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Crowdsourcing and Zooniverse

Increasing digital possibilities in recent years encourage people to develop more efficient methods in every field. However, the most significant handicap of growing data and resources is their accessibility and usability. Crowdsourcing is one of the methods aimed at making resources readily available. Crowdsourcing is used in many different areas, and the mentioned resource also differs according to the usage area. When it comes to scientific research, this resource often means observation, data, and study. Also, the mentioned crowd is non-academic people which conceptualized as citizen-scientist and contribute to research voluntarily.

The best-known example of crowdsourcing in scientific studies is the platform called Zooniverse. As the platform's name suggests, it was initially created to bring together the data and investigations in astronomy. Astronomy is one of the fields where the contribution of amateur observers, or more accurately, citizen-scientists, is used and given importance. Besides applied sciences like climate, biology, and physics, volunteer labor is also critical in social sciences such as literature, history, and linguistics

Crowdsourcing in the humanities is very productive in situations that require human effort, such as reading or sorting large amounts of handwriting. The voluntary contribution provides the opportunity to process large amounts of data in a shorter time. Currently, it is possible to see many projects in the field of humanities on the Zooniverse platform.

A recent project that was completed last year transcribed correspondence from anti-slavery activists. The project states its aim on its page, which is still viewable on the platform, to make this 19th-century correspondence available to more researchers and big data applications. This aim can be generalized to all humanities branches working with historical documents. Digitization is rapidly increasing the number of available resources, but classifying all this data, making it usable and accessible to everyone is probably the most crucial point. When handwritten documents and works are transcribed, they become functional data in forming HTR models created with artificial intelligence infrastructure.

Another project on the platform that is open to the contribution of volunteers is about the famous Geniza manuscripts, which are found near Cairo, and their number exceeds 300,000. In this project, what is expected from the volunteers is to classify the manuscripts according to their language and readability and then transcribe them. According to the information on the platform, 6442 volunteers have participated, and 63% of this project has been completed so far. Click here to learn more or to contribute.

A project led by Süphan Kırmızıaltın, which will be ready soon for the contribution of volunteers on the platform, plans to transcribe documents in Ottoman Turkish. We know that there are efforts to create an HTR model for Ottoman Turkish in artificial intelligence-supported programs such as Transkribus. Within the Zooniverse, for the first time, the transcription and indexing of Ottoman documents by crowdsourcing will produce data that will speed up the process for new HTR models. This means that it will be possible soon to have artificial intelligence read the Ottoman handwriting as well as the printed texts. Furthermore, this project provides a very productive practice opportunity for students to learn Ottoman Turkish. Another important contribution is establishing and spreading the concept of citizen scientists in Turkey and offering people outside of academia the opportunity to be involved in scientific projects.

Zooniverse is not an institutional-supported project; but is a platform created in partnership with Adler Planetarium, Minnesota, and Oxford Universities. Besides, Minnesota University continues training and technical support for crowdsourcing projects in the Zooniverse platform through workshops.

Recently, it has been a matter of debate whether increasing digitization serves to democratize information. However, with these projects, it can be supposed that opening the data and research to non-academic volunteers helps to some extent for the democratization of participation.

Elif Derin Can

MA / Marmara University

Department of History


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