Tag Archives: crowdsourcing

Making your own way: user-generated map-making.

How many of us, when giving directions, have resorted to a Biro, a napkin and a map that looks like a starfish with some body issues? I myself have lost many a friend on the relatively simple route between restaurant and pub, solely down to my shocking lack of artistic skill and flawed sense of direction. Making maps, I decided, wasn’t for me.

Image: Daily Telegraph

As Sean Gorman of geographical data tool GeoCommons puts it – “the public often saw the end product of the map creation process, but was largely reduced to scribbling on paper when it came to creating maps of its own”. Maps were definitely something made by specialists and consumed by the masses. But now, that’s changed.

My very own, slightly terrible, MyMap

Internet mapping has embraced the user-generated element. The most obvious example is the ‘MyMaps’ service that allows Google account holders to add ‘pins’ that remind them of favorite or useful locations. GoogleMaps is also one of the many mapping services that lets users correct their details, though via a screening process; if you think your house or business has been mis-pinned, you can get in touch and change it.

So far, so good – but correcting where your house is on a map is a teeny bit boring.

Praise be, then, for the good people of OpenStreetMap. This is a fully cooperative, user-generated map of the ENTIRE WORLD, and its contributors are scrupulously, scarily accurate.  They have even held events where citizens take to the streets with handheld GPS devices – the Atlanta Citywide Mapathon, for example. First-timers were encouraged to go out and map their neighbourhoods, as well as joining in group activities such as adding points of interest to public areas like parks.

So a nice mix of community engagement and generating content there – Atlanta has an ongoing, and vocal, OpenStreetMap community dedicated to getting more people involved in personal cartography – and good luck to them.

But the great thing about user-generated mapping is that it can be almost anything you want it to be and not just a record of street names and geographical features. My personal favourite is the Global Poetry System (GPS – geddit?), a map that allows people to upload site-specific poetry either that they’ve found on a wall or a piece of public art or that they’ve created themselves. Which gives rise to little gems such as this:

Image: Lily Briscoe

On a slightly more serious note, user-generated mapping has infiltrated the headlines too. For example, there’s the Solidarity Map of the TUC March for the Alternative – people who weren’t able to make it to the march itself could log on and show where they were, just to give the demonstrators extra support. And then there’s the current efforts to crowdmap the spread of radiation from the Fukishima power station in Japan. Based around data-hub site Pachube, various interactive maps allow those equipped with Geiger counters and other radiation-detecting devices to upload their findings and allow the creation of images such as this:

Image: Usman Haque - Pachube

Maps aren’t just static objects now. They’re responsive and fluid – crisis mappers even helped rescue efforts in disaster zones such as Haiti by updating their charts of the area to show problems on the ground. They’re doing it now in Libya to help humanitarian organisations respond better to demand.

Maps aren’t the bosses of us any more – Internet cartography is anything we want it to be.



Crowdsourcing: Make it fun and get it done

Digitalkoot is a crowdsourcing success story. At the Finnish National Library, the team need to find a way to get volunteers to digitise their archive material.

“We have millions and millions of historically and culturally valuable magazines, newspapers and journals online. The challenge is that the optical character recognition often contains errors and omissions, which hamper example searches. Manual correction is needed to weed out these mistakes…” Kai Ekholm – Director of the National Library of Finland

So the task is to transcribe millions of pages of old script from the 19th century, which seems vast and also pretty dull. Making the ‘microtasks’ interesting or fun enough for volunteers to repeatedly participate is a critical part of the challenge. The way they achieved this was to create two cartoon games where you rescue moles by correctly typing in the script.  Kai said they were partly inspired by popular iPhone game Angry Birds. Click here to play, let me know what you think of it.

You might assume that you need to speak Finnish to do this but that’s not the case. I had a go at both games and discovered that you don’t need to understand what the words mean, you just have to retype the letters in front of you. The game is not held back by language barriers as it is made of pictures. There are a few characters that you need to check from the help list but you quickly learn when you see the same ones over again. The homepage also has both a Finnish and English language version of explaining what it is all about.

Each time you complete a game, a score pops up to tell you how many points you scored and how many words you got wrong. This is an incentive for users to come back again to beat their previous score. They also publish the top six players everyday. Launched in February 2011 jointly by Microtask and The National Library of Finland, there have already been more than 25,000 people taking part, with more that 2 million microtasks. The site says users have spent more than 1,845 hours playing the games.

There are so many books and articles that could be fantastic online resources once they have been digitising. I’m sure these kind of projects will grow exponentially over the coming years, particularly when programmes are open and shared. For me the key part of designing the tasks or games is remembering that these volunteers are giving up valuable time to take part. If it’s interesting or fun to do, then half the battle is won. When it isn’t, it will not work.


