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a born-digital, open-review volume edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki

The HeritageCrowd Project: A Case Study in Crowdsourcing Public History (Fall 2011 version)

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Digital history is a kind of public history: when we put materials online, we enter into a conversation with individuals from all walks of life, with various voices and degrees of professionalism.  In this paper we discuss our experience in relinquishing control of the historical voice, to crowdsource cultural heritage and history. What is the role of the historian when we crowdsource history?

Permalink for this paragraph 2 Edward L. Ayers has argued that, while a “democratization of history” has taken place since the emergence of new historical fields in academia, a “democratization of audience” has yet to come.1 Digital history has the potential to bridge this gap by linking members of a community together to collaborate on historical projects. A recent Canadian example is the Memory Project: Stories from the Second World War, which solicits oral history submissions from the veterans of that war.2 Our own project, which we christened “HeritageCrowd” (Figure 1), has attempted to provide the tools for the group expression of local history and heritage in rural communities. For us, digital history is public history. The problem that we tried to solve was bringing the potential of digital technology to bear on a region with relatively low internet access, but also a relatively high interest in local history.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Figure 1. Screenshot of the main HeritageCrowd Project page.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Canadians may “lead the world in internet use”3 but this usage is not distributed equitably across the rural and urban divide and the socio-economic spectrum.4 In terms of public history and heritage resources there are many rural museums and cultural heritage organizations that have neither the technical expertise nor human resources to effectively curate their materials, nor to present them to the wider world. There is also the problem that collections of materials that are thematically or chronologically linked are dispersed across multiple locations and institutions with knowledge about them similarly dispersed. In a recent publication, Statistics Canada detailed the economic impact of the heritage sector while also pointing out the significant funding constraints these rural institutions face when it comes to managing and exhibiting their resources.5

Permalink for this paragraph 0 For this on-going project, we are using two web-based platforms to help rural communities define their local history and heritage by collecting, storing, and displaying submissions related to regional history, at http://heritagecrowd.org . The first platform is Ushahidi (www.ushahidi.com), a system developed in Kenya in the wake of the 2008 election violence,6 allowing for quick “reports” to be posted to a map via SMS messaging, voicemail (using voice-to-text software), Twitter, e-mail and webforms. The second platform we use is Omeka, from the Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.7 We use Omeka to archive and tell “stories” built around the contributions submitted on the Ushahidi platform (Figure 2).8

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Figure 2. Screenshot of 'Stories from the Crowd'.

Permalink for this paragraph 1 Local history associations and other heritage groups form the backbone of a community’s collective memory, preserving and performing their sense of historicity. At its more elementary level, the goal of our project was simply to assist local heritage initiatives by creating a web-based system that could store and accept short, textual contributions made using relatively low-tech media. The submissions that came in were then approved by members of the project team and enabled on the Ushahidi-powered site where they were placed as reports on a map of the region (Figure 3).9

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Figure 3. Screenshot of an individual report page.

Permalink for this paragraph 2 The term “crowdsourcing” was first used in a 2006 Wired article authored by Jeff Howe, though this concept was being used hundreds of years before it had a name.10 An early example of what could be considered a kind of crowdsourcing was the Longitude Problem” in the early 1700s when the British government offered £20,000 to anyone who could come up with a solution to help seagoing ships calculate their longitude. Toyota proposed a similar contest in 1936 to re-design their logo, for which they received over 27,000 submissions.11 However, while these sorts of contests do divvy up a problem, their competitive nature typically means that the “crowd” is fragmented and working in isolation from each other. Wikipedia, itself a product of a crowdsourced approach to writing an encyclopedia, provides an elegant definition: “a distributed problem-solving and production model.”  Digital history is not just about solving a problem, but also about ‘building things’ (as Steve Ramsay argued with respect to the digital humanities more generally.12  One of the earliest projects that was “crowdsourced” in that sense used internet connectivity to distribute large computing problems in discrete chunks to collaborators’ computers – the SETI@home project.13 A search for “Crowdsourcing History” on Google returns nearly 6 million results. These range from www.ancientlives.org, a project to transcribe the Oxyrhynchus papyri (hosted on Zooniverse.org, a clearing house for scientific projects, typically astronomical in nature), to Transcribe Bentham, a project to transcribe the papers of Jeremy Bentham,14 to National Geographic’s Field Expedition: Mongolia,15 where contributors study satellite images of Mongolia to help direct the archaeological survey team on the ground.

