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Science Ambassador Blog: Gateways as Tools for Democratizing Research—Crowdsourcing with the Zooniverse at DHOxSS 2019

One of our five Science Ambassadors, Samantha Blickhan, Zooniverse Digital Humanities Research Lead, taught a weeklong course called Crowdsourced Research in the Humanities at the Oxford Digital Humanities Summer School in July. Attendees learned how to use the Zooniverse Project Builder, further distributing a methodology that encourages researchers from a multitude of academic disciplines to make use of science gateways.

By Dr. Samantha Blickhan

Thanks to the generosity of the SGCI Science Ambassadors Program, I was able to attend the 2019 Digital Humanities at Oxford Summer School [DHOxSS], to convene a workshop called Crowdsourced Research in the Humanities. From July 22-26, 10 participants in the workshop learned how to harness the power of the crowd to advance their research goals, specifically through the use of the Zooniverse Project Builder

Academic crowdsourcing is the process of leveraging public participation in online tasks, the results of which are used to support or engage in academic research. These tasks can include answering questions, identifying or marking specific content on a digital image, or transcribing text (note: this list is in no way comprehensive). In some circles, this process can be referred to as ‘citizen science’, though that approach is not exclusive to crowdsourcing activities. The Zooniverse is the world-leading platform for online crowdsourced research, with more than 190 projects launched since 2007, and over 1.7 million registered volunteers. The Project Builder, launched in 2015, is a browser-based web application that allows anyone to build a crowdsourcing project on the Zooniverse platform for free. 

As part of the process of learning how to use the Project Builder, each workshop participant created a functional, online crowdsourcing project with actual image-based data that they brought along for use in the workshop. The attendees were an international cohort made up of postgraduate students, early-career researchers, academics, librarians and archivists, all of whom had image-based data that they wanted to transform through the process of online crowdsourcing. The content contained within these data varied widely, and in this year’s cohort the research interests of participants included local archival collections, historical political cartoons, English and Scandinavian literature and linguistics, musicology, modern art, and climate change. 

Though I’ve worked on the Zooniverse platform as a postdoctoral researcher since early 2017, and originally convened this DHOxSS workshop in 2018, the terminology of ‘gateways’ was new to me when I first became aware of the Science Ambassadors Program. Through reading about—and, ultimately, applying for—the program, I found that thinking of Zooniverse within the gateway framework helped me to refine my approach to this year’s summer school curriculum. The concept of a gateway is all about access: access to scientific learning, skills development, communication, and other resources. DHOxSS workshop participants learn how to invite members of the public into ongoing research projects, listen to their feedback, and communicate with them regularly. Participants are encouraged to share their expert knowledge of a subject with prospective volunteers as they design and develop their projects, both as a way to ensure successful completion of their crowdsourcing task(s), and also to help excite people about the research their projects are facilitating. 

This type of communication is key to crowdsourcing on the Zooniverse: every Project Builder project comes with a dedicated message board, known as ‘Talk’. This space is full of research opportunities, from spontaneous discoveries to highlighting interesting content within a dataset. In the workshop, I made sure to highlight how communication with research team members—in order to share exciting finds and ask questions—is integral to these ideas of access that make up the framework of gateways. 

Because of the importance placed on communication in public, online spaces, participants also learn how to moderate project message boards, specifically with the aim of fostering open dialogue, respect, and curiosity. In the DHOxSS workshop, we did this through reading Talk boards from actual, currently-active projects, and brainstorming responses to frequently-asked questions from the perspective of a practitioner (e.g. “How would you answer the following questions…?”) as well as a volunteer (“Were you satisfied with that response? Was your question actually answered?”).

The concept of access as described above is important, and useful, but there are a number of ways to interpret ‘access’ in the context of gateways. Along with interpreting access as a concept closely tied to communication and learning, access can be about approachability and facilitating entry. Gateways are multidirectional, and tools like the Project Builder also serve to highlight how gateways can provide such access as a participant, as well as a practitioner of crowdsourcing. To that end, I made sure this year to put a lot of emphasis on another interpretation of access; the idea that a crowdsourcing project should be something in which a variety of people can participate; not just holders of specific knowledge. As a result, I noticed that participants made an effort to create multiple points of entry into their projects. They broke down complex tasks into a series of simple, achievable goals in which participants from a range of backgrounds could feasibly participate. For researchers who are experts in their particular field, this is no small task. The ability to re-think a specific approach to a research method for the express purpose of including others is an invaluable, transferable skill.

Participation in workshops like the Digital Humanities at Oxford Summer School is vital for those who are creating gateways for use by research communities. Workshops provide an opportunity to interact with the individuals who are using the tools you create, and can give you and your team a much better understanding of how those tools are being put to use in the real world. It is also a great way to quickly identify places where you might be missing an opportunity to provide assistance to your community; are there steps in using your gateway in which people commonly have questions or need help? If so, you may need to change things on your end as a gateway provider. 

If you are interested in using the Project Builder to create a research project of your own, I would first recommend getting involved in an existing project. Even better, look closely at a number of different projects, and—most importantly—participate in those projects as a volunteer. Participating in crowdsourcing projects will have significant impact on the way that you approach the creation of a project as a practitioner. You are more likely to think from the perspective of a volunteer, which can help to strengthen communication and lower the likelihood of inadvertently engaging in unethical or exploitative practices. Feel free to visit the Project Building Talk board if you have questions about getting started, or reach out to our team at