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Posted by Chiara Bonacchi on

Online Transcription

How can it be useful?

Letters, documents and literary works are useful for several different kinds of research into the human past. For example, transcribing old excavation records can make them more amenable to spatial and quantitative analysis, whilst transcribing historical documents from past literate societies can be compared and contrasted with the evidence from contemporary objects. Other kinds of transcriptions can also be important for exploring family histories, broader historical movements and phenomena, and personal biographies of archaeologists, historians, philosophers etc. To be used for research purposes, however, this (often hand-written) material needs to be carefully transferred from paper form to digital (typed) formats. In this way, it is possible to preserve the records, while making them widely available beyond the walls of archives and study rooms and enabling computer-aided analysis.

A letter from Hilda Petrie to Veronica Seton-Willliams (1936), archived at UCL; courtesy of UCL Institute of Archaeology Collections

Transcribing large quantities of text is not an easy or quick task and requires interpretation skills that computers do not yet have at adequate levels. For this reason, crowd-sourcing the transcription of letters or documents via interested volunteers can produce high quality results, as in the case of the Transcribe Bentham project. In this project, contributors are transcribing the unpublished works of the philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), thereby helping to prepare a new edition of the Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham. As Bentham himself wrote: ‘Many hands make light work. Many hands together make merry work’. Another interesting project where transcription is successfully used to research the history of archaeology is UR Crowdsource. Here, people are helping document the famous excavations that took place from 1922 to 1934 at the site of Ur, in present-day Iraq, by reading and transcribing letters, field notes and reports from the dig.

On the MicroPasts crowd-sourcing platform, we have developed an application to transcribe the object cards that were written to record a vast number of Bronze Age metal artefacts found in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries up until the 1970s. These cards allow us to know more about objects’ features, places of discovery, and any published information relevant to them. The information is hand-written in often neat and aesthetically pleasing styles, but can at times be difficult to decipher. Thus, volunteers’ help is crucial for digitising these resources and enabling the exploration of the Bronze Age Index and the history of this catalogue (e.g. the geographic and chronological scope of its records), but also, for example, the examination of the recurrence of certain features within a same class of artefacts.

Currently, we are working on the development of a second type of application for transcribing cards which are also part of the Bronze Age index, but describe the context of discovery of specific finds rather than the objects themselves. This transcription work will be slightly different, requiring fewer text boxes and more ‘free text’. We also hope that, in future, the MicroPasts crowd-sourcing platform will foster further transcription work. One way to achieve this is for both volunteer communities and academic institutions to identify archaeological and historical transcription projects of joint research interest and fund them via the MicroPasts crowd-funding site.

Chiara

Posted by Adi on

Hello MicroPasts, thrilled to meet you!

My name is Adi, and I’m a research associate at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. Earlier this month I joined the MicroPasts team – and I’m especially excited about this project as it feeds into my background and interests in so many ways. Before coming to London I was an archaeologist and academic back home in Israel. A few years ago, I created the West Bank and East Jerusalem Archaeological Database (WBEJAD), an inventory of archaeological sites excavated or surveyed by Israeli archaeologists since the occupation of the West Bank in 1967. Archaeological databases in the Occupied Territories were also later on the subject of my PhD dissertation. So, I’m passionate about topics such as documentation, recording, and the management of archaeological and heritage data. Now, let me tell you why I’m so enthusiastic about MicroPasts.

To start with, MicroPasts can help transform physical archaeological archives into online datasets, as well as enhance exiting ones, using crowd-sourcing applications. Our crowd-sourcing platform is going to enable the transcription and tagging of fascinating archives such as UCL’s Institute of Archaeology’s historical photo collection of Near Eastern excavations, and the British Museum’s index cards of Bronze Age metal objects. The importance of these tasks is immense: undigitised archival data is hardly accessible – but making data freely available online opens up endless research opportunities and public use. Another crowd-sourcing application, which will allow producing and rectifying 3D models of the British Museum’s metal objects, will also greatly enhance existing data and increase its usability!

