Crowdsourcing, participation and learning

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Stuart Berry

‘Crowdsourcing’ is something of a buzz-word at the moment, but is not a new concept. The arts, culture and heritage sectors have all been making use of their audience for a number of years, but the greater range of opportunities afforded through advancing technologies are now helping institutions and their audiences to work together in new ways on new kinds of projects.

According to this Horizon report, crowdsourcing is going to be one of the big development areas for museums in the next year or so.

What is crowdsourcing?

At its core, crowdsourcing is a type of volunteering. Volunteering has been part of the culture in museums and heritage sites for many years. Traditional volunteer roles might vary according to the scale of different institutions, but are generally all based on-site; they may be public-facing or may be curatorial and behind-the-scenes in nature. Many of these roles, by virtue of the tasks involved, require the volunteer to be on-site and physically doing the work.

Crowdsourcing moves beyond simple volunteering, in that it asks many people to do a small amount of work to get one big thing done. Crowdsourcing also doesn’t have the same sense of commitment that volunteering in the traditional sense does.  Examples of ‘crowdsourcing’ in the pre-digital world might include asking the local community to come and clear snow from a site car-park, or asking the public to bring old egg-boxes and yogurt pots in for an art-and-craft project.

The Internet can extend any institution’s ‘community’, and social networks are one example of the web doing a great deal in overcoming geography as a barrier to engagement.  The Internet can also be used as a tool to allow the public to participate in and contribute to a variety of projects.  By asking many people to perform small simple tasks over the Internet, institutions are capable of getting a great deal of work done that might otherwise be monotonous and extremely time-consuming.  By its nature, this is facilitating greater levels of engagement, and is enabling community contribution in many new ways.

The V&A have a very straight-forward example of a digital crowdsourcing project that is asking people to crop images from their online catalogue.

What are others doing?

Crowdsourcing projects can vary widely in their scope and nature.  Some institutions are big enough to have the budget to host their own digital projects, whilst others use existing platforms elsewhere.

Some projects are research-based in nature, asking the public to observe and record events around them.  Good examples include the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, where the RSPB are asking the public to submit results through their website.  The Society of Biology have also done recent surveys in this way, including their house spider survey last Autumn – this survey also had an accompanying smart-phone app that participants could download to help identify and record their sightings.

The Woodland Trust have a similar project, Nature’s Calendar, collecting information on sightings of certain species and events in the natural world through the year – this site also has an interactive display showing data from the current and previous years, allowing participants to see annual fluctuations and differences plotted geographically.

Some projects, like that of the V&A above, ask participants to assist with very small specific tasks. Your Paintings Tagger asks users to add tags to publicly-owned oil paintings in order to make the Your Paintings database more searchable and accessible. In a similar fashion, Calbug is one example of a project on the museum crowdsourcing site Notes from Nature that brings together collections records from a number of museums, and asks digital participants to transcribe handwritten catalogue labels and ledgers.

In addition, there are popular ‘third-party’ crowdsourcing websites that the museum and heritage sector are able to use, including Historypin, which asks the public to ‘pin’ historic photographs onto an interactive map; and Wikipedia, the online, crowdsourced encyclopedia.  Both of these run independently from any specific museum projects, but can be used by museums to harness the power of the crowd in achieving certain research and engagement aims.  Wikimedia (who run the Wikipedia website) are especially open to working with the sector, and have a variety of options in place, as is demonstrated on their Cultural Partnerships page.

Crowdsourcing, participation and learning

Crowdsourcing in this context is about community participation and community contribution, it is also about getting things done that will ultimately further any institution’s broader engagement aims and objectives.  This means that crowdsourcing is also about learning. It may not have pre-defined learning outcomes in itself, but participants are inevitably learning something in the course of performing the actions required to make a contribution.  Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, crowdsourcing also benefits any organisation’s end-users, by providing research or by making collections and collections-related knowledge more accessible.


Finding out more

If you would like to find out more about crowdsourcing, including more examples, case-studies and discussion, try some of these links:

  • This academic paper from the Museums and the Web conference in April 2013 looks at defining crowdsourcing, as well as examining some prominent case-studies.

  • This Museums Practice article is only available to members of the Museums Association, but offers some good discussion on the subject.

  • This blog post from the London Museums Group in August 2013 also offers useful links and advice.

  • This post written in 2011 on the blog The Museum of the Future still rings true, and provides some useful advice for those considering embarking on a project.

  • Crowdsourcing The Museum was a session I ran at the GEM conference in September 2013 as an introduction to the subject – this blog documents some of the discussion and case-studies from that session.

There has been a great deal written about the subject of crowdsourcing as it relates to the cultural sector, and many of the articles above will be able to direct to numerous other sources and discussions. Please post in the comments below if you know of any other projects or sources of information relating to crowdsourcing…

Twitter Surgery

If you would like to discuss any points raised in this post or if you have any questions on the subject of crowdsourcing, members of the DLNET committee will be running a Twitter Surgery on the subject on Friday 14th February from 12.00pm until 2.00pm. Follow @DLNET or use the hashtag #dlnetsurgery to get involved. Alternatively email your questions to or post them in the comments below.

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