outside of work hours, more information is available at My MSc dissertation: crowdsourcing games for museums; if you’d like to see properly polished metadata games check out Tiltfactor’s http://www.metadatagames.org/#games]

Mutual wins – everybody’s happy

My definition of crowdsourcing: cultural heritage crowdsourcing projects ask the public to undertake tasks that cannot be done automatically, in an environment where the activities, goals (or both) provide inherent rewards for participation, and where their participation contributes to a shared, significant goal or research area.

It helps to think of crowdsourcing in cultural heritage as a form of volunteering. Participation has to be rewarding for everyone involved. That sounds simple, but focusing on the audiences’ needs can be difficult when there are so many organisational needs competing for priority and limited resources for polishing the user experience. Further, as many projects discover, participant needs change over time…

What is a Participatory Commons and why would we want one?

First, I have to introduce you to some people. These are composite stories (personas) based on my research…

Two archival historians, Simone and Andre. Simone travels to archives in her semester breaks to stock up on research material, taking photos of most documents ‘in case they’re useful later’, transcribing key text from others. Andre is often at the next table, also looking for material for his research. The documents he collected for his last research project would be useful for Simone’s current book but they’ve never met and he has no way of sharing that part of his ‘personal research collection’ with her. Currently, each of these highly skilled researchers take their cumulative knowledge away with them at the end of the day, leaving no trace of their work in the archive itself. Next…

Two people from a nearby village, Martha and Bob. They joined their local history society when they retired and moved to the village. They’re helping find out what happened to children from the village school’s class of 1898 in the lead-up to and during World War I. They are using census returns and other online documents to add records to a database the society’s secretary set up in Excel. Meanwhile…

A family historian, Daniel. He has a classic ‘shoebox archive’ – a box containing his grandmother Sarah’s letters and diary, describing her travels and everyday life at the turn of the century. He’s transcribing them and wants to put them online to share with his extended family. One day he wants to make a map for his kids that shows all the places their great-grandmother lived and visited. Finally, there’s…

Crowdsourcer Nisha.She has two young kids and works for a local authority. She enjoys playing games like Candy Crush on her mobile, and after the kids have gone to bed she transcribes ship logs on the Old Weather website while watching TV with her husband. She finds it relaxing, feels good about contributing to science and enjoys the glimpses of life at sea. Sites like Old Weather use ‘microtasks’ – tiny, easily accomplished tasks – and crowdsourcing to digitise large amounts of text.

Helping each other?

None of our friends above know it, but they’re all looking at material from roughly the same time and place. Andre and Simone could help each other by sharing the documents they’ve collected over the years. Sarah’s diaries include the names of many children from her village that would help Martha and Bob’s project, and Nisha could help everyone if she transcribed sections of Sarah’s diary.

Connecting everyone’s efforts for the greater good: Participatory Commons

This image shows the two main aspects of the Participatory Commons: the different sources for content, and the activities that people can do with that content.

The Participatory Commons (image: Mia Ridge)

The Participatory Commons is a platform where content from different sources can be aggregated. Access to shared resources underlies the idea of the ‘Commons’, particularly material that is not currently suitable for sites like Europeana, like ‘shoebox archives’ and historians’ personal record collections. So if the ‘Commons’ part refers to shared resources, how is it participatory?

The Participatory Commons interface supports a range of activities, from the types of tasks historians typically do, like assessing and contextualising documents, activities that specialists or the public can do like identifying particular people, places, events or things in sources, or typical crowdsourcing tasks like fulltext transcription or structured tagging.

By combining the energy of crowdsourcing with the knowledge historians create on a platform that can store or link to primary sources from museums, libraries and archives with ‘shoebox archives’, the Commons could help make our shared heritage more accessible to all. As a platform that makes material about ordinary people available alongside official archives and as an interface for enjoyable, meaningful participation in heritage work, the Commons could be a basis for ‘open source history’, redressing some of the absences in official archives while improving the quality of all records.

As a work in progress, this idea of the Participatory Heritage Commons has two roles: an academic thought experiment to frame my research, and as a provocation for GLAMs (galleries, museums, libraries, archives) to think outside their individual walls. As a vision for ‘open source history’, it’s inspired by community archives, public history, participant digitisation and history from below… This combination of a large underlying repository and more intimate interfaces could be quite powerful. Capturing some of the knowledge generated when scholars access collections would benefit both archives and other researchers.

‘Niche projects’ can be built on a Participatory Commons

As a platform for crowdsourcing, the Participatory Commons provides efficiencies of scale in the backend work for verifying and validating contributions, managing user accounts, forums, etc. But that doesn’t mean that each user would experience the same front-end interface.

Niche projects build on the Participatory Commons
(quick and dirty image: Mia Ridge)

My research so far suggests that tightly-focused projects are better able to motivate participants and create a sense of community. These ‘niche’ projects may be related to a particular location, period or topic, or to a particular type of material. The success of the New York Public Library’s What’s on the Menu project, designed around a collection of historic menus, and the British Library’s GeoReferencer project, designed around their historic map collection, both demonstrate the value of defining projects around niche topics.

