So we made a thing. Announcing Serendip-o-matic at One Week, One Tool

So we made a thing. And (we think) it's kinda cool! Announcing Serendip-o-matic http://t.co/mQsHLqf4oX #OWOT
— Mia (@mia_out) August 2, 2013

Source code at GitHub Serendipomatic – go add your API so people can find your stuff! Check out the site at serendipomatic.org.

Update: and already we've had feedback that people love the experience and have found it useful – it's so amazing to hear this, thank you all! We know it's far from perfect, but since the aim was to make something people would use, it's great to know we've managed that:

Congratulations @mia_out and the team of #OWOT for http://t.co/cNbCbEKlUf Already try it & got new sources about a Portuguese King. GREAT!!!
— Daniel Alves (@DanielAlvesFCSH) August 2, 2013

Update from Saturday morning – so this happened overnight:

Cool, Serendipmatic cloned and local dev version up and running in about 15 mins. Now to see about adding Trove to the mix. #owot
— Tim Sherratt (@wragge) August 3, 2013

And then this:

Just pushed out an update to http://t.co/uM13iWLISU — now includes Trove content! #owot
— RebeccaSuttonKoeser (@suttonkoeser) August 3, 2013

From the press release: One Week | One Tool Team Launches Serendip-o-matic

serendip-o-maticAfter five days and nights of intense collaboration, the One Week | One Tool digital humanities team has unveiled its web application: Serendip-o-matic <http://serendipomatic.org>. Unlike conventional search tools, this “serendipity engine” takes in any text, such as an article, song lyrics, or a bibliography. It then extracts key terms, delivering similar results from the vast online collections of the Digital Public Library of America, Europeana, and Flickr Commons. Because Serendip-o-matic asks sources to speak for themselves, users can step back and discover connections they never knew existed. The team worked to re-create that moment when a friend recommends an amazing book, or a librarian suggests a new source. It’s not search, it’s serendipity.

Serendip-o-matic works for many different users. Students looking for inspiration can use one source as a springboard to a variety of others. Scholars can pump in their bibliographies to help enliven their current research or to get ideas for a new project. Bloggers can find open access images to illustrate their posts. Librarians and museum professionals can discover a wide range of items from other institutions and build bridges that make their collections more accessible. In addition, millions of users of RRCHNM’s Zotero can easily run their personal libraries through Serendip-o-matic.
Serendip-o-matic is easy to use and freely available to the public. Software developers may expand and improve the open-source code, available on GitHub. The One Week | One Tool team has also prepared ways for additional archives, libraries, and museums to make their collections available to Serendip-o-matic. 

Highs and lows, day four of OWOT

If you'd asked me at 6pm, I would have said I'd have been way too tired to blog later, but it also felt like a shame to break my streak at this point. Today was hard work and really tiring – lots to do, lots of finicky tech issues to deal with, some tricky moments to work through – but particularly after regrouping back at the hotel, the dev/design team powered through some of the issues we'd butted heads against earlier and got some great work done.  Tomorrow will undoubtedly be stressful and I'll probably triage tasks like mad but I think we'll have something good to show you.

As I left the hotel this morning I realised an intense process like this isn't just about rapid prototyping – it's also about rapid trust. When there's too much to do and barely any time for communication, let alone  checking someone else's work, you just have to rely on others to get the bits they're doing right and rely on goodwill to guide the conversation if you need to tweak things a bit.  It can be tricky when you're working out where everyone's sense of boundaries between different areas are as you go, but being able to trust people in that way is a brilliant feeling. At the end of a long day, I've realised it's also very much about deciding which issues you're willing to spend time finessing and when you're happy to hand over to others or aim for a first draft that's good enough to go out with the intention to tweak if it you ever get time. I'd asked in the past whether a museum's obsession with polish hinders innovation so I can really appreciate how freeing it can be to work in an environment where to get a product that works, let alone something really good, out in the time available is a major achievement.

Anyway, enough talking. Amrys has posted about today already, and I expect that Jack or Brian probably will too, so I'm going to hand over to some tweets and images to give you a sense of my day. (I've barely had any time to talk to or get to know the Outreach team so ironically reading their posts has been a lovely way to check in with how they're doing.)

