Crowdsourcing Blog – Zooinverse: Old Weather

For my crowdsourcing project, I transcribed weather information recorded in 19th century American ship logs as part of the Zooinverse: Old Weather project. The purpose of this project is to “Help scientists recover Arctic and worldwide weather observations made by United States ships since the mid-19th century by transcribing ships’ logs. These transcriptions will contribute to climate model projections and will improve our knowledge of past environmental conditions. Historians will use your work to track past ship movements and tell the stories of the people on board.” Given the vast amount of effort it takes to read and record weather information from old captain’s logs, I believe that this project makes great use of the crowdsourcing model because it allows researchers to spread the onerous task of collecting data among a large number of individuals. The researchers behind this project write that it could one person 28 years to finish recording all the information from all the captain’s logs. However, by using the crowdsourcing approach, they hope to finish this task in 6 months.

I think that this is a wonderfully conceived and executed project that makes excellent use of digital tools. The first thing that I admired is the well crafted website that makes the whole process of transcribing captain’s logs very smooth and easy. The website contains tools to magnify specific pages from ship’s logs and appropriate sections in which to record the captain’s observations. There is also a very helpful tutorial to show novices how to use the website and accurately input the data. Additionally, the designers of this website have included an element of play into this project by rewarding people who input a lot of data. Beginner transcribers start the project as a “cadet”, and as they transcribe more and more pages, they get rewarded by being promoted up the naval hierarchy and eventually get to become “captain”. Thus, the designers of the project create incentives to remain active with the project and encourage participants to capture information from more pages.

I was skeptical of crowdsourcing projects because by allowing anybody to contribute valuable data, such projects also open a large scope for the creation of inaccurate or wrong data. If somebody mistakenly records the wrong observations in the wrong columns or if somebody misreads the captain’s handwriting, they could jeopardize the integrity of the project. However, the Zooinverse: Old Weather team has managed to get around this problem by making sure that each page of every log book is looked at by more than one person at a time. This allows errors to be filtered out (citation).

After contributing to this project and seeing how they designed their website, I believe that the crowdsourcing approach does have many benefits, but its execution needs to be immaculate. The design and stability of the website is of crucial importance because it is the chief, and in most cases, the only way for the researchers to reach out to the people helping them record the data. Consequently, communication becomes key and the website should strive to be as unambiguous and glitch-free as possible. It should tell the participants how they are helping the research, how the data will be used, and which institutions are affiliated with project. These are all aspects at which the Zooinverse: Old Weather project succeeds and I believe that it provides an excellent example for future projects to emulate.

I'm a first year English MA student interested in the digital humanities, critical and cultural theory, and postcolonial studies. Follow me @paramajmera

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