The best crowdsourcing projects use carefully designed interactions tailored to the specific content, audience and data requirements of a given project. These interactions are usually For example, the Zooniverse body of projects use much of the same underlying software but projects are designed around specific tasks on specific types of material, whether classifying simple galaxy types, plankton or animals on the Serengeti, or transcribing ship logs or military diaries.

The Participatory Commons is not only a collection of content, it also allows ‘niche’ projects to be layered on top, presenting more focused sets of content, and specialist interfaces designed around the content, audience and purpose.


But there are still many barriers to consider, including copyright and technical issues and important cultural issues around authority, reliability, trust, academic credit and authorship. [There’s more background on this at my earlier post on historians and the Participatory Commons and Early PhD findings: Exploring historians’ resistance to crowdsourced resources.]

Now I want to set the idea of the Participatory Commons aside for a moment, and return to crowdsourcing in cultural heritage. I’ve been looking for factors in the success or otherwise of crowdsourcing projects, from grassroots, community-lead projects to big glamorous institutionally-lead sites.

I mentioned that Nisha found transcribing text relaxing. Like many people who start transcribing text, she found herself getting interested in the events, people and places mentioned in the text. Forums or other methods for participants to discuss their questions seem to help keep participants motivated, and they also provide somewhere for a spark of curiosity to grow (as in this forum post). We know that some people on crowdsourcing projects like Old Weather get interested in history, and even start their own research projects.

Crowdsourcing as gateway to further activity

You can see that happening on other crowdsourcing projects too. For example, Herbaria@Homeaims to document historical herbarium collections within museums based on photographs of specimen cards. So far participants have documented over 130,000 historic specimens. In the process, some participants also found themselves being interested in the people whose specimens they were documenting.

As a result, the project has expanded to include biographies of the original specimen collectors. It was able to accommodate this new interest through a project wiki, which has a combination of free text and structured data linking records between the transcribed specimen cards and individual biographies.

‘Levels of Engagement’ in citizen science

There’s a consistent enough pattern in science crowdsourcing projects that there’s a model from ‘citizen science’ that outlines different stages participants can move through, from undertaking simple tasks, joining in community discussion, through to ‘working independently on self-identified research projects’.[1]

Is this ‘mission accomplished’?

This is Nick Poole’s word cloud based on 40 museum missionstatements. With words like ‘enjoyment’, ‘access’, ‘learning’ appearing in museum missions, doesn’t this mean that turning transcribers into citizen historians while digitising and enhancing collections is a success? Well, yes, but…

Paths diverge; paradox ahead?

There’s a tension between GLAM’s desire to invite people to ‘go deeper’, to find their own research interests, to begin to become citizen historians; and the desire to ask people to help us with tasks set by GLAMs to help their work. Heritage organisations can try to channel that impulse to start research into questions about their own collections, but sometimes it feels like we’re asking people to do our homework for us. The scaffolds put in place to help make tasks easier may start to feel like a constraint.

Who has agency?

If people move beyond simple tasks into more complex tasks that require a greater investment of time and learning, then issues of agency – participants’ ability to make choices about what they’re working on and why – start to become more important. Would Wikipedia have succeeded if it dictated what contributors had to write about? We shouldn’t mistake volunteers for a workforce just because they can be impressively dedicated contributors.

Participatory project models

Turning again to citizen science – this time public participation in science research, we have a model for participatory projects according to the amount of control participants have over the design of the project itself – or to look at it another way, how much authority the organisation has ceded to the crowd. This model contains three categories: ‘contributory’, where the public contributes data to a project designed by the organisation; ‘collaborative’, where the public can help refine project design and analyse data in a project lead by the organisation; and ‘co-creative’, where the public can take part in all or nearly all processes, and all parties design the project together.[2]

As you can imagine, truly co-creative projects are rare. It seems cultural organisations find it hard to truly collaborate with members of the public; for many understandable reasons. The level of transparency required, and the investment of time for negotiating mutual interests, goals and capabilities increase as collaboration deepens. Institutional constraints and lack of time to engage in deep dialogue with participants make it difficult to find shared goals that work for all parties. It seems GLAMs sometimes try to take shortcuts and end up making decisions for the group, which means their ‘co-creative’ project is actually more just ‘collaborative’.

New challenges

When participants start to out-grow the tasks that originally got them hooked, projects face a choice. Some projects are experimenting with setting challenges for participants. Here you see ‘mysteries’ set by the UK’s Museum of Design in Plastics, and by San FranciscoPublic Library on History Pin. Finding the right match between the challenge set and the object can be difficult without some existing knowledge of the collection, and it can require a lot of on-going time to encourage participants. Putting the mystery under the nose of the person who has the knowledge or skills to solve it is another challenge that projects like this will have to tackle.