Our GitHub repository punch card report tells the whole story of this week – from nothing to huge levels of activity on the app code

I keep looking at the #OWOT commits and clapping my hands excitedly. I am a great. big. dork.
— Mia (@mia_out) August 1, 2013

OH at #owot 'I just had to get the hippo out of my system' (More seriously, so exciting to see the design work that's coming out!)
— Mia (@mia_out) August 1, 2013

OH at #OWOT 'I'm not sure JK Rowling approves of me'. Also, an earlier unrelated small round of applause. Progress is being made.
— Mia (@mia_out) August 1, 2013

#OWOT #owotleaks it turns out our mysterious thing works quite well with song lyrics.
— Mia (@mia_out) August 1, 2013

Halfway through. Day three of OWOT.

Crikey. Day three. Where do I start?

We've made great progress on our mysterious tool. And it has a name! Some cool design motifs are flowing from that, which in turn means we can really push the user experience design issues over the next day and a half (though we've already been making lots of design decisions on the hoof so we can keep dev moving). The Outreach team have also been doing some great communications work, including a Press Release and have lots more in the pipeline. The Dev/Design team did a demo of our work for the Outreach team before dinner – there are lots of little things but the general framework of the tool works as it should – it's amazing how far we've come since lunchtime yesterday.  We still need to do a full deployment (server issues, blah blah), and I'll feel a lot better when we've got that process working and then running smoothly, so that we can keep deploying as we finish major features up to a few hours before launch rather than doing it at the end in a mad panic. I don't know how people managed code before source control – not only does Github manage versions for it, it makes pulling in code from different people so much easier.

There's lots to tackle on many different fronts, and it may still end up in a mad rush at the end, but right now, the Dev/Design team is humming along. I've been so impressed with the way people have coped with some pretty intense requirements for working with unfamiliar languages or frameworks, and with high levels of uncertainty in a chaotic environment.  I'm trying to keep track of things in Github (with Meghan and Brian as brilliant 'got my back' PMs) and keep the key current tasks on a whiteboard so that people know exactly what they need to be getting done at any time. Now that the Outreach team have worked through the key descriptive texts, name and tagline we'll need to coordinate content production – particularly documentation, microcopy to guide people through the process – really closely, which will probably get tricky as time is short and our tasks are many, but given the people gathered together for OWOT, I have faith that we'll make it work.


Things I have learnt today: despite two years working on a PhD in digital humanities/digital history, I still have a brain full of technical stuff – it's a relief to realise it hasn't atrophied through lack of use. I've also realised how much the work I've done designing workshops and teaching since starting my PhD have fed into how I work with teams, though it's hard right now to quantify exactly *how*. Finally, it's re-affirmed just how much I like making things – but also that it's important to make those things in the company of people who are scholarly (or at least thoughtful) about subjects beyond tech and inter-disciplinary, and ideally to make things that engage the public as well as researchers. As the end of my PhD approaches, it's been really useful to step back into this world for a week, and I'll definitely draw on it when figuring out what to do after the PhD. If someone could just start a CHNM in the UK, I'd be very happy.

I still can't tell you what we're making, but I *can* tell you that one of these photos in this post contains a clue (and they all definitely have nothing to do with mild lightheadedness at the end of a long day).

And so it begins: day two of OWOT

Day two of One Week, One Tool. We know what we're making, but we're not yet revealing exactly what it is. (Is that mean? It's partly a way of us keeping things simple so we can focus on work.) Yesterday (see Working out what we're doing: day one of One Week, One Tool) already feels like weeks ago, and even this morning feels like a long time ago. I can see that my posts are going to get less articulate as the week goes on, assuming I keep posting. I'm not sure how much value this will have, but I suppose it's a record of how fast you can move in the right circumstances…

We spent the morning winnowing the ideas we'd put up for feedback on overnight down from c12 to 4, then 3, then 2, then… It's really hard killing your darlings, and it's also difficult choosing between ideas that sound equally challenging or fun or worthy. There was a moment when we literally wiped ideas that had been ruled out from the whiteboard, and it felt oddly momentous. In the end, the two final choices both felt like approaches to the same thing – perhaps because we'd talked about them for so long that they started to merge (consciously or not) or because they both fell into a sweet spot of being accessible to a wide audience and had something to do with discovering new things about your research (which was the last thing I tweeted before we made our decision and decided to keep things in-house for a while).  Finally, eventually, we had enough of a critical mass behind one idea to call it the winner.