Permalink for this paragraph 1 All of these projects require a fairly high level of internet literacy and an appropriate connection speed. We might suggest that this has the effect of creating self-selected groups, people who participate not just by interest, but also by technological proficiency. Traditional digital crowdsourcing (if one can use the term “traditional” here) therefore excludes our target audience. By taking our project as “low tech”–SMS messages, for example—as we can, we lower the barriers to participation.16

Permalink for this paragraph 1 Research Objectives
In the initial proposal for this project, we were particularly interested in trying to address the rural/urban digital divide in Canada using the SMS system as its backbone. We asked, can public history be crowdsourced? What does that even mean? How could the SMS system be used to collect local knowledge of heritage resources? What can be curated in this way? In what ways would such a system change the nature of local knowledge, once that knowledge becomes available to the wider world on the web?

Permalink for this paragraph 3 We targeted a local area with which we were familiar,17 the Pontiac county in Western Quebec (Click through for a Google map of the region). Internet connectivity in “the Pontiac”, as it is always referred to colloquially, has only recently transitioned from dial-up internet connection.18 More importantly, over half the population does not have a high school diploma,19 an indicator of low internet use.20 The Pontiac’s sister county in the neighbouring province of Ontario, Renfrew, was also a target region for similar reasons.21 Both of these counties together are known as “the Upper Ottawa Valley”. Could a low-tech approach to crowdsourcing history reach this particular crowd, and what kind of history would emerge?

Permalink for this paragraph 1 There were already strong institutional narratives at play, given the provincial boundary between our two target counties. Education is a provincial responsibility in Canada, and the Province of Quebec teaches a very different historical narrative than the Province of Ontario.22 The history of the regions, and of minority groups, does not have any real role in “official” history as it is taught at the high school level. Our project then has the political and social goal of validating those marginalized histories—we seek to give a sense of legitimacy to the historical narratives of the local community. This made us question the role of the historian in this context; by crowdsourcing local history, we had transcended the traditional role of the historian as being an arbiter of historical truth.23

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The function and nature of the historian in society, and of history generally, as well as their alleged motives, biases, and roles in constructing knowledge have been the subjects of long-running debates in the field.24 Historians who crowdsource the writing of historical narratives are able to empower members of a given community who may not have the same institutionalized or professional authority conceded to “experts” in the discipline. This mission is distinctly different from that of most academic historians, whose work is centered around the construction of historical narratives based on the analysis of sources, and that of the museum or public historian, which attempts to provide an impartial and objective narrative of the past for public consumption.

Permalink for this paragraph 1 Initial Results
In order to encourage submissions from visitors to the website, the project team created a number of reports to “seed” it, with the understanding that visitors would be less likely to submit reports if the site was empty or contained few reports.  As of the end of July, we have received 25 reports (5 voice mail contributions, 7 SMS contributions, and 13 e-mails, from unique contributors), and the site has 50 reports listed (this number includes the previous amount plus reports submitted via the website). At the time of writing, the site had been open to the public for a total of 54 days. As the Upper Ottawa Valley has a population of approximately 90 000 people, this means on average that about one in four thousand people living in the targeted area made a submission to the project.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 It is difficult to judge whether or not this figure represents a low participation rate, since we have no comparable data. The promotion of the project took place by contacting local history associations and genealogical groups, churches, and museums via mail and e-mail. A brief labour disruption with Canada Post, the national postal operator, occurred in the early phases of the project but we do not believe it to have been responsible for any significant delays in processing our mail. A large spike in submissions took place immediately after the publication of a newsprint article about the HeritageCrowd project in the urban newspaper, the Ottawa Citizen (Renfrew and Pontiac are in the City of Ottawa’s hinterland).25

Permalink for this paragraph 1 Reflections
From a technological point of view, our mission was simply to give people the digital tools to more easily express and share their sense of heritage and local history. During the course of the project, however, it became evident that a second crowdsourcing method could be used for a similar goal. This approach, which could be called “retroactive crowdsourcing” for lack of a better term, involves gathering representations of local history and heritage from disparate sources that already exist and collecting them in an online database.26 This is different from our original concept of crowdsourcing where we actively solicited submissions to our project from a wide community.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The student assistants on the project trawled through a number of different sites, such as bytown.net, flickr.com, and other amateur and local historical and genealogical websites, blog posts, and online exhibits. This produced a sizeable collection of heritage materials. As an example, we created a report on our Ushahidi-powered site named “St. John’s Lutheran Church and Cemetery, Sebastopol Township”, which is located in Renfrew County.27 A picture of the church taken by a Flickr user was uploaded to the report (with permission), and a link was provided to a website that had photographed all of the headstones in the cemetery.  The use of automated spiders and other software tools such as DownThemAll or DevonAgent could speed this process up and broaden its reach considerably.28