This leads me to another aspect of MicroPasts which I think is vital: making data free and accessible. I first realised the importance of open data when creating the WBEJAD, the significance of which was not only in its contents – but perhaps even more so in the fact that this information has been easily accessible for the first time. I find the debate over open access to data to be crucial, as it’s concerned with ideas of equality and democracy. Archaeological data in particular is considered to be universal knowledge, belonging to everyone, and not the private property of the researcher retrieving it. Allowing data to be freely available online encourages the general public to become more informed and more engaged with archaeological heritage. The advantages of fully accessible data are abundant also for academics: more researchers can discover and reuse data, a practice that improves the quality of research as scholars become better informed. Open data is more visible, more accountable and more transparent. In the case of the MicroPasts platforms, open data can also increase opportunities for collaboration between academics, professionals and the general public. The idea of co-designing research is innovative – and I’m very much looking forward to see how it develops!

This engagement of communities is another aspect which I really like about MicroPasts. Being an academic, I see public engagement as fundamental to the archaeological discipline. MicroPasts involves communities right from the start! Using our crowd-sourcing platform, people can directly engage in the production of research-quality information. Anyone can also contribute money to archaeological endeavours that they are interested in and consider important through the crowd-funding platform; and, as mentioned above, they will also be able to be directly involved in devising professional projects and pushing them forward. This is what’s called ‘citizen science’ – and that is the essence of the democratisation of science.

As you can probably see by now, we at MicroPasts use cutting edge technologies and software in order to engage communities with archaeological projects. We are creating and customising crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding web platforms, and using GitHub to customise, revise and share our open source code. We will also store and display large chunks of data in online repositories such as the Archaeological Data Service (ADS) for text records and 3D models or Flickr for images. And, we use cool software to create 3D models of metal objects using Structure from Motion (SfM).

This project really seems to tick all boxes for me. Lots of exciting things to look forward to then!

Adi

Posted by Chiara Bonacchi on

What value is there in crowd-sourcing archaeological research?

Hello,

This is Chiara. I am a researcher on the AHRC-funded project Crowd and Community-fuelled Archaeological Research, at the UCL Institute of Archaeology.

As part of my role, I am currently working on the development of a methodology for assessing the value of using crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding to engage online communities with archaeology and the human past. In doing so, I am building on some prior research I have done on public perceptions and experience of archaeology through museum visitation, television viewing and digital media, but also on motivations for and the value of digital cultural engagement with museums and heritage more widely.

The opportunity of studying how crowd-sourcing can facilitate participatory kinds of archaeological research is really an exciting one. In this blog post, I would like to say a few words on the three main reasons why I think that this evaluative work is important.

1. Promoting cross-fertilisation and inter-disciplinarity. Crowd and Community-fuelled Archaeological Research will test a mixed contributory, collaborative and co-creative model of public engagement with archaeology. Given its aims, the project can be situated within four disciplinary areas at least: public archaeology, cultural heritage studies, museum studies and the digital humanities. The evaluation of our participatory model for community archaeology will draw on and feed into all of these domains, offering a unique chance for inter-disciplinary thinking and dialogue and yielding potentially far-reaching scientific impact.

2. Contributing to a sociological ‘movement’ in Public archaeology. In Europe, Public Archaeology is increasingly understood as the area of research concerned with studying the relationship between ‘archaeology’ and ‘the public’ in order to improve it. Despite this being a widely acknowledged thematic focus, Public Archaeology literature has rarely addressed the topic of the public consumption of archaeological data, materials and knowledge. As a result, very little is known on how people understand archaeology, why and how they engage with it.

Through the evaluation of our project, we aim not only to advance current knowledge on archaeological audiences, but also to develop solid methodologies that can be used, in future, by researchers interested in undertaking similar studies. To put it boldly, we wish to contribute to the growth of a sociological ‘movement’ in Public Archaeology, encouraging research that utilises theory and methods from sociology as well as archaeology to shed light on the nature of people’s engagement with archaeological heritage.

