Putting the A in Measuring the ANZACs

In our name Measuring the ANZACs has a vision of measuring all the ANZACs. We’ve started with the “NZACs”. Today we’re going to talk about the “A” for Australia. Our collaboration with you to transcribe the New Zealand records has relied on

  1. The preservation and organization of the personnel files for 90 years by the NZ Defence Force
  2. The digitization of all 3.7 million page images by Archives NZ.
  3. Our collaboration with the Zooniverse

You are helping us with step 3, but if the literal century of work had not been done by others, we could not do anything. Records could easily have been destroyed, or remain hard to access as paper files. What are the prospects for measuring all of the ANZACs?

The National Archives of Australia has scanned and published as digital images the personnel records of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), which acted as the country’s overseas armed forces during the First World War.[1] The 376,000 AIF files survive intact and contain a more consistent set of documents than the British, and are remarkably similar to the New Zealand records.[2]



There is a long history of Australian historians and scholars using the personnel files. In fact within the Commonwealth, Australian researchers pioneered the use of First World War service records as an historical source. [3] Access to the service files necessarily relies on metadata that act as index fields. The AIF metadata includes name, place of birth, place of enlistment, next of kin and service number. This metadata is slightly richer than the NZ records. But there remains much information of research interest additional to the metadata that must be transcribed on an image by image basis. What if we want to know which Australians served at Gallipoli, or were wounded? We need to transcribe all the records to find out!

Some research has already been done with the Australian records by Kris Inwood—a researcher on the Measuring the ANZACs team—and other colleagues. In Australia the attestation documents were transcribed for every soldier, nurse or officer whose name began with the letter B. This letter has the advantage of being easily discernible in most hand-writing. Moreover, B-surnames are common among relevant ethnicities.[4] The resulting databases includes 35,000 Australian records, or about 10% of the AIF.[5]

As with the New Zealand research we described in an earlier blog post Inwood has used the personnel data to study the Australian standard of living. This research, which follows an earlier literature using US Civil War personnel records and British army records extending back to the eighteenth century, begins with the premise that the patterns of adult stature for a large enough population reflect living conditions in childhood.[6]

The basic idea in this literature is straightforward. If a child is exposed unduly to various diseases, or does not receive a sufficiently nutritious diet, or engages in child labour too early in life, then physical growth is stunted to some degree, and the individual will not realize her or his genetically-endowed potential stature. The growth-retarding impact of adverse childhood conditions may be ameliorated if conditions improve but the ‘catch-up’ is likely to be incomplete. If child growth is impaired for a sufficient number of individuals in a population, then average adult stature for the population will be diminished.[7]

In a recent comparative paper Inwood and colleague John Cranfield show that Australia’s economic growth slowed in the 1890s but child health nevertheless improved relative to Canada, judging by the divergence in adult stature for labourers born in the 1890s (Figure 3). Opposing forces were at work in the two economics. An erosion of working class standards was the dark side of the biggest economic boom in Canadian history.[8] For Australia, in contrast, the dramatic slowing of economic growth in the 1890s had many consequences but it clearly did not impede the advance of living standards.[9] Indeed, the reduction in immigration and population growth probably reduced the intensity of some diseases and contributed to the improvement in child well-being.[10]

As with the New Zealand research we described a few months ago, one of the limitations of the existing research is that we cannot make fine distinctions between cities or years. We would love as researchers to know whether Sydney was healthier than Melbourne, and whether cool Hobart or warm Brisbane was worse than both. Researchers beyond the Measuring the ANZACs team can use a complete transcription of the AIF records to understand who fought in the AIF and in what battles, and to uncover more of the hidden history of Aboriginal participation in the AIF.

The ANZAC name itself shows that while New Zealand and Australia were different countries they had a deeply shared history. Measuring the ANZACs can uncover not only the ANZAC campaign in World War I, but the intertwined personal connections of migration and ancestry that linked the two countries.

Onwards with transcribing, Measuring the ANZACs forces!

(For more information on the topics discussed in this blog post, please see the recent article in Australian Historical Studies by Kris Inwood and J. Andrew Ross)


[1] http://www.naa.gov.au/collection/explore/defence/service-records/army-wwi.aspx January 24 2016. The archival reference is National Archives of Australia. First Australian Imperial Force Personnel Dossiers, 1914-1920. Series B2455. Another useful database was created by scanning the rolls of those who embarked for overseas service: https://www.awm.gov.au/research/people/nominal_rolls/first_world_war_embarkation/introduction. The printed embarkation rolls comprise a subset of all AIF and offer a subset of information recorded in the personnel records.