Working with existing communities of interest is a good start, but it also takes work to figure out where they hang out online (or in-person) and understand how they prefer to work. GLAMs sometimes fall into the trap of choosing the technology first, or trying something because it’s trendy; it’s better to start with the intersection between your content and the preferences of potential audiences.

But is it wishful thinking to hope that others will be interested in answering the questions GLAMs are asking?

A tension?

Should projects accept that some people will move on as they develop new interests, and concentrate on recruiting new participants to replace them? Do they try to find more interesting tasks or new responsibilities for participants, such as helping moderate discussions, or checking and validating other people’s work? Or should they find ways for the project grow as participants’ skill and knowledge increase? It’s important to make these decisions mindfully as the default is otherwise to accept a level of turnover as participants move on.

To return to lessons from citizen science, possible areas for deeper involvement include choosing or defining questions for study, analysing or interpreting data and drawing conclusions, discussing results and asking new questions.[3]However, heritage organisations might have to accept that the questions people want to ask might not involve their collections, and that these citizen historians’ new interests might not leave time for their previous crowdsourcing tasks.

Why is a critical mass of content in a Participatory Commons useful?

And now we return to the Participatory Commons and the question of why a critical mass of content would be useful.

Increasingly, the old divisions between museum, library and archive collections don’t make sense. For most people, content is content, and they don’t understand why a pamphlet about a village fete in 1898 would be described and accessed differently depending on whether it had ended up in a museum, library or archive catalogue.

Basing niche projects on a wider range of content creates opportunities for different types of tasks and levels of responsibility. Projects that provide a variety of tasks and roles can support a range of different levels and types of participant skills, availability, knowledge and experience.

A critical mass of material is also important for the discoverability of heritage content. Even the most sophisticated researcher turns to Google sometimes, and if your content doesn’t come up in the first few results, many researchers will never know it exists. It’s easy to say but less easy to make a reality: the easier it is to find your collections, the more likely it is that researchers will use them.

Commons as party?

More importantly, a critical mass of content in a Commons allows us to re-define ‘winning’. If participation is narrowly defined as belonging to individual GLAMs, when a citizen historian moves onto a project that doesn’t involve your collection then it can seem like you’ve lost a collaborator. But the people who developed a new research interest through a project at one museum might find they end up using records from the archive down the road, and transcribing or enhancing their records during their investigation. If all the institutions in the region shared their records on the Commons or let researchers take and share photos while using their collections, the researcher has a critical mass of content for their research and hopefully as a side-effect, their activities will improve links between collections. If the Commons allows GLAMs to take a sector-wide view then someone moving on to a different collection becomes a moment to celebrate, a form of graduation. In our wildest imagination, the Commons could be like a fabulous party where you never know what fabulous interesting people and things you’ll discover…

To conclude – by designing platforms that allow people to collect and improve records as they work, we’re helping everybody win.

Thank you! I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

[1]M. Jordan Raddick et al., ‘Citizen Science: Status and Research Directions for the Coming Decade’, in astro2010: The Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey, vol. 2010, 2009, http://www8.nationalacademies.org/astro2010/DetailFileDisplay.aspx?id=454.

[2]Rick Bonney et al., Public Participation in Scientific Research: Defining the Field and Assessing Its Potential for Informal Science Education. A CAISE Inquiry Group Report (Washington D.C.: Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE), July 2009), http://caise.insci.org/uploads/docs/PPSR%20report%20FINAL.pdf.

[3]Bonney et al., Public Participation in Scientific Research: Defining the Field and Assessing Its Potential for Informal Science Education. A CAISE Inquiry Group Report.

Image credits in order of appearance: Glider, Library of Congress, Great hall, Library of CongressCurzona Allport from Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office, Hålanda Church, Västergötland, Sweden, Swedish National Heritage Board, Smithsonian Institution, Postmaster, General James A. Farley During National Air Mail Week, 1938Powerhouse Museum, Canterbury Bankstown Rugby League Football Club’s third annual Ball.

Early PhD findings: Exploring historians’ resistance to crowdsourced resources

I wrote up some early findings from my PhD research for conferences back in 2012 when I was working on questions around ‘but will historians really use resources created by unknown members of the public?’. People keep asking me for copies of my notes (and I’ve noticed people citing an online video version which isn’t ideal) and since they might be useful and any comments would help me write-up the final thesis, I thought I’d be brave and post my notes.

A million caveats apply – these were early findings, my research questions and focus have changed and I’ve interviewed more historians and reviewed many more participative history projects since then; as a short paper I don’t address methods etc; and obviously it’s only a huge part of a tiny topic… (If you’re interested in crowdsourcing, you might be interested in other writing related to scholarly crowdsourcing and collaboration from my PhD, or my edited volume on ‘Crowdsourcing our cultural heritage’.) So, with those health warnings out of the way, here it is. I’d love to hear from you, whether with critiques, suggestions, or just stories about how it relates to your experience. And obviously, if you use this, please cite it!

Exploring historians’ resistance to crowdsourced resources

Scholarly crowdsourcing may be seen as a solution to the backlog of historical material to be digitised, but will historians really use resources created by unknown members of the public?

