Beyond Collections: Crowdsourcing for Public Engagement conference

On 26 May 2011, a one-day conference was held at the University of Oxford, titled ‘Beyond Collections: Crowdsourcing for Public Engagement’ (details of the conference and video recordings of the speakers are available here). The event was hosted by Oxford’s RunCoCo community collections facilitation project and sponsored by JISC. The aim was to explore the ways in which online communities can participate in and add value to digital resources—to the mutual benefit of both projects and participants.

Speakers from inside and outside academia with experience of the advantages and pitfalls of a crowdsourcing approach told their stories, and the intention was also to locate the potential for harnessing the power of online communities within wider discourses of grass-roots civic leadership, entrepreneurship, and the politics of the ‘Big Society’—not to mention the all-pervasive HE context of the REF’s ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’ agendas.

As part of the Enhancing DMVI project, the team are looking at the possibilities for developing tools which will allow communities of users to describe (tag) digital images in various ways. We are also interested in the potential for people to come together and share their readings and discussions of Victorian illustrations. It was from this perspective that we attended the ‘Beyond Collections’ day—hoping to benefit from the experience of previous projects.

The conference was a thoughtful and interesting mix of traditional academic work (transcribing UCL’s Jeremy Bentham manuscripts), research with a community focus (the work of the University of Glamorgan’s George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling), and Web 2.0 projects exploring archives and collections (How to be a Retronaut). Over the course of the day, some common threads emerged as the speakers shared their positive and negative experiences.

Some key points for future crowdsourcing projects to bear in mind:

  • There are (at least) 3 types of project that come under the broad umbrella of ‘crowdsourcing’, namely:
    1. online communities who are invited to create or upload their own content (e.g. The Great War Archive).
    2. online communities who perform work of some kind on digital content (e.g. Galaxy Zoo).
    3. projects which aim to create or facilitate online communities (e.g. Strandlines).
  • Any project wishing to involve online communities needs to carefully consider its rationale and aims, and translate those into a clear and engaging ‘call to action’.
  • Face-to-face meetings and promotional activities can be extremely helpful in kick-starting interest in the digital material.
  • Potential user groups need to be carefully considered and targeted, and the motivational strategy is key. It’s worth bearing in mind that people will often devote large amounts of time and energy to academic projects where their efforts are both useful and appreciated.
  • Correspondingly, projects where crowdsourcing is pursued as part of a weakly-defined ‘engagement’ or ‘impact’ strategy are less to likely to succeed.
  • Maintaining a balance between user freedom and quality control/moderation is crucial, though it can also be tricky.

What the conference made clear is that there is no single template for crowdsourcing, and any project needs to find it’s own approach—often through trial and error, but also by taking on board the lessons learnt by those who went before them.

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