[3] L.L. Robson, “Origin and character of the first A. I. F., 1914-1918: Some Statistical Evidence,” Historical Studies 15 (1973): 737-749; G. Whitwell, C. de Souza and S. Nicholas, “Height, Health and Economic Growth in Australia, 1860-1940,” in Health and Welfare during Industrialization, eds. Roderick Floud and Richard H. Steckel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 379-422; G. Whitwell and S.Nicholas, “Weight and welfare of Australians 1890-1940,” Australian Economic History Review, 41 (2001): 159-75; Ralph Shlomowitz, “Did the mean height of Australian-born men decline in the late nineteenth century?” Economics and Human Biology 5 (2007): 484-488.

[4] Pat Thornton and Sherry Olson, “A Deadly discrimination among Montreal infants, 1860-1900,” Continuity and Change 18 (2001): 95-135.

[5] Only attestation papers are available for Britain and South Africa; we were able to consult a wider range of documents including reports of medical examinations for Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

[6] Robert W. Fogel, Stanley L. Engerman, Roderick Floud, Gerald Friedman, Robert A. Margo, Kenneth Sokoloff, Richard H. Steckel, T. James Trussell, Georgia Villaflor and Kenneth W. Wachter, “Secular Changes in American and British Stature and Nutrition,” Journal Interdisciplinary History 14 no. 2 (Autumn 1983): 445–81; Robert A. Margo and Richard H. Steckel, “Heights of native-born whites during the antebellum period,” Journal of Economic History 43 no. 1 (1983): 167–74; Roderick Floud, Kenneth Wachter, and Annabel Gregory. Height, health and history: Nutritional status in the United Kingdom, 1750-1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

[7] Barry Bogin, Patterns of human growth, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Richard H. Steckel, “Stature and the standard of living,” Journal of Economic Literature 33 (1995): 1903-40; Richard H. Steckel, “Biological Measures of the Standard of Living” Journal of Economic Perspectives 22 (2008): 129–152.

James M. Tanner, Foetus into man: Physical growth from conception to maturity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978); James M. Tanner, A history of the study of human growth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

[8] Terry Copp, The Anatomy of Poverty: The Condition of the Working Class in Montreal 1897-1929 (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1974); David Gagan and Rosemary Gagan,”Working-Class Standards of Living in Late-Victorian Urban Ontario: A Review of the Miscellaneous Evidence on the Quality of Material Life,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 1 (Spring, 1991): 171-194; Martin Tétreault, “Les maladies de la misère. Aspects de la santé publique à Montréal, 1880-1914,” Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française 36 no. 4 (1983): 507-526; Thornton and Olson, 95-135.

[9] R.V. Jackson, “Trends in Australian living standards since 1890,” Australian Economic History Review 32 (1992): 24–46; R.V. Jackson and Mark Thomas, Height, weight, and well-being: Sydney schoolchidren in the early twentieth century,” Australian Economic History Review 35, no. 2 (September 1995): 39-65; Ian W. McLean and Jonathon Pincus, “Did Australian living standards stagnate between 1890 and 1940?,” Journal of Economic History 43 (1983), 193–202.

[10] W. A. Sinclair, “Economic growth and well-being: Melbourne 1870–1914,” Economic Record 51 (1975): 153–73.

Prisoners of war

One of our motivations for working with you all on Measuring the ANZACs is to bring rare stories to light. We can do this together by indexing the files on more dimensions than are currently listed, so small groups of men with similar wartime experiences can be identified and studied together, or individually.

One example of how military experiences interact with our research on health and longevity is the question of prisoners. We were reminded of this when a member of the Measuring the ANZACs community shared this file of Thomas Michael Lynch (58995) with us on Talk (join the conversation and share your finds and questions!)screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-10-22-05-am

Being a prisoner was quite rare among New Zealand’s World War I soldiers in contrast to World War II, about much which more has been written. It seems that the experience of these men needs to be told. It’s a great topic for an Honours or MA thesis!

Being a prisoner and surviving to come home distinguishes these men in an interesting way. How did it affect their health later on? You might suppose that being a prisoner would shorten your life, owing to the stress and deprivation. On the other hand, sometimes being a prisoner meant a lower risk of further injury on the battlefield. A fascinating study of American Civil War prisoners by Dora Costa found that “Among severely stressed former Union Army prisoners of war (POWs), the effect that dominates 35 years after the end of the Civil War depends on age at imprisonment. Among survivors to 1900, those younger than 30 at imprisonment faced higher old-age mortality and morbidity and worse socioeconomic outcomes than non-POW and other POW controls, whereas those older than 30 at imprisonment faced a lower older-age death risk than the controls.” But studies of World War II POWs from Australia and the US have typically found that being a prisoner of the Japanese was bad for men’s health in the long-term.