The Transcribe Bentham project describes crowdsourcing as ‘the harnessing of online activity to aid in large scale projects that require human cognition’ (Terras, 2010a). ‘Scholarly crowdsourcing’ is a related concept that generally seems to involve the collaborative creation of resources through collection, digitisation or transcription. Crowdsourcing projects often divide up large tasks (like digitising an archive) into smaller, more manageable tasks (like transcribing a name, a line, or a page); this method has helped digitise vast numbers of primary sources.

My doctoral research was inspired by a vision of ‘participant digitization’, a form of scholarly crowdsourcing that seeks to capture the digital records and knowledge generated when researchers access primary materials in order to openly share and re-use them. Unlike many crowdsourcing projects which are designed for tasks performed specifically for the project, participant digitization harnesses the transcription, metadata creation, image capture and other activities already undertaken during research and aggregates them to create re-usable collections of resources.

Research questions and concepts

When Howe clarified his original definition, stating that the ‘crucial prerequisite’ in crowdsourcing is ‘the use of the open call format and the large network of potential laborers’, a ‘perfect meritocracy’ based not on external qualifications but on ‘the quality of the work itself’, he created a challenge for traditional academic models of authority and credibility (Howe 2006, 2008). Furthermore, how does anonymity or pseudonymity (defined here as often long-standing false names chosen by users of websites) complicate the process of assessing the provenance of information on sites open to contributions from non-academics? An academic might choose to disguise their identity to mask their research activities from competing peers, from a desire to conduct early exploratory work in private or simply because their preferred username was unavailable; but when contributors are not using their real names they cannot derive any authority from their personal or institutional identity. Finally, which technical, social and scholarly contexts would encourage researchers to share (for example) their snippets of transcription created from archival documents, and to use content transcribed by others? What barriers exist to participation in crowdsourcing or prevent the use of crowdsourced content?


I interviewed academic and family/local historians about how they evaluate, use, and contribute to crowdsourced and traditional resources to investigate how a resource based on ‘meritocracy’ disrupts current notions of scholarly authority, reliability, trust, and authorship. These interviews aimed to understand current research practices and probe more deeply into how participants assess different types of resources, their feelings about resources created by crowdsourcing, and to discover when and how they would share research data and findings.

I sought historians investigating the same country and time period in order to have a group of participants who faced common issues with the availability and types of primary sources from early modern England. I focused on academic and ‘amateur’ family or local historians because I was interested in exploring the differences between them to discover which behaviours and attitudes are common to most researchers and which are particular to academics and the pressures of academia.

I recruited participants through personal networks and social media, and conducted interviews in person or on Skype. At the time of writing, 17 participants have been interviewed for up to 2 hours each. It should be noted that these results are of a provisional nature and represent a snapshot of on-going research and analysis.

Early results

I soon discovered that citizen historians are perfect examples of Pro-Ams: ‘knowledgeable, educated, committed, and networked’ amateurs ‘who work to professional standards’ (Leadbeater and Miller, 2004; Terras, 2010b).

How do historians assess the quality of resources?

Participants often simply said they drew on their knowledge and experience when sniffing out unreliable documents or statements. When assessing secondary sources, their tacit knowledge of good research and publication practices was evident in common statements like ‘[I can tell from] it’s the way it’s written’. They also cited the presence and quality of footnotes, and the depth and accuracy of information as important factors. Transcribed sources introduced another layer of quality assessment – researchers might assess a resource by checking for transcription errors that are often copied from one database to another. Most researchers used multiple sources to verify and document facts found in online or offline sources.

When and how do historians share research data and findings?

It appears that between accessing original records and publishing information, there are several key stages where research data and findings might be shared. Stages include acquiring and transcribing records, producing visualisations like family trees and maps, publishing informal notes and publishing synthesised content or analysis; whether a researcher passes through all the stages depends on their motivation and audience. Information may change formats between stages, and since many claim not to share information that has not yet been sufficiently verified, some information would drop out before each stage. It also appears that in later stages of the research process the size of the potential audience increases and the level of trust required to share with them decreases.

For academics, there may be an additional, post-publication stage when resources are regarded as ‘depleted’ – once they have published what they need from them, they would be happy to share them. Family historians meanwhile see some value in sharing versions of family trees online, or in posting names of people they are researching to attract others looking for the same names.

Sharing is often negotiated through private channels and personal relationships. Methods of controlling sharing include showing people work in progress on a screen rather than sending it to them and using email in preference to sharing functionality supplied by websites – this targeted, localised sharing allows the researcher to retain a sense of control over early stage data, and so this is one key area where identity matters. Information is often shared progressively, and getting access to more information depends on your behaviour after the initial exchange – for example, crediting the provider in any further use of the data, or reciprocating with good data of your own.

When might historians resist sharing data?