Is UGC too small-scale?

The rash of dramatic events across the world, from the Christchurch earthquake to the Arab Spring to Japan’s current problems, have led to widespread debate about the role of the civilian journalist and many of the iconic images from the struggles have come from mobile phones or handheld cameras.

But after reading Emily’s post, I came across this blog on MediaPost, and it got me thinking. The author’s argument is that civilian journalism and crowdsourcing doesn’t work when it comes to vast natural events like the Japanese earthquake and tidal wave – the sheer size of the event means that the necessarily small-scale images captured by members of the public can’t convey the full impact. Instead, he argues that this is where conventional news, with all the resources of multiple cameras, aerial filming and rapid deployment, come into their own. Conventional news gives a sense of perspective that UGC just can’t provide.

But is he right? This prompted a heated debate on the issue from commenters – some of them with some very interesting perspectives. One actually said that the advantage of professional news is its neatness and the sheer convenience of its packaging – instead of ‘trawl[ing] through heaps of UGC’ you can get all of the facts, and the most pertinent images, in one place – simple and quick. Others argued that the inherent strength of UGC is its ability to get the unexpected shot by being on the spot by sheer fluke at the right moment.

There are elements of truth to both of these arguments, but I fundamentally disagree with the original thesis. I think that some of the images coming out of Japan captured by normal people as the battle their way through a horrible event are utterly mind-blowing – see the footage below, taken by a man as his car was overtaken by the tidal wave. The essence of UGC is not the ‘being on the spot’ – it’s the fact that it reminds the viewer that these terrible things are happening to real people. This is a crisis experienced on a deeply personal level, a level which its difficult to appreciate as you watch helicopter shots of tiny houses, tiny cars, tiny people on rooftops. That makes you feel further from the real horror of the situation, turns you into something along the lines of a cinema-goer – with the news teams focusing on ‘spectacle’, its easier to overlook the human cost.

And then the other day I found this post, also on MediaPost, which explains in very simple and affecting terms just how UGC can be more than ‘entertainment’. It can actually help people – help them find family and friends, help them understand what has happened in a more immediate sense. Is it safe on my street? Which areas are affected?

Obviously, there’s a place for perspective. Explosions at the Fukishima nuclear power plant need to be captured on a grand scale. But UGC isn’t professional and it isn’t concerned with looking good. It’s the reactions of real people to shocking circumstances and that’s what makes it so powerful.


Crowdsourcing and Education: UCL, Jeremy Bentham and London Sixth Form Students

You might think that academics studying a 19th century legal philosopher would be the last people to embrace crowdsourcing. But at UCL a project called Transcribe Bentham is leading the way.

Transcribe Bentham is a participatory project based at University College London. Its aim is to engage the public in the online transcription of original and unstudied manuscript papers written by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the great philosopher and reformer. They aim to encourage all those who have an interest in Bentham or those with an interest in  history, politics, law, philosophy and economics, fields to which Bentham made significant contributions, to visit the site. Those with an enthusiasm for palaeography, transcription and manuscript studies will be interested in Bentham’s handwriting, while those involved in digital humanities, education and heritage learning will find the site intriguing. Undergraduates and school pupils studying Bentham’s ideas are particularly encouraged to use the site to enhance their learning experience.

In the video below, Your2Pence spoke to Dr Valerie Wallace and asked her how they encourage sixth form students to get involved? Then we spoke to a sixth form student from Raines Foundation School in Bethnal Green. She was introduced to the site by her Religious Studies teacher Tom Bennett and she told us what she thought of the site being used in her lessons.

March 2011 Update…

I asked Dr Valerie to update me on the progress of the project…

Transcribe Bentham was funded by the AHRC for one year. This funding comes to an end next month. Our Transcription Desk went live in September 2010 and was manned on a daily basis for 6 months. In that time 1240 users registered and began transcription on 1073 manuscripts. Of those 1073, 818 have been locked and are considered by editors to be complete. Before this project started there were in total around 40,000 untranscribed Bentham manuscripts.

We estimated that we could digitise and upload about 10,000 of those in a year. We have uploaded about one third of the estimated 10,000; so about 10% of the original estimate has been transcribed. After December (when the New York Times published a story on the project) the number of users and submissions increased dramatically. The project thus started to gain momentum just as its funding period was coming to an end.

We have stopped manning the Transcription Desk on a daily basis and are concentrating on writing up our findings but the Desk remains open and will remain open for the next few months. We need more funding to keep the project going for longer and to enable us to digitise and upload more manuscripts and to provide proper feedback to users. So far our applications have been unsuccessful but we remain optimistic that we can keep Transcribe Bentham alive.