World War I may have been different again, but we don’t know. There have not, as best we can tell, been any studies of what happened after the war to World War I prisoners. As with suicide in which you are helping us do important research, the files of New Zealand’s prisoners could tell us a lot. Help us tell their stories, and what happened to them after the war. Onwards with transcribing!


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!).

We are grateful for the press coverage we’ve received on the BBC, TV OneTV3 and Stuff.

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!


22 July: Workshop for teachers in Wellington

We’re excited to announce that we’ll be holding a workshop for teachers in Wellington (New Zealand, just to minimise confusion!) on 22 July at 1pm at Wellington High School. Please email us to register your interest, or with questions. 

The workshop will introduce you to citizen science, and the Measuring the ANZACs project specifically, and suggest ways in which you can use the project to develop classroom and out-of-classroom (do we still call it homework?!) learning experiences.

The workshop will be led by research team member, Evan Roberts, from the University of Minnesota. Evan grew up in Wellington, went to school at Wilton (now Otari) School and Onslow College, and Victoria University, and taught New Zealand history at Victoria from 2007-2011. The workshop will be interactive, so please bring a laptop if you can, so you can participate in the discussion and design of assignments and learning experiences. If you don’t have a laptop, you’ll still be able to participate by working with other participants.

We’re holding this workshop because we believe citizen science can be a powerful tool for learning. Measuring the ANZACs asks you to read old handwriting, so it’s most suitable for high school students. If you’re a university or polytech lecturer, you are also welcome to attend. The difficulty of the assignments we suggest can easily be adapted for students from age 13 to 23.

Our subject matter suggest that History and Social Studies teachers will find this the most valuable. But we’re a multi-disciplinary team and we’re interested in getting the data from our project into the classroom for use in maths and statistics classes as well. Working with Measuring the ANZACs can provide a great introduction to survey and database design and applied social statistics as well.

The workshop will also help us meet our audacious goal to have data entered on every NZEF soldier by November 2018. There are ~140,000 files in our data. Everything is entered by three people. There are ~280,000 high school students in New Zealand. If every high school student worked with their parents to study and transcribe the records of two soldiers we’d be done (and then some). Please join us at the workshop, and please enlist in the effort!

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Video tutorial: Marking History Sheets

We’ve published our first video tutorial on marking History Sheets. We will be publishing more video tutorials about marking and transcribing in the upcoming weeks.

We’d love your feedback about what aspects of marking and transcribing you need a pointer about.

Thanks for your contributions to Measuring the ANZACs. Lets keep transcribing!

Our first seminar with Measuring the ANZACs data

In our first blog post introducing Measuring the ANZACs to the world we told some of the story of the Dibble brothers from Auckland.

The story of the Dibble brothers from Auckland (New Zealand) illustrates some of the questions we will explore using data from Measuring the ANZACs. Victor Thomas Dibble, along with brothers Ralph Ambrose and Jesse Cyril enlisted together in the NZEF in 1916. Victor and Ralph were both bankers, while Jesse was a farmer. Their serial numbers were sequential, 26571, 26572, and 26573. Portions of their service files are mistakenly interleaved with each other. All three served in France in the New Zealand Rifle Brigade.

3/4 portrait of three Dibble brothers, Corporal (later Sergeant) Ralph Ambrose Dibble, Reg no 26572 (centre), and Privates Jesse Cyril Dibble(right), Reg No 26571, and Victor Thomas Dibble (left), Reg No 26573, all of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, 8th Reinforcements to the 4th Battalion, - H Company, 17th Reinforcements.

3/4 portrait of three Dibble brothers, Corporal (later Sergeant) Ralph Ambrose Dibble, Reg no 26572 (centre), and Privates Jesse Cyril Dibble(right), Reg No 26571, and Victor Thomas Dibble (left), Reg No 26573, all of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, 8th Reinforcements to the 4th Battalion, – H Company, 17th Reinforcements.

Jesse’s service was marked with both distinction (receiving a Croix de Guerre from the Belgian government) and disciplinary issues including overstaying and drunkenness. Ralph’s service was more ordinary than his brothers, staying in service until the end of the war. In 1917 he was evacuated to England for treatment of a lacerated hand suffered when trying to open a bottle by banging it against a bank. Letters in his file show that despite the incident being his own fault he was not disciplined and given base duty while he recuperated. Victor meanwhile was injured in action by a shell, and had his left leg amputated. He recuperated in England at Oatlands Park, and returned to New Zealand in February 1919. All three had survived the war unlike 18,166 of their compatriots.  

