HEIR: A crowdsourcing approach to researching and tracking our changing landscapes

A treasure trove of images, but a lifetime of work

In 2012 Dr Katharina Ulmschneider and Dr Sally Crawford of the Institute of Archaeology were conducting a scoping survey of the University’s humanities and social sciences archives when they came across a treasure trove of images of landscapes, including many lantern slides and glass-plate negatives. The images constituted a fascinating portrait of a world gone by, but there were few catalogues of their contents and no knowledge of their importance. Katharina and Sally realised that these images, if scanned and made available on a research database, would have an enormous potential for researching and tracking change over time. However, identifying and tagging over 15,000 images of sites, places, and monuments worldwide would take one person a whole lifetime, and so the team, together with Dr Janice Kinory, decided to draw on the help of citizen scientists.

The solution: share the workload with citizen scientists worldwide

HEIR websiteKatharina and Sally worked with a commercial developer and their departmental IT manager to build a crowdsourcing website, HEIRtagger, which makes it possible for people of all ages and backgrounds to engage with the images. The HEIR mobile phone app was also developed to encourage people to search for and re-photograph sites.

The HEIRtagger website has been designed around the metaphor of a quest, with citizen scientists travelling the world through old photographs to help researchers discover a century of global change. Following a brief tutorial, users can choose either to travel to a particular country or to be ‘surprised’ by a random image. They are then given the task of clicking on a specific image, describing what they see and tagging it according to six broad categories; for example, ‘buildings and archaeology’ (e.g. pyramid, church), ‘transport and travel’ (e.g. cart, bicycle); or ‘people and objects’ (e.g. woman, fishing, book).

‘Do you know more?’ boxes are provided for users to provide specialist knowledge. Users can also start a discussion about an individual image, which is proving a popular way to generate additional information and to facilitate knowledge exchange both between citizen scientists and academics and between citizen scientists themselves.

The data is vetted and fed into the HEIR database, an interdisciplinary, open-access research resource, which brings together images from a number of faculties, departments and other bodies: Archaeology, History of Art, Geography, Plant Sciences, the Ashmolean Museum, Beazley Archive, Oriental Institute, Harris Manchester College and privately owned collections.

The HEIR mobile phone app is intended for re-photographing images. It allows citizen scientists to be sent old images of their vicinity and to take a photograph of the object or site as it looks today. The app contains an overlay function, which allows the current camera view to be superimposed on the old image to ensure the best possible fit. The re-photographed images, together with data about their location, are sent to the crowdsourcing platform, where they can be viewed alongside the old images.

HEIR app

The HEIR app. Left: superimposing the historical image over the present-day view. Right: uploading a photograph of the present-day view to the HEIR database

HEIRtagger additionally has an active presence on social media, with thousands of followers on Twitter (@HeirOxford), Facebook and the team’s blogs. These followers have helped the University team identify lost sites and provide further research input.

Benefits to both research and outreach

By the end of 2016, 1688 images had been tagged in the HEIR database, and the 216 taggers had between them generated 925 discussions – all before the public launch of the platform.

This growing resource has provided the impetus for new research projects (e.g. the Roman project at Royal Holloway University, London), student theses, volunteering and internships. Members of the HEIR team have worked with public bodies (e.g. CADW, Heritage England, Winchester Cathedral and Chichester Cathedral), museums and organisations in the USA, Europe and China. HEIR has also been involved in in several outreach activities including academic talks, two exhibitions at the Ashmolean Museum, two lantern-slide performances with musical accompaniment (National Festival of the Humanities, November 2014), and numerous conference papers and articles.

Top tips

Katharina Ulmschneider draws on the team’s experience to offer this advice for similar crowdsourcing projects:

  • Make sure you have excellent IT support and back-up options in case things go wrong.
  • Build enough contingency into your funding bid to allow for a) equipment failures and b) extra expenditure. Technical specifications and requirements change over the lifetime of the project.
  • Sustainability is an on-going issue with web data, so think about how to future-proof your project. Questions to ask yourself include: How long do you want the project to run? Who will host it? Who will bear the costs when the grant runs out?
  • Plan realistically for the amount of time it will take to respond to enquiries and maintain the public profile of the site from day to day.

Further information

  • Read other case studies in crowdsourcing in this collection.
  • The Technology-Enhanced Learning team in Academic IT offers consultation and advice on crowdsourcing platforms. To find out more, send an email to engage@it.ox.ac.uk.
  • Visit our Engage website for information and advice on digital technologies for public engagement, knowledge exchange and impact.

OxTALENT 2016 Logo - web versionJoint runner-up, OxTALENT 2016 award for the use of technology for outreach and public engagement. The text in this case study has been adapted from Dr Katharina Ulmschneider’s entry for the OxTALENT competition.

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