Permalink for this paragraph 2 Indeed, that example showed that in one sense our project’s focus was misplaced. Crowdsourcing should not be a first step. The resources are already out there; why not trawl, crawl, spider, and collect what has already been uploaded to the internet? Once the knowledge is collected, then one could call on the crowd to fill in the gaps. This would perhaps be a better use of time, money, and resources.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 In hindsight, one of the ways in which the project could have attracted more submissions lay in implementing what Jane McGonigal calls “classic game rewards”—in other words, building a series of game-like mechanics into the project. These include giving the participants “a clear sense of purpose,” as well as giving them the impression that they are “making an obvious impact” and “continuous progress.”29 “Gamification” is a troubled term, in that while it implies using the classical tools of games to foster engagement, it can also be taken to suggest the trivialization of the task at hand, or worse, exploitation of the user/visitor. 30  Be that as it may, McGonigal does cite major crowdsourced collaborations such as Wikipedia as being successful because of its subtle systems of rewards, satisfaction, and to some extent, social interaction.31 HeritageCrowd could foster engagement through its “comments” feature on the individual reports in the Ushahidi platform, but here we have a clear case of where the technology, the medium, shapes the message: Ushahidi is for quickly reporting crisis incidents, not for fostering a dialogue about them. A great deal of modification needs to be done to the core platform for our purpose, perhaps by merging the reporting system with the auto-creation of Wiki pages.

Permalink for this paragraph 1 Although the accumulation of reports on the Ushahidi-powered website’s map could be seen as an indicator of progress over time, these reports first had to be approved by a member of the project team before becoming visible (a decision taken to filter out potential spam or otherwise unsuitable material). The instant satisfaction of having made a contribution to the project was therefore lost. Similarly, one would not have been able to track their individual progress (i.e., with a personal account and information interface that lists the number of contributions). Further development of the Ushahidi platform, or the use of an additional platform to track this data for users, could provide this benefit.

Permalink for this paragraph 2 The concept behind the project—that of crowdsourcing local history and heritage using SMS networks and voicemail—proved to be a minor obstacle in some cases. When we had visited community events or corresponded with individuals who expressed interest, some people were unsure what exactly we were asking them to do. This was most likely because the project was centered on a concept that many people were unfamiliar with: that of crowdsourcing local history. This was easily explained in person whenever we were asked about the project, but it is entirely plausible that some contributors made submissions to the project (by sending a text message or voicemail, for instance) without having fully understood how the submissions were compiled onto our website. (The article in the Ottawa Citizen was published digitally for a while with the headline, “Text if you are a descendant of Philemon Wright”.32 We duly received a number of text messages with the exact message, “I am a descendant of Philemon Wright”.)  The layout of the main website also provides some confusion, as it is not immediately obvious how or what visitors actually do on the site.

Permalink for this paragraph 1 Finally, we had a number of potential contributors who were worried that what they had to contribute was not “professional” enough, and so were reluctant to actually contribute; in these cases, our role seemed to be to reassure them that what they knew, what they valued, did have “official” historical value. One community activist approached us with a body of materials that she had collected as part of a continuing negotiation with a local city council in Quebec over the development of a neighbourhood. This neighbourhood is predominantly Anglophone, while the city itself is largely Francophone. The history and memory of this one neighbourhood was thus caught up in larger issues of identity, power, and institutionalized interpretations of history. The city council wishes to rezone the neighbourhood to allow for high-rise condominiums. The activist approached us to see if we could “legitimize” what she had collected in the hopes of forcing the city to adopt specific heritage recommendations into its planning process. The act of collecting community knowledge, since it was being done via our university-funded project, seems to put an imprimatur of “truth” and legitimacy on anything submitted and displayed. The Ushahidi platform uses the terms “verified” on all submissions in the sense of crisis-management: that this actually happened. Our approach was initially one where we used the term simply as a spam-filter. Clearly, this was far too simplistic and carries implications far beyond what we initially imagined.