Personally, our decision only started to feel real as we walked back from lunch – our task was about to get real.  It's daunting but exciting. Once back in the room, we discussed the chosen idea a bit more and I got a bit UX/analysty and sketched stuff on a whiteboard. I'm always a bit obsessed with sketching as a way to make sure everyone has a more concrete picture (or shared mental model) of what the group is talking about, and for me it also served as a quick test of the technical viability of the idea. CHNM's Tom Scheinfeldt then had the unenviable task of corralling/coaxing/guiding us into project management, dev/design and outreach teams. Meghan Frazer and Brian Croxall are project managing, I'm dev/design team lead, with Scott Kleinman, Rebecca Sutton Koeser, Amy Papaelias, Eli Rose, Amanda Visconti and Scott Williams (and in the hours since then I have discovered that they all rock and bring great skills to the mix), and Jack Dougherty is leading the outreach team of Ray Palin and Amrys Williams in their tasks of marketing, community development, project outreach, grant writing, documentation. Amrys and Ray are also acting as user advocates and they've all contributed user stories to help us clarify our goals. Lots of people will be floating between teams, chipping in where needed and helping manage communication between teams.

The Dev/Design team began with a skills audit so that we could figure out who could do what on the front- and back-end, which in turn fed into our platform decision (basically PHP or Python, Python won), then a quick list of initial tasks that would act as further reality checks on the tool and our platform choice. The team is generally working in pairs on parallel tasks so that we're always moving forward on the three main functional areas of the tool and to make merging updates on github simpler. We're also using existing JavaScript libraries and CSS grids to make the design process faster. I then popped over to the Outreach team to check in with the descriptions and potential user stories they were discussing. Meghan and Brian got everyone back together at the end of the day, and the dev/design team had a chance to feed back on the outreach team's work (which also provided a very ad hoc form of requirements elicitation but it started some important conversations that further shaped the tool). Then it was back over to the hotel lobby where we planned to have a dev/design team meeting before dinner, but when two of our team were kidnapped by a shuttle driver (well, sorta) we ended up working through some of the tasks for tomorrow. We're going to have agile-style stand-up meetings twice a day, with the aim to give people enough time to get stuck into tasks while still keeping an eye on progress with a forum to help deal with any barriers or issues. Some ideas will inevitably fall by the wayside, but because the OWOT project is designed to run over a year, we can put ideas on a wishlist for future funded development, leave as hooks for other developers to expand on, or revisit once we're back home. In hack day mode I tend to plan so that there's enough working code that you have something to launch, then go back and expand features in the code and polish the UX with any time left. Is this the right approach here? Time will tell.

#owot dev team is hard at work. #fb pic.twitter.com/Zj5PW0Kj2a
— Brian Croxall (@briancroxall) July 31, 2013

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.

Planes, trains and automobiles…

This week I'm heading to Lincoln, Nebraska for Digital Humanities 2013 (abstracts) (where I'm also doing a half-day workshop on 'Designing successful digital humanities crowdsourcing projects' and attending my first meeting as a member of the ACH Executive Council).

After DH2013, I'm gradually making my way east by Amtrak and Greyhound, ending up at One Week, One Tool ('a digital humanities barn raising'!). I'll be in Chicago from Sunday afternoon (July 21) until late 22nd, arriving in Cleveland on the 23rd and jumping on another bus to Pittsburgh for  July 24-27. If you're going to be nearby and fancy a chat about crowdsourcing, museums or digital history, or have a suggestion for sights I should see, let me know! You can get a sense of my interests at the never-properly updated Upcoming talks and travel and My PhD research.

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 [email protected] 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 Tagask 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.

Setting off small fireworks: leaving space for curiosity

Remember when blog posts didn't need titles, didn't need to be long or take ages to write, and had nothing to do with your 'personal brand'? I've realised that while I'm writing up the PhD I'll barely blog at all if I don't blog like it's 2007 and just share interesting stuff when I've got a moment. Here goes…

I've been interested in the role of curiosity in engaging people with museum collections since I evaluated museum 'tagging' crowdsourcing games for my MSc project and learnt that the randomness of the objects presented made players really curious about what would appear next, and in turn that curiosity was one reason they kept playing. It turns out other metadata game designers have noticed the same effect. Flanagan and Carini (2012) wrote: 'Curiosity and doubt are key design opportunities. … In a number of instances, players became so curious about the images they were tagging that they would tag images with inquiry phrases, such as "want to know more about this culture."'

I returned to 'curiosity' for a talk I gave at the iSay conference in Leicester, where I related it to Raddick et al's (2009) 'Levels of Engagement' in citizen science, where Level 2 participation in community discussion (e.g. forums on crowdsourcing sites) and Level 3 is 'working independently on self-identified research projects'. To me, this suggested you should leave room for curiosity and wonder to develop – it might turn into a new personal journey for the participant or visitor, or even a new research question for a crowdsourcing project.

