Stanford University
Crowdsourcing for Humanities Research
This project, funded by a grant from the Mellon Foundation, seeks to test ways in which humanities researchers might use different types of crowdsourcing and community sourcing to further research, and ask questions that would be difficult or impossible to do in more traditional modes of inquiry. Crowdsourcing, or communitysourcing (different terms for what is broadly the same thing) is, at its most basic, a mode of research, knowledge gathering, and analysis, whereby a researcher engages a community to provide answers to questions or solutions to problems or analysis of material. There are many different forms of crowdsourcing, but they are all linked by the idea that a large group of people can offer solutions to research questions and data analysis that would be unavailable to the individual or small group. 

Because of the possibilities of wider engagement, crowdsourcing offers opportunities to advance humanistic work with and beyond the walls of the academy. We seek to identify and explore the best practices as well as pitfalls of a few crowdsourcing methods. To do so, we are conducting three simultaneous crowdsourcing projects: The Year of the Bay, Living with the Railroads, and 500 Novels. Each project is engaged with different kinds of crowds, and is asking different questions.  And each, in different ways, is exploring the possibilities of partnering with non-academic media bodies. In the case of Year of the Bay and Living with the Railroads, our partner is Historypin, “a global community collaborating around history”, which offers users a web based platform where memories (in the form of images and audio/visual materials) can be pinned to a map, locating the material in both time and space. We are currently running a set of controlled experiments with each of the projects involving academic researchers and non-academic media bodies each defining a particular aspect of crowdsourcing and exploring how it might contribute to academic research, and, concomitantly, to community engagement.

The Year of the Bay project was designed to test the experience of conducting crowdsourcing for the humanities at the confluence of major public events that could garner widespread attention and enlarge the audience for a crowdsourcing project. Events such as the America’s Cup in San Francisco Bay, the completion of the new span of the historic San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, the 150th anniversary of the Port of San Francisco, the opening of a new home for the Exploratorium on the bay, and exhibitions at the California Historical Society and the Oakland Museum of California all demonstrate that 2013 was indeed a “Year of the Bay” to remember. Our goal is to collaborate with media organizations and museums, libraries, and archives to bring people to Historypin’s Year of the Bay project page to engage with archival materials by pinning snapshots of history through space, or location, and time from various sources including organizational, individual, and family archives. Our hope was twofold: 1) that participants would help generate useful, accurate, and meaningful metadata for archival sources lacking metadata, and 2) that new archival materials would diversify and enrich our understanding of the environmental history of the San Francisco Bay and different cultural understandings and practices related to the bay.

Following the work of Richard White, Living with the Railroads  seeks to use crowdsourcing to learn more about the social, cultural, and environmental impact of the development and expansion of the railroads in the American West, and hopefully eventually across the United States. The crowd in trains is neither the more amorphous crowd of 500 Novels, or the crowd of those generally interested in the San Francisco Bay Area of Year of the Bay; rather, the crowd we seek to engage in Living with the Railroads is that of railroad enthusiasts. This project, therefore, had to explore and lay the groundwork for interacting with this specialized crowd in a different manner than either of the other two projects. The goal, in conjunction with Historypin, is to get railroad enthusiasts to upload their data, identify images and documents whose provenance is unknown, and help facilitate the growth of connections between enthusiast and enthusiast communities, thus providing a useful tool to the enthusiast community. That is, this project is not just seeking data from people, but hopes to get people to see the Historypin Railroads site, and partnership with Stanford, as something to their benefit and enjoyment.

The 500 Novels project, led by a research team from Stanford’s Literary Lab with support from the CESTA research community, seeks to analyze the ways in which physical space and mental constructions of location have worked to organize and represent changing experiences of London throughout the nineteenth century, a period marked by both the democratization of the novel and rapid urbanization. Specifically, the project focuses on the emotions associated with particular urban locales in London during the nineteenth century, where “the narrative system becomes complicated, unstable: the city turns into a gigantic roulette table, where helpers and antagonists mix in unpredictable combinations” (Franco Moretti, Atlas of the European Novel, 68). By tracking and mapping fluctuations in emotional spaces, 500 Novels hopes to search for trends among particular places and arrive at possible explanations for these correlations. These are questions that are particularly tractable to crowdsourcing. Issues like whether spatial representations of certain kinds of emotional experience correlate to known class divisions in the city, or whether we can anticipate the rise of what Principal Investigator Franco Moretti has called the “Third London,” a middle-class “wedge” in the city, through changing fictional representations of this region, can be addressed differently and dynamically by reaching out to the crowd. Specifically, unlike the previous projects, 500 Novels seeks to investigate the use of the anonymous crowd, in this case using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. By passing along only those passages mentioning particular London locales (though this still leaves more than 15,000 passages for analysis across a wide range of authors, genres, and periods) we will be able to parlay the power of crowdsourcing to annotate both a greater number of passages than an individual researcher could do, as well as far more quickly. This more flexible, atomistic nature of the project has also allowed us to evolve the ways in which we ask the crowd for information with the speed and agility necessary for its success.

Together, these three projects will let us address a variety of questions about the viability and efficacy of crowdsourcing in a humanities and social science academic setting. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you want to know more.

Former Lab Staff:
Celena Allen, Matt Bryant

Spatial History