Permalink for this paragraph 1 Early Conclusions
At this early stage in our project, the single most important observation is the role our project seems to have in validating individuals’ and groups’ historical knowledge. Even if we have not yet collected masses of documentation, we provide a new avenue for non-professional knowledge to enter into the academic world of knowledge production. Consequently, by adapting a platform meant for one domain into this new, there is procedural rhetoric that needs to be taken into account when designing how the project works.33

Permalink for this paragraph 4 Were we to start this project over, we would spend more time modifying the basic platform. The terminology and structure of the platform as it currently stands gives more authority to the data displayed than might sometimes be the case. We had imagined that if a contribution was made that might not be factually accurate, or carry political bias, a discussion would take place in the comments for that item and the issue would resolve itself (much like what happens on Wikipedia). This has not yet happened. It could also be that the fact that this project is university funded, carried out by university researchers and students, also gives immediate ‘weight’ and authority to anything displayed on the website, thus inhibiting discussion.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 When the aim of a crowdsourced project is to transcribe documents, it is self-evident what needs to be done; when the aim is a bit more nebulous, like in HeritageCrowd, we could suggest the following guidelines:

  • Permalink for this paragraph 2
  • Choose your base platform carefully, thinking through the technological and epistemological implications (as it happens, Ushahidi as a platform does work in terms of widening access beyond the tech-savy: we did get voice and SMS contributions, and so met that aim of our project at least).
  • Collect what already exists.
  • Seed your site with this material so you can identify the gaps.
  • Narrow your target when communicating with the public: get them to fill the holes.
  • Make sure to design for engagement.
  • Building your crowd is key: put initial resources into publicity. Get out and walk the walk, and talk to people. Identify, contact, and cultivate key players.
  • Have an “elevator pitch”. Make sure that the project can be described completely in 30 seconds or less. Build your outreach and social media strategy around getting that pitch in front of as many eyes in your target crowd as possible.

Permalink for this paragraph 1 The funding for HeritageCrowd was limited to only a few summer months. However, by using open-source, freely available software, its continuing operating costs run to that of maintaining the webhosting. We will be taking the lessons we learned this summer and using them to improve our approach. With time, we hope to reach more of our target audience. HeritageCrowd will also become a platform for the training of students in digital history, outreach, and exhibition. As we collect more materials, we will be developing the Omeka-based ‘Stories’ part of our site, allowing individuals, societies, students, and researchers, to tell the stories that emerge from the crowdsourced contributions from many different voices. In this way, the role of the digital historian may be able to distance itself from that of the expert, dictating historical narratives from an academic podium, to that of an activist for grassroots community empowerment. Digitally crowdsourced history, as it were, is like a cracked mirror: it reflects what looks into it, and while it does not (cannot?) produce a polished, singular view, its aesthetic pleasure lies in the abundance of perspectives that it provides.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 About the authors: Shawn Graham is Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities in the Department of History at Carleton University. Guy Massie is now an MA student in the History Department. Nadine Feurherm is now a second year Communications Studies student at Carleton.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Acknowledgements: The HeritageCrowd Project was funded by a Junior Research Fellowship, 2011, from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Carleton University, whose support is gratefully acknowledged. We would like to thank James Miller, Jim Opp, John Walsh, Lisa Mibach, and the contributors to HeritageCrowd for their interest, support, and feedback. Errors and omissions are our own.

