DH 2010: A lesson in crowdsourcing

London was brilliant. We walked miles and miles each day to keep up with our overly ambitious tourist itinerary (it was my little one’s first time in the city and Garrick and I wanted him to see everything), and it was hot (30 practically every day) and filthy (no comment), but the English are unfailingly friendly and helpful, and we punctuated our wanderings (which I actually love) with stops for cocktails and art, ice cream and medieval history, chips and soccer, and sandwiches and siege weapons firings, so I can’t possibly complain. And my son had a blast!

Yet even amidst the vibrant settings and amazing fare of London, I was terribly distracted by work. The DH conference I was actually in London to attend was outstanding, and I left the city with much more than Big Ben to think about. The conference emphasis on crowdsourcing was particularly intriguing. The Transcribe Bentham project which was described during the closing plenary, for example, aims to engage the public in transcribing the writings of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. I’ve worked with manuscripts quite a lot, so this kind of transcription endeavor struck me as a) brilliant, b) questionable, c) demanding. It seems ‘brilliant’ because it promises to engage readers, and, in doing, to draw them into the project as educational and scholarly partners. Plus, if the reader-cum-transcribers’ work is good, the project has the potential to advance quickly and to gain a commodity that is invaluable in academia: community support.

It raises the ‘questionable’ note for me because transcription is time consuming and detail oriented. Even if the reader-transcribers do amazing work, the transcriptions must be checked, and I would love to know how the costs (fiscal, that is) of the crowdsource endeavor might compare with those of the same endeavor designed as a traditional large-scale transcription project. Though, still, even if there are costs (literally in the fiscal sense but also in the figurative sense) the idea – and notably in this case the practice – of community engagement via crowdsourcing for me carries so much appeal on so many levels that I can wholly appreciate the rationale for risking it.

And it seems ‘demanding’ because transcriptions necessitate scrupulous review, whether they originate from a crowd or from experts. Though again (I confess, being so drawn to this whole idea does make it difficult to offer critique), perhaps the point is to leave the project open all along, allowing even corrigenda and emendations to be community driven.

As I described the Bentham project to a colleague, he immediately thought of the reCaptcha project, which is very cool in its own right but less community-engaging in that while via reCaptcha anyone might become a potential transcriber in typing in the graphemes displayed on a Captcha sequence, none is made aware that in doing so he or she is in fact contributing to text digitization.

Even ADHO is crowdsourcing a bit: During the conference the organization sent out an email asking conference attendees to view and then offer comments to support ADHO’s in-progress new website. And TEI by Example, an outstanding new educational project launched officially at DH 2010 but which kept its website open throughout the development stage also leveraged the TEI and Humanist listservs to call for feedback in support of post-launch improvement.

Undoubtedly, the openness of Transcribe Bentham, ADHO, and TEI by Example is impressive, but it’s also strategic and plain smart.

My primary project over the last year (which I must acknowledge has been possible only through the support of Garrick Bodine, Helmut Doll, and Elaine Gustus) has been researching, designing, and developing TEI-EJ. The project’s born digital publishing suite (see the related DH abstract here) currently resides safely behind a secure log in, a decision, thanks to each of the projects noted above, I’ve come to question.

Should I open the project for broader critique, especially before publication? I’ve given out logins to more than a handful of individuals, but the site logs indicate that by and large (with very few exceptions) these individuals have either a) never logged in or b) have spent too little time on the site to comment or contribute meaningfully. Maybe casting a broader feedback request and community support net is in order…

The prospect of shouldering the yield (I’m fearing lots of old boots and, if I’m lucky, maybe a few juicy fish) of such a net is, well, a bit scary, but then again my work on the TEI-EJ project has been inspired precisely by my commitment to education (and I have no complaints about doing so much of the learning myself) and community engagement. Opening the project and asking for critical feedback seems like an obvious next step.

So, thanks DH. As usual, I left the conference inspired, invigorated, and with far more than I came with.