The reason I'm posting now is that I just came across Langer's definition of 'mindfulness': 'the "state of mind that results from drawing novel distinctions, examining information from new perspectives, and being sensitive to context. It is an open, creative, probabilistic state of mind in which the individual might be led to finding differences among things thought similar and similarities among things thought different" (Langer 1993, p.44).' in Csikszentmihalyi and Hermanson (1995). Further:

'Exhibits that facilitate mindfulness display information in context and present various viewpoints. For example, Langer (1993, p.47) contrasts the statement "The three main reasons for the Civil War were…" with the statement "From the perspective of the white male living in the twentieth century, the main reasons for the Civil War were…" (p.47). The latter approach calls for thoughtful comparisons. For example, How did women feel during the Civil War? the old? the old from the North? the black male today? and so on.'

I don't know about you, but my curiosity was piqued and my mind started going in lots of different directions. The second question carefully creates a gap just big enough to let a hundred new questions through and is a brilliant example of why both museum interpretation and participatory projects should leave room for curiosity…

Works cited:

  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, and Kim Hermanson. 1995. “Intrinsic Motivation in Museums: Why Does One Want to Learn?” In Public Institutions for Personal Learning: Establishing a Research Agenda, edited by John Falk and Lynn D. Dierking, 66 – 77. Washington D.C.: American Association of Museums. [This is seriously ace, track down a copy if you can]
  • Flanagan, Mary, and Peter. 2012. “How Games Can Help Us Access and Understand Archival Images.” American Archivist 75 (2): 514–537.
  • Raddick, M. Jordan, Georgia Bracey, K. Carney, G. Gyuk, K. Borne, J. Wallin, and S Jacoby. 2009. “Citizen Science: Status and Research Directions for the Coming Decade.” In Astro2010: The Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey. Vol. 2010. http://www8.nationalacademies.org/astro2010/DetailFileDisplay.aspx?id=454.

(Ok, so a post with references is not exactly blogging like it's 2006, but you've got to start somewhere…)
(Someone is literally setting off fireworks somewhere nearby. I have no idea why.)
(And yeah, I am working on a Saturday night. Friends don't let friends do PhDs, innit.)

We're all looking at the stars: citizen science projects at ZooCon13

Last Saturday I escaped my desk to head to the Physics department at the University of Oxford and be awed by what we're learning about space (and more terrestrial subjects) through citizen science projects run by Zooniverse at ZooCon13. All the usual caveats about notes from events apply – in particular, assume any errors are mine and that everyone was much more intelligent and articulate than my notes make them sound. These notes are partly written for people in cultural heritage and the humanities who are interested in the design of crowdsourcing projects, and while I enjoyed the scientific presentations I am not even going to attempt to represent them!  Chris Lintott live-blogged some of the talks on the day, so check out 'Live from ZooCon' for more. If you're familiar with citizen science you may well know a lot of these examples already – and if you're not, you can't really go wrong by looking at Zooniverse projects.

Aprajita Verma kicked off with SpaceWarps and 'Crowd-sourcing the Discovery of Gravitational Lenses with Citizen Scientists'. She explained the different ways gravitational lenses show up in astronomical images, and that 'strong gravitational lensing research is traditionally very labour-intensive' – computer algorithms generate lots of false positives, so you need people to help. SpaceWarps includes some simulated lenses (i.e. images of the sky with lenses added), mostly as a teaching tool (to provide more examples and increase familiarity with what lenses can look like) but also to make it more interesting for participants. The SpaceWarps interface lets you know when you've missed a (simulated, presumably) lens as well as noting lenses you've marked. They had 2 million image classifications in the first week, and 8500 citizen scientists have participated so far, 40% of whom have participated in 'Talk', the discussion feature. As discussed in their post 'What happens to your markers? A look inside the Space Warps Analysis Pipeline', they've analysed the results so far on ranges between astute/obtuse and pessimistic/optimistic markers – it turns out most people are astute. Each image is reviewed by ten people, so they've got confidence in the results.

