Outreach and Public Engagement – Harnessing the Power of the Crowd

Since evidence of impact is now a key requirement of many funders, and global reach is a major priority of the University, it is unsurprising that researchers are devising creative ways to ensure that their work reaches the widest possible audience.

The Outreach and Public Engagement category attracted far and away the greatest number of entries in this year’s competition, and we have subdivided it into general outreach activities and outreach activities which focus on ways of harnessing the power of the crowd.

Winners: Dr Sarah Deakin, Zoe Reich, Matt Wenham and Chris Hayter for OxReach – #crowdtogether

Crowdfunding has become a powerful way to raise funds for high impact, philanthropic projects. However, Oxford projects that fall outside the scope of research or commercialisation funds struggle to get off the ground due to limited financial resources. Furthermore, many existing platforms charge high fees for their use, their legal terms can be problematic for universities, and it’s difficult to leverage the University’s brand effectively.

OutCrowd - W - OxReachLogoThis state of affairs prompted the Isis Innnovation team to building an Isis Innovation/University branded platform that addressed the above issues. The result is OxReach, a rewards-based crowdfunding platform on which members of the University can source additional financial support for the innovative, entrepreneurial or high-impact projects that they are most passionate about.

The pilot campaign run on the platform was Life-saving Instruction For Emergencies (LIFE), a serious game originating from Prof Mike English, a KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Fellow in the Department of Tropical Medicine. The aim is to teach healthcare workers in Africa to identify and manage neonatal emergencies (see our recent article about LIFE in News from Academic IT). Through OxReach, Mike and his colleagues raised £63,111 from 177 donors to build and test versions of the game.

The judges commended the OxReach team for their development of a platform and use of digital communications technologies to successfully engage the public in funding the LIFE serious game.

Joint Runners-up: Dr Katharina Ulmschneider, Dr Sally Crawford, and Dr Janice Kinory for HEIR – Crowdsourcing and re-photographing old images to track global change

When Dr Katharina Ulmschneider and her colleagues came across a collection of lantern slides and glass-plate negatives in 2012, they were faced with a huge challenge: how to identify 15,000 images of sites, places, and monuments word-wide, keyword them, re-photograph them and trace their fate. Their solution was to draw on the help of citizen scientists worldwide, and so they developed a crowdsourcing platform, HEIRtagger, which allows people of all ages and from all backgrounds to look at, tag, and engage with the images through generating keywords, identifying sites and initiating discussions. The team also encourages people to search for and re-photograph sites using a custom-built app for iPhone and iPad, HEIR.

Screenshots from the HEIR app by Cristiano Bianchi, Keepthinking

The data collected feeds into the HEIR (Historic Environment Image Resource) database, an inter-disciplinary, open-access research resource, which brings together images from a number of  departments. HEIR was initially launched internally, and within six months 1044 images had been tagged by 141 separate individuals. The activities had also generated 753 discussions, provided the impetus for two new research projects, student theses  and internships. The HEIR team has worked with public heritage bodies and has been involved in various outreach activities and scholarly events.

The judges commended the engaging, simple design and ease of use of HEIRtagger and noted the impact of the project both for researchers and the public.

Joint Runner-up: Dr Fiona Whelan for The Medieval Text Translation Project

Med Texts Image - teacher and pupilsThere are countless texts which are currently untranslated and consequently under-utilised in scholarship. Through The Medieval Text Translation Project Dr Fiona Whelan sought to unite scholars, academics, students and amateurs alike in translating medieval texts and making the translations available to both the academic community and the general public. The project aimed to enable research collaboration through the crowdsourcing of translations with international scope, while making research easier through the development of an innovative online platform and the publication of new translations.

Medieval-Texts-poemFiona trialled three translations using free platforms. She expected that most of her participants would be mostly postgraduate students, but found that a number were in non-academic jobs and had a background in translations and medieval literature either from their studies or through personal interest. This revealed that the project had scope beyond the academic environment, and could act as public engagement and outreach by allowing the public to actively engage in translations and have ownership of the outcomes.

Since their completion the three published translations have been accessed nearly 200 times, and the associated Twitter account, @MedTextTran, has over 500 followers.

In the judges’ opinion, The Medieval Text Translation Project demonstrates that it is possible to achieve real impact on a shoestring with freely available platforms. Importantly it shows that there is an appetite and enthusiasm for crowdsourcing text translation of the period, creating the building blocks for further work.

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