3. Helping to understand ‘value’ in digital engagement with cultural heritage. Recently and, possibly, partly as a result of the economic crisis and the higher pressure for justifying public expenditure, greater attention has been devoted to try and define the value of research in the humanities. At the same time, within the cultural heritage sector, increasing efforts have been made to understand how heritage can contribute to positive social change (e.g. to wellbeing, recomposition of conflicts, etc).

We would like to take part in this debate, and examine what value there is in joined up research into the human past whereby ‘traditional’ academics and other archaeological enthusiasts collaborate via crowd-sourcing.

If you are also researching value within the cultural heritage domain (and beyond), please get in touch!

We are very interested in exchanging ideas and open to exploring possible collaborations.

Thank you!

Chiara

Posted by Chiara Bonacchi on

Crowd-sourcing, crowd-funding and archaeology

Hello!

We are a team of researchers from University College London and the British Museum. In the past few years, we have been looking into the new opportunities provided by digital technologies for public engagement in archaeology, through several seminar series and a recent edited volume on the topic. We are now lucky enough to have funds from the AHRC to work on a project entitled Crowd and Community Fuelled Archaeological Research which has started this month.

The core of our efforts day-to-day will go into enabling a more general online platform for crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding that we have called MicroPasts. The platform’s goal is to bring archaeological enthusiasts of all kinds — traditional academics, archaeological societies, interested individual members of the public — together to create new, high quality archaeological and historical data about the human past.

This research blog also allows some of us to indulge our more navel-gazing tendencies (!) and to post about themes ranging from public archaeology to research ethics to the technical aspects of crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding. We will be aiming to write for a wide audience including those working in public archaeology, cultural heritage, museum studies, computational archaeology and the digital humanities, as well as practitioners in the heritage and creative sectors.

But in this first blog post, let’s start by setting out the context for our research. Recently, increasing attention has been dedicated to the potential of digital technologies for supporting more egalitarian and transparent practice, as well as wider participation.  One fairly well-known digital method to pursue these goals has been ‘crowd-sourcing’, the practice of seeking information, services or funds in small chunks from a ‘crowd’ of people including as yet wholly anonymous members of the public as well as those already belonging to relevant communities of interest. Archaeology and crowd-sourcing should make for a great fit, because, while archaeology enjoys widespread appeal, it tries to protect, document and understand a massive dwindling resource, traditionally supported by tiny pots of money.

Early examples of crowd-sourcing in archaeology and related disciplines have focused on things like inspecting imagery to detect archaeological features, pooling wartime tangible heritage, transcribing papyri, interrogating built architecture and public recording of metal artefacts. In other cases, appeals to the ‘crowd’ have been made to micro-finance student dissertations, major excavations and long-term community projects all over the globe. What past crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding experiments have in common is that they mainly embraced ‘contributory’ models, where members of the public were asked to contribute their skills or their money in support of research agendas that were typically designed by academics.

We too wish to create a community space where anyone with an interest in archaeology and history can help build archaeological knowledge by contributing to existing projects, but perhaps more ambitiously we also want to have a crack at proper ‘co-producton’ (to tack on yet more jargon!) and offer serious opportunities for traditional academics, volunteer societies and other enthusiasts to dream up new research initiatives collectively, and then to fund them via crowd-funding appeals.

What will be the ethical implications of online community co-production like this? What should be the consequences of crowd-funding for heritage policy? How, technically speaking, do we best build a multi-purpose, wide-range web platform of this kind? How can we best encourage fun, productive and inclusive online communities? How should we evaluate whether our approaches are effective or not?

These are possible subjects of future posts, but we promise to throw in some more light-hearted and serendipitous stuff too, so please do keep following!

Chiara, Andy & Dan