Karen Masters talked about 'Cosmic Evolution in the Galaxy Zoo', taking us back to the first Galaxy Zoo project's hopes to have 30,000 volunteers and contrasting that with subsequent peer-reviewed papers that thanked 85,000, or 160,000 or 200,000 volunteers. The project launched in 2007 (before the Zooniverse itself) to look at spiral vs elliptical galaxies and it's all grown from there. The project has found rare objects, most famously the pea galaxies, and as further proof that the Zooniverse is doing 'real science online', the team have produced 36 peer reviewed paper, some with 100+ citations. At least 50 more papers have been produced by others using their data.

Phil Brohan discussed 'New Users for Old Weather'. The Old Weather project is using data from historic ships logs to help answer the question 'is this climate change or just weather?'. Some data was already known but there's a 'metaphorical fog' from missing observations from the past. Since the BBC won't let him put a satellite in a Tardis, they've been creative about finding other sources to help lift 'the fog of ignorance'. This project has long fascinated me because it started off all about science: in Phil's words, 'when we started all this, I was only thinking about the weather', but ended up being about history as well: 'these documents are intrinsically interesting'– he learnt what else was interesting about the logs from project participants who discovered the stories of people, disasters and strange events that lay within them. The third thing the project has generated (after weather and history) is 'a lot of experts'. One example he gave was evidence of the 1918-19 Spanish flu epidemic on board ship, which was investigated after forum posts about it. There's still a lot to do – more logs, including possibly French and Dutch – to come, and things would ideally speed up 'by a factor of ten'.

In Brooke Simmons' talk on 'Future plans for Galaxy Zoo', she raised the eternal issue of what to call participants in crowdsourcing: 'just call everyone collaborators'. 'Citizen scientists' makes a distinction between paid and unpaid scientists, as does 'volunteers'. She wants to help people do their own science, and they're working on making it easier than downloading and learning how to use more complicated tools. As an example, she talked about people collecting 'galaxies with small bulges' and analysing the differences in bulges (like a souped-up Galaxy Zoo Navigator?). She also talked about Zoo Teach, with resources for learning at all ages.

After the break we learnt about 'The Planet 4 Invasion', the climate and seasons of Mars from Meg Schwamb and about Solar Stormwatch in 'Only you can save planet Earth!' from Chris Davis, who was also presenting research from his student Kim Tucker-Wood (sp?). Who knew that solar winds could take the tail off a comet?!

Next up was Chris Lintott on 'Planet Hunting with and without Kepler'. Science communication advice says 'don't show people graphs', and since Planet Hunters is looking at graphs for fun, he thought no-one would want to do Planet Hunters. However, the response has surprised him. And 'it turns out that stars are actually quite interesting as well'. In another example of participants going above and beyond the original scope of the project, project participants watched a talk streamed online on 'heartbeat binaries', and went and found 30 of them from archives, their own records and posted them on the forum.  Now a bunch of Planet Hunters are working with Kepler team to follow them up.  (As an aside, he showed a screenshot of a future journal paper – the journal couldn't accept the idea that you could be a Planet Hunter and not be part of an academic team so they're listed as the Department of Astronomy at Yale.)

The final speaker was Rob Simpson on 'The Future of the Zooniverse'.  To put things in context, he said the human race spends 16 years cumulatively playing the game Angry Birds every day; people spend 2 months every day on the Zooniverse. In the past year, the human race spent 52 years on the Zooniverse's 15 live projects (they've had 23 projects in total). The Andromeda project went through all their data in 22 days – other projects take longer, but still attract dedicated people.  In the Zooniverse's immediate future are 'tools for (citizen) scientists' – adding the ability to do analysis in the browser, 'because people have a habit of finding things, just by being given access to the data'. They're also working on 'Letters' – public versions of what might otherwise be detailed forum posts that can be cited, and as a form of publication, it puts them 'in the domain'.  They're helping people communicate with each other and embracing their 'machine overlords', using Galaxy Zoo as a training tool for machine learning.  As computers get more powerful, the division of work between machines and people will change, perhaps leaving the beautiful, tricky, or complex bits for humans. [Update, June 29, 2013: Rob's posted about his talk on the Zooniverse blog, '52 Years of Human Effort', and corrected his original figure of 35 years to 52 years of human effort.]

At one point a speaker asked who in the room was a moderator on a Zooniverse project, and nearly everyone put their hand up. I felt a bit like giving them a round of applause because their hard work is behind the success of many projects. They're also a lovely, friendly bunch, as I discovered in the pub afterwards.