Participants gave a range of reasons for their reluctance to share data. Being able to convey the context of creation and the qualities of the source materials is important for historians who may consider sharing their ‘depleted’ personal archives – not being able to provide this means they are unlikely to share. Being able to convey information about data reliability is also important. Some information about the reliability of a piece of information is implicitly encoded in its format (for example, in pencil in notebooks versus electronic records), hedging phrases in text, in the number of corroborating sources, or a value judgement about those sources. If it is difficult to convey levels of ‘certainty’ about reliability when sharing data, it is less likely that people will share it – participants felt a sense of responsibility about not publishing (even informally) information that hasn’t been fully verified. This was particularly strong in academics. Some participants confessed to sneaking forbidden photos of archival documents they ran out of time to transcribe in the archive; unsurprisingly it is unlikely they would share those images.

Overall, if historians do not feel they would get information of equal value back in exchange, they seem less likely to share. Professional researchers do not want to give away intellectual property, and feel sharing data online is risky because the protocols of citation and fair use are presently uncertain. Finally, researchers did not always see a point in sharing their data. Family history content was seen as too specific and personal to have value for others; academics may realise the value of their data within their own tightly-defined circles but not realise that their records may have information for other biographical researchers (i.e. people searching by name) or other forms of history.

Which concerns are particular to academic historians?

Reputational risk is an issue for some academics who might otherwise share data. One researcher said: ‘we are wary of others trawling through our research looking for errors or inconsistencies. […] Obviously we were trying to get things right, but if we have made mistakes we don’t want to have them used against us. In some ways, the less you make available the better!’. Scholarly territoriality can be an issue – if there is another academic working on the same resources, their attitude may affect how much others share. It is also unclear how academic historians would be credited for their work if it was performed under a pseudonym that does not match the name they use in academia.

What may cause crowdsourced resources to be under-used?

In this research, ‘amateur’ and academic historians shared many of the same concerns for authority, reliability, and trust. The main reported cause of under-use (for all resources) is not providing access to original documents as well as transcriptions. Researchers will use almost any information as pointers or leads to further sources, but they will not publish findings based on that data unless the original documents are available or the source has been peer-reviewed. Checking the transcriptions against the original is seen as ‘good practice’, part of a sense of responsibility ‘to the world’s knowledge’.

Overall, the identity of the data creator is less important than expected – for digitised versions of primary sources, reliability is not vested in the identity of the digitiser but in the source itself. Content found on online sites is tested against a set of finely-tuned ideas about the normal range of documents rather than the authority of the digitiser.

Cite as:

Ridge, Mia. “Early PhD Findings: Exploring Historians’ Resistance to Crowdsourced Resources.” Open Objects, March 19, 2014. http://www.openobjects.org.uk/2014/03/early-phd-findings-exploring-historians-resistance-to-crowdsourced-resources/.


Howe, J. (undated). Crowdsourcing: A Definition http://crowdsourcing.typepad.com

Howe, J. (2006). Crowdsourcing: A Definition. http://crowdsourcing.typepad.com/cs/2006/06/crowdsourcing_a.html

Howe, J. (2008). Join the crowd: Why do multinationals use amateurs to solve scientific and technical problems? The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/features/join-the-crowd-why-do-multinationals-use-amateurs-to-solve-scientific-and-technical-problems-915658.html

Leadbeater, C., and Miller, P. (2004). The Pro-Am Revolution: How Enthusiasts Are Changing Our Economy and Society. Demos, London, 2004. http://www.demos.co.uk/files/proamrevolutionfinal.pdf

Terras, M. (2010a) Crowdsourcing cultural heritage: UCL’s Transcribe Bentham project. Presented at: Seeing Is Believing: New Technologies For Cultural Heritage. International Society for Knowledge Organization, UCL (University College London). http://eprints.ucl.ac.uk/20157/

Terras, M. (2010b). “Digital Curiosities: Resource Creation via Amateur Digitization.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 25, no. 4 (October 14, 2010): 425–438. http://llc.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/doi/10.1093/llc/fqq019

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.

Working out what we’re doing: day one of One Week, One Tool

Hard at work in The Well

I’m sitting in a hotel next to the George Mason University’s Fairfax campus with a bunch of people I (mostly) met last night trying to work out what tool we’ll spend the rest of the week building. We’re all here for One Week, One Tool, a ‘digital humanities barn raising’ and our aim is to launch a tool for a community of scholarly users by Friday evening. The wider results should be some lessons about rapidly developing scholarly tools, particularly building audience-focused tools, and hopefully a bunch of new friendships and conversations, and in the future, a community of users and other developers who might contribute code. I’m particularly excited about trying to build a ‘minimum viable product‘ in a week, because it’s so unlike working in a museum. If we can keep the scope creep in check, we should be able to build for the most lightweight possible interaction that will let people use our tool while allowing room for the tool to grow according to uses.

We met up last night for introductions and started talking about our week. I’m blogging now in part so that we can look back and remember what it was like before we got stuck into building something – if you don’t capture the moment, it’s hard to retrieve. The areas of uncertainty will reduce each day, and based on my experience at hack days and longer projects, it’s often hard to remember how uncertain things were at the start.

