One year of Measuring the ANZACs with you
It’s our first birthday! This time a year ago we were incredibly excited to get the project publicly launched after several months of development time, and feedback on the beta.
Anniversaries and birthdays are a great time to take stock and share with our friends and partners what we’ve learned in the past year, and where to from here.
Our two biggest achievements are related. First, the system we built on Scribe has worked to enable the separation of marking and transcription, and having you help us with the transformation of structured but messy records on paper into structured machine-readable records.
Social science and humanities databases are hard enough to construct with teams of research assistants or classes working alongside you. One needs systems with some optimum combination of flexibility and rules. For example we shouldn’t see anything but numbers in answer to a question “How old in years is this man”. But in reality, we do see other things. Not often, but the times you see notes beside the man’s age we need some ability to capture that information, because it’s probably going to be interesting. Multiply these kinds of challenges across the 147 different variables we’ve identified in the personnel records, and taking it to the crowd is going to be challenging.
Our approach has been to collect nuggets of information. You mark a field, then it’s available for transcription. Repeat 147 fields x 3 iterations of each transcription x 140,000 soldiers (and that’s an undercount, because some fields repeat. People were wounded or transferred between units many, many times …)
Second, because the system is relatively easy to use we’ve built a great community of markers and transcribers. Thank you! We couldn’t do this all by ourselves, and the data we’re creating will be a shared resource for scholarship, a memorial to the men who are recorded herein, and a way to open up the stories of the men to a much wider audience. At the end of the project we’ll have the records indexed by much more than the name and serial number they’re currently indexed by. Want to find all the men born in Wellington? It’ll be easy (so get transcribing! Go now!)
No one gets through their first year without a few challenges. We’d like to thank you for bearing with us while the server was quite unstable in the first couple of months! It was a little trying.
The challenges have been smaller than the achievements, but we know we haven’t had a perfect year. In the first instance getting 3.5 million images across the Pacific from Archives New Zealand computers to ours has been time consuming. On this end they have to be processed into a new database before they can appear on the site. It’s not as easy as just pointing our interface at the complete collection you can find on Archway.
This means we still don’t have everyone up. The promise that you can come along and easily find your relatives or other people you’re interested in hasn’t quite been realized. We know this is important, and we’re working on it. One of the things that makes Measuring the ANZACs different from ecology or astronomy projects is that our data represents known entities. People! Actual people you’ve heard about. The architecture of the Zooniverse was built around a slightly different type of data. The good news is, again, we’re working on it. At the Zooniverse we know that transcription is important to bring citizen science to the social sciences and humanities, and these are part of the changes we have to make (go check out the other great transcription projects, then come back here).
We’ve also found that transcription is hard. There’s less immediate gratification in a little bit of transcription, than classifying an image with animals in it, or identifying stars. I know, because I’ve done the other thing. Finding the community of people who are interested and committed to the slightly harder work of transcription is an ongoing joy of reaching out through social media, giving talks, and mentioning what we’re doing whenever we can. Which leads us to
We’re incredibly grateful for the support of the Zooniverse, and the leadership team there of Lucy Fortson and Chris Lintott who are a joy to work with. Archives NZ and Auckland Museum have been incredibly helpful as well in spreading the word, and without Archives incredible efforts to scan all this material we wouldn’t have a project. Measuring the ANZACs is a Zooniverse at UMN project, and we thank UMN for their financial support of that intiative (check out the new UMN project Mapping Change about biodiversity). Our efforts to get all of the men’s stories transcribed is fundamentally about studying a population, and the support of the Minnesota Population Center is also important to us.
Beyond the team we work with, we’ve been thrilled to join the wider community of people interested in how we can transform handwritten text into useful machine-readable data in the social sciences and humanities. We’ve talked to classes at Carleton College, faculty and students at George Mason (Center for History and New Media) and Macalester, and to THATCamp Twin Cities. It was an incredible honor to give the ANZAC Lecture in April at the Center for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Studies at Georgetown. In Wellington we were glad to give talks at the National Library, Wellington High School to the Wellington History Teachers Association, and Victoria University.
We started incorporating material uncovered by our citizen scientists into our research on post-war suicide; an important and sad topic where we can make a start with small numbers of men’s stories. Your help in uncovering these rare stories is helpful. We are still a little while from having enough completely transcribed men to fold them into our measurements of the ANZACs (so get transcribing!).
The road ahead
Millions of fields transcribed is an incredible achievement, and we thank you for it. It’s not yet enough because there are tens of thousands of men whose files haven’t been touched. But we do have enough data to start addressing a very fundamental methodological problem: how accurate is citizen transcription? This takes us back to the starting point of this blog post. Our alternative is enlisting (really, conscripting or employing) the help of undergraduate and graduate students. Looking at what you have transcribed we think the quality is pretty good, but we need to, you know, measure that and put a number on it.
Unusually for a transcription project we have two validated “gold standard” data elements in our data. The men’s names and serial numbers are part of the “metadata” from the NZ Defence Force and Archives New Zealand, and represent the truth about how names were spelled and the assigned serial number. What did you actually transcribe, how much do the errors matter, and where do they occur? These kinds of metrics will be important in the acceptance of citizen science data as a scholarly source, and we’ll be presenting first results at the Social Science History Association conference in Chicago in 6 weeks.
It’s been a great year, we’ve learned a lot, met a lot of new people, and collaborated to build a platform to remember and understand 140,000 men’s live. Here’s to just a few more years of transcribing, and many years of remembering, understanding and studying. Thank you!