“The advent of Web 2.0 technologies has enabled the efficient creation and distribution of user-generated content (UGC)”. UGC can take the form of blogs, product reviews, or online databases to name but a few. Projects such as Wikipedia, Open Street Maps, and Flickr are regarded as highly successful UGC projects. As a result, crowdsourcing has become popular, especially in the Digital Arts and Humanities field. It has revolutionised social media and educational platforms and has opened up entirely new pathways. One of these is the creation of websites specifically for crowdsourcing volunteers to help professional researchers. One such platform that allows this is Zooniverse.
After joining the Zooniverse platform, I selected two community-engaged projects to assist with. Scribes of the Cairo Geniza allows users to “unlock the secrets of the greatest archives of the middle ages”. The second project, Skink Spotter NZ, allows users to preserve wildlife and protect endangered species. “Otago skinks are one of the most charismatic, and most endangered lizards in New Zealand”. This project gives users the chance to help ensure their survival in the future.
The outcome of both of these projects is of the utmost importance. As a result, I joined them to help compile the data necessary to achieve the projects’ objectives.
Scribes of the Cairo Ganiza
The Scribes of the Cairo Geniza project aims to sort, analyse, and transcribe over 300,000 text fragments. These are of pre-modern and medieval Jewish descent, found in an attic in Cairo. The first step involved is sorting the text by script type and difficulty level. Although ordering the ancient fragments is time-consuming and difficult, the given field guide ensures that it stays user friendly. This allows volunteers with no Hebrew or Arabic experience to still contribute to the project. A tutorial is provided along with a help button, and the given images are moveable and rotatable.
The second step in the project is to analyse and transcribe the sorted text. The easy-to-translate fragments are then used to decipher the more difficult texts. Once more, a field guide and tutorial are provided so users from all backgrounds can join in. After identifying a Hebrew/Arabic word, the user places a dot at the start and end of the text. A transcription box then appears, and the user can type in their transcription. This project is an excellent example of the possibilities of digitization.
Skink Spotter NZ
For my second selected project, Skink Spotter NZ, short clips of time-lapsed footage are used instead of digitized images. Similar to the Scribes of the Cairo Geniza, a helpful field guide and tutorial are available for users to read. It not only gives sample images of the Otago Skinks the project wants to identify but also of other animals.
The Scribes of the Cairo Geniza is more user-accessible than the Skink Spotter NZ project. It doesn’t provide as many disability-friendly options, however, such as larger text or dark mode. The user watches 10 minutes of footage from Otago skink habitat, shown in ten frames, one taken per minute. If a skink appears in any frame, the user selects the “Yes” option, if not, they select “No (or unsure)” option. Volunteers can also declare the image too blurry or dark, or if any other creature appears in a frame instead. While not as interactive, this project is also a good example of the benefits of crowd sourcing.
The Scribes of the Cairo project plays an important role not just in the literary world, but in Egypt itself. It holds cultural importance for both the Egyptian and Jewish people. By contributing to this project, volunteers can help restore a missing part of their history. This project contains over 300,000 fragments of paper and parchment, from everyday receipts to biblical works. Having been stored in an attic until the 19th century, texts are in danger of being lost forever.
The worn manuscripts include Jewish prayer books, court petitions, and marriage contracts from the 10th to 13th centuries. These texts are one of the most important discoveries of the 21st century. They’re crucial sources for the reconstruction of the social and political lives Egyptian citizens led over one thousand years ago. It’s clear that the useful implications of contributing to this project are countless. After all, these transcriptions have the potential to rewrite history.
Despite the Skink Spotter project not having a cultural impact, it has just as much significance for the environment. The aim of the project is to understand how global warming and climate change affect the endangered Otago skink. To research how the changing environment affects one of New Zealand’s largest lizard species, their habitats need to be found. These require a long monitoring period as skink activity occurs in all weather conditions.
By joining this project, volunteers can ensure the safety and future management of this species to prevent their extinction. Despite recovery efforts, Otago Skinks still remain threatened. They only habitat two isolated regions in all of New Zealand, their protection is crucial. Once again, the only implications of contributing to this project are positive. It allows researchers to determine how climate change affects the species. This will, in turn, show them how to guarantee their survival in an ever-changing world.
Benefits vs. Drawbacks
User-Generated Content can have some disadvantages such as the unreliability of inputted information. There are also copyright issues and a lack of confidentiality. Despite this, I believe that there are far more benefits than drawbacks. Based on my experience, I fully support User-Generated Content and crowdsourcing.
The benefits of digitization are clear in the Scribes of the Cairo Geniza project. It also shows the level of interactivity that can be provided to users. Users learn how to successfully transcribe ancient manuscripts from photos, a skill otherwise difficult to pick up. Even though the transcription isn’t easy, it’s still possible through the highly interactive and educational website. The Scribes of the Cairo Geniza project provides this in order to crowdsource volunteers to achieve their objectives.
Similarly, the Skink Spotter NZ project shows the full extent of what’s possible with a camera and simple website layout. By providing three buttons for users to click on, the project researchers have made both accessible and enjoyable. This project shows how feasible it is to protect an endangered species just by setting up an online platform. It allows users to contribute, saving the months’ worth of work it would take a single person to complete.
Being able to digitize works of literature and ancient manuscripts that would otherwise be lost to history is incredibly important. I firmly believe that preserving texts is crucial for both literary scholars and for our own cultural past. The Scribes of the Cairo Geniza project shows just how well this technique can be used on a crowdsourcing platform. It proves how a researcher can use User Generated Content to the best of their ability.
The Skink Spotter NZ project is imperative in today’s climate-changing world. The methods that this project uses to go about their goal, are definitely something I find worth considering. Using time-lapse cameras in remote locations could be used to monitor a variety of different features. For example, it can measure the deterioration rate of old buildings or sites of cultural significance. This method of crowdsourcing will unquestionably contribute to any future conservation projects.