  1. Permalink for this paragraph 0
  2. Edward L. Ayers, “The Pasts and Futures of Digital History,” 1999, http://www.vcdh.virginia.edu/PastsFutures.html.
  3. “Welcome to the Memory Project – Stories of the Second World War – About,” Historica-Dominion Institute, http://www.thememoryproject.com/about.aspx.
  4. “Canadians lead world in internet use: report,” CBC News, March 9, 2011, accessed July 23, 2011, http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2011/03/09/canadians-internet-most-active.html?ref=rss.
  5. “Canada’s digital divide,” The Globe and Mail, April 2, 2010, accessed July 23, 2011, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/canadas-digital-divide/article1521631/.
  6. “Canadian Culture in Perspective: A Statistical Overview,” Statistics Canada, 2000, http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/87-211-x/87-211-x2000000-eng.pdf.
  7. “Ushahidi: About Us,” Ushahidi, http://ushahidi.com/about-us. See also “Mobile services in poor countries: Not just talk,” The Economist, January 27, 2011, accessed July 23, 2011, http://www.economist.com/node/18008202.
  8. Omeka’s website, which provides more information about the platform, is http://www.omeka.org.
  9. Stories from the Crowd http://heritagecrowd.org/stories
  10. “Approving” a report was a step built into the platform; no report could be viewed unless it was approved.  We did not edit or turn away submissions unless they were manifestly spam.
  11. Jeff Howe, “The Rise of Crowdsourcing,” Wired, June 2006, accessed July 23, 2011, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.06/crowds.html.
  12. Alec Lynch, “Crowdsourcing is not new – The History of Crowdsourcing (1714 to 2010),” DesignCrowd Blog, October 28, 2010, http://blog.designcrowd.com/article/202/crowdsourcing-is-not-new–the-history-of-crowdsourcing-1714-to-2010.
  13. Stephen Ramsay, “Who’s In and Who’s Out,” January 8, 2011, accessed July 23, 2011, http://lenz.unl.edu/papers/2011/01/08/whos-in-and-whos-out.html.
  14. An “In Memoriam” for the now-defunct SETI@home project is online at http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/classic.php.
  15. The website for the Transcribe Bentham project, which is updated weekly, is available at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/transcribe-bentham.
  16. The ongoing Field Expedition: Mongolia project has a website at http://exploration.nationalgeographic.com/mongolia.
  17. Cell-phone use in Canada falls behind other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, due to higher fees and long term contracts. Nevertheless, by 2007, 71% of Canadian households had at least one cellular phone. “Cellphone Services – Recent Consumer Trends” Office of Consumer Affairs, Industry Canada http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/oca-bc.nsf/eng/ca02348.html 2011, Accessed August 12, 2011
  18. One of us has deep family ties in the area.
  19. “Plan stratégique – Vision Pontiac 2020: Protrai/diagnostic Avril 2009,” MRC Pontiac,  http://www.mrcpontiac.qc.ca/documents/vision2020/Diagnostic%20-%20MRC%20de%20Pontiac.pdf. 2009, Accessed August 7, 2011
  20. “Demographic and Socio-economic profile, Pontiac Municipal Regional County,” Statistics Canada, 2006, accessed 23 July, 2011, http://www.mrcpontiac.qc.ca/en/regional/regional_demographic.htm.
  21. “Internet use by individuals, by selected characteristics,” Statistics Canada, September 27, 2010, accessed 23 July, 2011, http://www40.statcan.gc.ca/l01/cst01/comm35a-eng.htm.
  22. The proportion of individuals in Renfrew County without a high school diploma is about 26%. “2006 Community Profiles – Renfrew County and District Health Unit,” Statistics Canada, 2007, accessed July 23, 2011, http://www12.statcan.ca/census-recensement/2006/dp-pd/prof/92-591/index.cfm?Lang=E.
  23. Problems with the provincial history curriculum, as it pertains to the Anglophone history of Quebec, have long been recognized. See for instance Sam Allison and Jon Bradley, “Quebec exam is bad history, written in bad English,” Montreal Gazette, July 5, 2011, accessed 23 July 2011, http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/Quebec+exam+history+written+English/5048692/story.html.
  24. See for instance the papers in the special edition edited by Steven High,  Lisa Ndejuru, and Kristen O’Hare, Sharing Authority: Community-University Collaboration in Oral History, Digital Storytelling, and Engaged Scholarship Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’études canadiennes 43.1 (2009)
  25. Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (London: Granta, 2000) 195-196.
  26. Matthew Pearson, “Text if you are a descendant of Philemon Wright,” The Ottawa Citizen, June 25, 2011, accessed July 23, 2011, http://www.ottawacitizen.com/story_print.html?id=4995994.
  27. Guy Massie, “Photos, Exhibit Research, and Thoughts about Crowdsourcing,” HeritageCrowd Journal, June 24, 2011, http://www.heritagecrowd.org/journal/?p=38.
  28. “St. John’s Lutheran Church and Cemetery, Sebastopol Township,” last modified 23 June, 2011, http://heritagecrowd.org/reports/view/39.
  29. William J. Turkel, “Spider to Collect Sources,” March 23, 2011, http://williamjturkel.net/2011/03/22/spider-to-collect-sources/.
  30. Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How They Can Change the World (New York: Penguin, 2011), 222-223.
  31. Noted game scholar Ian Bogost notably calling it ‘Bullshit’ in a conference address, “Gamification is Bullshit; My position statement at the Wharton Gamification Symposium’, August 8, 2011, http://www.bogost.com/blog/gamification_is_bullshit.shtml
  32. McGonigal, Reality is Broken, 219-246.
  33. Philemon Wright was the first major colonist and landowner in the region.
  34. See also Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007) on how software processes force a particular rhetoric of expression in the final representation of digital data.