Are key paradoxes of #owot a) how we find a common end user, b) a common need we can meet and c) a common code language/framework?
— Mia (@mia_out) July 29, 2013

Meghan herding cats to get potential ideas summarised

Today we heard from CHNM team members Sharon Leon on project management, Sheila Brennan on project outreach and Patrick Murray-John on coding and then got stuck into the process of trying to figure out what on earth we’ll build this week. I don’t know how others felt but by lunchtime I felt super impatient to get started because it felt like our conversations about how to build the imaginary thing would be more fruitful when we had something concrete-ish to discuss. (I think I’m also used to hack days, which are actually usually weekends, where you’ve got much less time to try and build something.) We spent the afternoon discussing possible ideas, refining them, bouncing up and down between detail, finding our way through different types of jargon, swapping between problem spaces and generally finding our way through the thicket of possibilities to some things we would realistically want to make in the time. We went from a splodge of ideas on a whiteboard to more structured ‘tool, audience, need’ lines based on agile user stories, then went over them again to summarise them so they’d make sense to people viewing them on ideascale.

#owotleaks #owot – we’re building a tool that converts whiteboard brainstorming notes into fully developed applications
— Jack Dougherty (@DoughertyJack) July 29, 2013

So now it’s over to you (briefly). We’re working out what we should build this week, and in addition to your votes, we’d love you to comment on two specific things:

  • How would a suggested tool change your work? 
  • Do you know of similar tools (we don’t want to replicate existing work)?
So go have a look at the candidate ideas at http://oneweekonetool.ideascale.com and let us know what you think. It’s less about voting than it is about providing more context for ideas you like, and we’ll put all the ideas through a reality check based on whether it has identifiable potential users and whether we can build it in a few days. We’ll be heading out to lunch tomorrow (Viriginia time) with a decision, so it’s a really short window for feedback: 10am American EST. (If it’s any consolation, it’s a super-short window for us building it too.)

Update Tuesday morning: two other participants have written posts, so go check them out! Amanda Visconti’s Digital Projects from Start to Finish: DH Mentorship from One Week One Tool (OWOT), Brian Croxall’s Day 1 of OWOT: Check Your Ego at the Door and Jack Dougherty’s Learning Moments at One Week One Tool 2013, Day 1.

DHOxSS: ‘From broadcast to collaboration: the challenges of public engagement in museums’

I’m just back from giving at a lightning talk for the Cultural Connections strand of the Digital.Humanities@Oxford Summer School 2013, and since the projector wasn’t working to show my examples during my talk I thought I’d share my notes (below) and some quick highlights from the other presentations.

Mark Doffman said that it’s important that academic work challenges and provokes, but make sure you get headlines for the right reasons, but not e.g. on how much the project costs. He concluded that impact is about provocation, not just getting people to say your work is wonderful.

Gurinder Punn of the university’s Isis Innovation made the point that intellectual property and expertise can be transferred into businesses by consulting through your department or personally. (And it’s not just for senior academics – one of the training sessions offered to PhD students at the Open University is ‘commercialising your research’).

Giles Bergel @ChapBookPro spoke on the Broadside Ballads Online (blog), explaining that folksong scholarship is often outside academia – there’s a lot of vernacular scholarship and all sorts of domain specialists including musicians. They’ve considered crowdsourcing but want to be in a position to take the contributions as seriously as any print accession. They also have an image-match demonstrator from Oxford’s Visual Geometry Group which can be used to find similar images on different ballad sheets.

Christian von Goldbeck-Stier offered some reflections on working with conductors as part of his research on Wagner. And perfectly for a summer’s day:

Christian quotes Wilde on beauty: “one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or springtime…” http://t.co/8qGE9tLdBZ #dhoxss
— Pip Willcox (@pipwillcox) July 11, 2013

My talk notes: ‘From broadcast to collaboration: the challenges of public engagement in museums’

I’m interested in academic engagement from two sides – for the past decade or so I was a museum technologist; now I’m a PhD student in the Department of History at the Open University, where I’m investigating the issues around academic and ‘amateur’ historians and scholarly crowdsourcing.

As I’ve moved into academia, I’ve discovered there’s often a disconnect between academia and museum practice (to take an example I know well), and that their different ways of working can make connecting difficult, even before they try to actually collaborate. But it’s worth it because the reward is more relevant, cutting-edge research that directly benefits practitioners in the relevant fields and has greater potential impact.

I tend to focus on engagement through participation and crowdsourcing, but engagement can be as simple as blogging about your work in accessible terms: sharing the questions that drive your research, how you’ve come to some answers, and what that means for the world at large; or writing answers to common questions from the public alongside journal articles.

Plan it

For a long time, museums worked with two publics: visitors and volunteers. They’d ask visitors what they thought in ‘have your say’ interactives, but to be honest, they often didn’t listen to the answers. They’d also work with volunteers but sometimes they valued their productivity more than they valued their own kinds of knowledge. But things are more positive these days – you’ve already heard a lot about crowdsourcing as a key example of more productive engagement.