Conversations in the pub also reminded me of the flipside of people learning so much through these projects – sometimes people lose interest in the original task as their skills and knowledge grow, and it can be tricky to find time to contribute outside of moderating.  After a comment by Chris at another event I've been thinking about how you might match people to crowdsourcing projects or tasks – sometimes it might be about finding something that suits their love of the topic, or that matches the complexity or type of task they've previously enjoyed, or finding another unusual skill to learn, or perhaps building really solid stepping stones from their current tasks to more complex ones. But it's tricky to know what someone likes – I quite like transcribing text on sites like Trove or Notes from Nature, but I didn't like it much on Old Weather. And my own preferences change – I didn't think much of Ancient Lives the first time I saw it, but on another occasion I ended up getting completely absorbed in the task. Helping people find the right task and project is also a design issue for projects that have built an 'ecosystem' of parts that contribute to a larger programme, as discussed in 'Using crowdsourcing to manage crowdsourcing' in Frequently Asked Questions about crowdsourcing in cultural heritage and 'A suite of museum metadata games?' in Playing with Difficult Objects – Game Designs to Improve Museum Collections.

An event like ZooCon showed how much citizen science is leading the way – there are lots of useful lessons for humanities and cultural heritage crowdsourcing. If you've read this thinking 'I'd love to try it for my data, but x is a problem', try talking to someone about it – often there are computational techniques for solving similar problems, and if it's not already solved it might be interesting enough that people want to get involved and work with you on it.

On the trickiness of crowdsourcing competitions: some lessons from Sydney Design

I generally maintain a diplomatic silence about crowdsourcing competitions when I'm talking about crowdsourcing in cultural heritage as I believe spec work (or asking people to invest time in creating designs then paying just one 'winner') is unethical, and it's really tricky for design competitions to avoid looking like 'spec work'. I discovered this for myself when I ran the 'Cosmic Collections' mashup competition, so I have a lot of sympathy for museums who unknowingly get it wrong when experimenting with crowdsourcing. I also tend not to talk about poorly conceived or executed crowdsourcing projects as it doesn't seem fair to single out cultural heritage institutions that were trying to do the right thing against odds that ended up beating them, but I think the lessons to be drawn from the Sydney Design festival's competition are important enough to discuss here.

'Is it a free poster yet?'
'Is it a free poster yet?'

A crowdsourcing competition model that the museum had previously applied successfully (the Lace Award and Trainspotting, with prizes up to $AUD20,000 and display in the exhibition for winning designs) had a very different reception when the context and rewards changed. When the Powerhouse Museum's design competition to produce the visual identity for the Sydney Design festival was launched with a $US1000 prize, the design community's sensitivity to spec work and 'free pitching' was triggered, and they started throwing in some sarcastic responses.  The public feedback loop created as people could see previous designs and realised their own would also be featured on the site had a 4Chan-ish feel of a fun new meme about it, and once the norm of satirical responses was set, it was only going to escalate.

More importantly, there was a sense that Sydney Design was pulling a swifty. As Kate Sweetapple puts it in How the Sydney Design festival poster competition went horribly wrong:

'The fundamental difference [to the previous competitions], however, is that by running the competition, the Museum pulled a substantial job – worth tens of thousands of dollars – out of the professional marketplace. The submissions to Love Lace and Trainspotting did not have a commercial context one year, and none the next.'

If the previous reward was mostly monetary, offering a lesser intrinsic reward in exchange for a previously extrinsic reward is unlikely to work. If there's a bigger reward than than the competition brief itself would suggest, one important lesson is to make it unavoidably obvious. In this case, the Sydney Design Team's response said 'the Museum would have engaged the winning designer for further work and remuneration required to roll out the winning design into a more comprehensive marketing campaign', but this wasn't clear in the original brief. Many museum competitions display highly-ranked entries in their gallery spaces, and being exhibited in the museum or festival spaces might have been another form of valid reward, but only if it worked as an aspiration for the competition's audience, who in this case might well have a breadth of experience and exposure that rendered it less valuable.

Finally, in working with museums online, I've noticed the harshness of criticism is often proportionate to how deeply people care about you or identify you with certain values they hold dear.  When you're a beloved institution, people who care deeply about you feel betrayed when you get things wrong. As one commentator said in With friends like these, who needs enemies?, 'Sydney Design are meant to be in our corner'. If you regard critics as 'critical friends' you can turn the relationship around (as Merel van der Vaart discusses in the 'Opening up' section of her post on lessons from the Science Museum's Oramics exhibition) and build an even stronger relationship with them. Maybe Sydney Design can still turn this around…