Public engagement works better when it’s incorporated into a project from the start. Museums are exploring co-curation – working with the public to design exhibitions. Museums are recognising that they can’t know everything about a subject, and figuring out how to access knowledge ‘out there’ in the rest of the world. In the Oramics project at the Science Museum (e.g. Oramics to Electronica or Engaging enthusiasts online), electronic musicians were invited to co-curate an exhibition to help interpret an early electronic instrument for the public. 

There’s a model from ‘Public Participation in Scientific Research’ (or ‘citizen science’) I find useful in my work when thinking about how much agency the public has in a project, and it’s also useful for planning engagement projects. Where can you benefit from questions or contributions from the public, and how much control are you willing to give up? 

Contributory projects designed by scientists, with participants involved primarily in collecting samples and recording data; Collaborative projects in which the public is also involved in analyzing data, refining project design, and disseminating findings; Co-created projects are designed by scientists and members of the public working together, and at least some of the public participants are involved in all aspects of the work. (Source: Public Participation in Scientific Research: Defining the Field and Assessing Its Potential for Informal Science Education (full report, PDF, 3 MB))

Do it

Museums have learnt that engaging the public means getting out of their venues (and their comfort zones). One example is Wikipedians-in-Residence, including working with Wikipedians to share images, hold events and contribute to articles. (e.g. The British Museum and MeA Wikipedian-in-Residence at the British MuseumThe Children’s Museum’s Wikipedian in Residence). 
It’s not always straightforward – museums don’t do ‘neutral’ points of view, which is a key goal for Wikipedia. Museums are object-centric, Wikipedia is knowledge-centric. Museums are used to individual scholarship and institutional credentials, Wikipedia is consensus-driven and your only credentials are your editing history and your references. Museums are slowly learning to share authority, to trust the values of other platforms. You need to invest time to learn what drives the other groups, how to talk with them and you have to be open to being challenged.

Mean it

Done right, engagement should be transformative for all sides. According to the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, engagement ‘is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.’ Saying something is ‘open to the public’ is easy; making efforts to make sure that it’s intellectually and practically accessible takes more effort; active outreach is a step beyond open. It’s not the same as marketing – it may use the same social media channels, but it’s a conversation, not a broadcast. It’s hard to fake being truly engaged (and it’s rude) so you have to mean it – doing it cynically doesn’t help anyone.

Asking people to do work that helps your mission is a double win. For example, Brooklyn Museum’s ‘Freeze Tag‘ ask members of their community to help moderate tags entered by people elsewhere – they’re trusting members of the community to clean up content for them.

Enjoy it

My final example is the National Library of Ireland on Flickr Commons, who do a great job of engaging people in Irish history, partly through their enthusiasm for the subject and partly through the effort they put into collating comments and updating their records, showing how much they value contributions. 

Almost by definition, any collaboration around engagement will be with people who are interested in your work, and they’ll bring new perspectives to it. You might end up working with international peers, academics from different disciplines, practitioner groups, scholarly amateurs or kids from the school down the road. And it’s not all online – running events is a great way to generate real impact and helps start conversations with potential for future collaboration.

You might benefit too! Talking about your research sometimes reminds you why you were originally interested in it… It’s a way of looking back and seeing how far you’ve come. It’s also just plain rewarding seeing people benefit from your research, so it’s worth doing well.

Thanks again to Pip Willcox for the invitation to speak, and to the other speakers for their fascinating perspectives.  Participation and engagement lessons from cultural heritage and academia is a bit of a hot topic at the moment – there’s more on it (including notes from a related paper I gave with Helen Weinstein) at Participatory Practices.

‘Engaging Visitors Through Play’ – the Museums Computer Group in Belfast

Last week I was in Belfast for the Museum Computer Group‘s Spring event, ‘Engaging Visitors Through Play’, fabulously organised by Alan Hook (Lecturer, University of Ulster) and Oonagh Murphy (MCG Committee member and PhD Researcher, University of Ulster) with support from the MCG Committee, and hosted by the University of Ulster’s Centre for Media Research.

Like other recent MCG event reports, I’m also writing as the Chair of the group, so you may think I’m biased when I say it was an excellent day with great speakers, but if I am at all biased, I promise it’s only a tiny bit! I’ve posted my talk notes at ‘Digital challenges, digital opportunities’ at MCGPlay, Belfast.

The MCG’s Spring Meeting is an opportunity to take a wider theme than our annual Museums on the Web conference (which as the name suggests, is generally about things that touch on museums on the web). This year’s topic was ‘Engaging Visitors Through Play’, with presentations on playful experiences from site-specific theatre, rapid prototyping and hack days, big budget and experimental games. The event was an opportunity to bring museum staff and researchers together with game and interaction designers, and the ‘regional showcase’ of lightning talks about projects from local practitioners further helped introduce people to the great work already going on in Northern Ireland and hopefully start some local collaborations. As Alan pointed out in his introduction, it was also a chance to think about the impact of research and start conversations between museums and academia.

The first session after my talk was ‘Play: A Northern Ireland Showcase’ and began with Lyndsey Jackson (@LyndseyJJacksonof Kabosh talking about ‘Immersive Theatre and Digital Experience’ and their site-specific theatre company. Their material is the buildings, people and stories of Northern Ireland and they work with unusual spaces – anywhere but a theatre. They’re dealing with two interesting constraints – the stories of buildings might be complicated, contested or difficult, and while they want to give audiences the chance to navigate an experience for themselves, they’re aware that ‘theatre is a game – it has rules, boundaries, you can bend them but it confuses people when you break them’. In a lovely departure from some museum experiences, they don’t try to give their audiences all the answers – sometimes they want to give people some information in a way that starts them asking questions so they have to look things up themselves if they want to know more. I wish I’d had longer in Belfast to see one of their shows or try ‘Belfast Bred‘.

Oonagh (@oonaghtweets) presented some results from her audit of the online presences of museums in Northern Ireland and the question she set out to test: that professional development hack days can help the sector. Find out more at her MW2013 paper on ‘This is Our Playground‘; but one fascinating snippet was that museum studies students are quite conservative, ‘museums have rules for a reason’, and take a while to warm to the concept of prototyping. Alan (@alan_hook) talked about MYNI photo competition, asking ‘is Northern Ireland ready for play in these spaces?’, games that work with ‘civic pride’, the realities of designing mobile experiences around 3G coverage and expensive data plans, and shared some reflections on the process, including his questions about the ethics of crowdsourcing images and the differences between academic and industry timelines.

 The next session was ‘Games: Best Practice and Innovative Approaches’. First up, Sharna Jackson (@sharnajackson), czar of Tate Kids, presented on the past, present and future of play at Tate. She pointed out that games can bring in hard-to-reach audiences, can be a gateway to engagement with deeper content, and can be a work of art in themselves. I loved her stance on web vs device-specific apps – while tablets are increasingly popular, their aim is to reach wide audiences so jumping into apps might not be right choice for limited budgets. Her lessons included: know your audience, what they expect; start playing games so you know what mechanics you like so you’ve got context for decisions and so you get what’s great about games; your mission, content and goals all influence what kinds of games it makes sense for you to make; if planning to let users generate content, you need a strategy to manage it. Be clear about what games are – respect the medium.

Danny Birchall (@dannybirchall) of the Wellcome Collection talked about ‘Truth and Fact: Museums and Public Engagement, including the High Tea evaluation‘s findings that ‘piracy is the most effective form of distribution’ so designing games to be ripped or seeded on portals can help achieve wider goals. He also talked about the differences between history and science games, as well as some of the unique hazards of working in museums with large, closely related collections – one memory game was ‘punishing you with intense sense of similarity of items in Henry Wellcome’s collection’.

The final presentation in the session was Alex Moseley on the educational potential of low budget games. His talk included a tiny taster of alternative reality gameplay and discussion of some disruptive, slightly subversive elements of ARGs you could use independently. His seven step process: identify key concepts or constraints want to get across; situate them in real activities; think of a real problem or challenge; add narrative to deepen the context; create a prototype; test it with colleagues/visitors; refine, retest and release. He also raised some challenges for museums: if players suggest something good in an ARG, it could be incorporated and effect the outcome – but this might be tricky for museums to manage with limited resources.

One interesting test that emerged from the panel discussion was whether something was ‘Belfast good’. As Oonagh said, ‘Is this good or is it ‘Belfast-good’ because if it’s Belfast-good, then not good enough’. Asking whether a project is ‘museum good’ or ‘academic good’ might be a useful test in the future… The session also lead to ‘chocolate covered broccoli‘ references overtaking ‘gamification’ as the new buzzword bingo winner.

The lightning talks covered a range of interesting projects from local organisations, in part with the idea of helping start local conversations. Some of the projects we heard about from @takebackbelfast, @stephentshaw, @designzoo and @Lancorz were really inspiring and just plain cool.  It was also refreshing to hear outsider’s perspectives on what museums do: one guy said ‘people bring their own knowledge, experiences and devices to museums – why do you need big interactive installations?’.
The day finished with a twenty minute play test of Alex Moseley’s ‘curate-a-fact’ game then we headed off to the pub for some well-deserved #drinkingaboutmuseums.

The MCG usually holds its Spring Meeting somewhere outside London, but it’s a long time since we’ve been in Belfast – it might have been a long time coming, but Belfast did themselves proud. I was really encouraged by the excellent work going on in the region and the creativity and energy of the people and projects in the room. Huge thanks to all the participants, chairs, speakers and organisers for putting together a great day!

Thanks to the university, we were able to (mostly) live stream the talks, and had people watching at their desk in Leicester or London and even from a train in New York! We also had a live tweeter @JasonAPurdy on the @cmr_ulster account plus loads of tweeters in the audience to help capture the day. Alex has also posted his thoughts on ‘Engaging Visitors Through Play’ – well worth a read.