Victor married in 1927, and his rehabilitation training helped him gain a job as the Secretary to the Manawatu Racing Club in Palmerston North three years later. But in 1932 Victor’s body was discovered on the grounds of the race course. He had shot himself. More than a decade after the war ended it still enacted its toll on New Zealand’s soldiers. Jesse Dibble served in World War II and lived to be 81, while Ralph returned to his job in the National Bank and lived to age 93. The story of these brothers who grew up together, enlisted together, fought together, and came home together encapsulates many of our goals in Measuring the ANZACs.

Studying suicide in returned soldiers was not part of our original research plan in the project that led to Measuring the ANZACs. But we found interesting stories that spoke to the larger issues we were interested in about how war affected men’s health in the long-term, and the data in New Zealand is quite good for asking about suicide in particular.

But we have a relatively small sample of men whose lives we have traced in depth, and we need a larger sample to more effectively study suicide. Suicide is relatively rare, so we need large numbers—the complete transcription you are helping us with—to find the stories of men who later took their lives.

On Talk several people have pointed us to files where there is evidence of post-war suicide by men who survived the war. We were able to then look at these files and think about these men’s stories in comparison to the group whose information we’ve already collected. Today we presented a seminar about suicide in World War I soldiers, and included some of the stories that you, our citizen scientists, have turned up on Measuring the ANZACs. So, thank you, your work is helping us with our research.

But … we must do more. Our understanding of suicide will be tremendously improved by the data from the History Sheets and the Statement of Services telling us what experiences men had in the war: their wounds, sickness, and the units and battles they were in. This is data we don’t yet have, and we must transcribe.

Our research on suicide stands only as an example of the kind of research that can be done with a complete transcription of these records where we can connect people to their families, to their peers in the same military units, and find rare stories. 125,000 New Zealand men served. If we have stories about things that happened to 1000 or 2000 men we can find them with a complete transcription. Onwards with Measuring the ANZACs, and thank you.

Who is Māori in the ANZAC data?

It was Waitangi Day over the past weekend, New Zealand’s national day. It marks the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between the indigenous Māori population and the British crown. Māori make up 15 percent of New Zealand’s population, a relatively high proportion of the population in a former colony. In Australia, Canada, and the United States the indigenous population makes up less than 5% of the population.

Thus in New Zealand attention to questions of Māori well-being are more prominent in daily life. Our research attempts to add a long-term dimension to this question. In a recent paper the research team found that Māori and Pākehā were about as tall as each other until people born around 1900, and then Māori average stature fell behind. After 1950 Māori caught up very rapidly, and now the European-descended (Pākehā) and Māori population have about the same average height.

Throughout this research we have been confronting a very basic problem. Who is Māori? Interestingly the question was never asked on World War I or World War II enlistment forms. To modern readers used to being asked their race in surveys this seems strange. In New Zealand surveys today people are asked if they have Māori descent. It seems strange also to people familiar with the frequent attempts to measure race in other societies, such as the United States.

So in the military records we have to identify Māori by using Māori names. We assume that someone with a Māori name has a Māori background. Here is an example from a History Sheet of a man named Huia, who we assume to have Māori ancestry (transcribe his record today). Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 5.28.24 PM.png

Names are obviously an imperfect measure of ethnicity. Pākehā could have given their children Māori names. We think from reading the work of other New Zealand historians that this wasn’t as common for boys. And Māori given European names will be lost to this strategy.

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 5.44.05 PM.pngInformation on complexion from the medical side of the attestation can also help us. Māori had darker hair, and may have been described as having darker skin (transcribe the description of Huia Lister). As we gather a complete collection of data we’ll be able to get a better sense of what descriptors correlate with Māori names, or with enlistment in units known to have many Māori.

We anticipate that the data we’re collecting with our citizen scientists’ help on next of kin will help us identify other Māori connections and ancestry in New Zealand society. Understanding the intertwined and yet sometimes differing history of Māori and Pākehā in New Zealand society is an important part of our research. We hope this post has given you some insight into the challenges we face in proceeding, and how we’re trying to overcome them. Your help in creating more data to measure more ANZACs is incredibly important. Thank you.

Evan Roberts

(Please be in touch with the research team for copies of papers based on our research. Our email is linked above.)

Ditto to you!

Perhaps the third most frequent question that we get on Measuring the ANZACs Talk (check it out and join the conversation) is “How do you want us to deal with ditto marks?” Just in case you don’t know what a ditto mark is, it’s the quotation mark (“) or series of quotation marks (” ” ” “) that indicate the entry for a particular line is the same as the one above it. In this image there are a series of ditto marks for rank, indicating that our subject, Stewart Litchfield, stayed a private from January 1918 to March 1919.

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This is a great question, and in posing it our citizen scientists have recognized some of the challenges and tensions in creating accurate, structured data that still reflects the original sources.

One principal of transcription that we ask you to adhere to and promote is “Type what you see.” Don’t make editorial judgments. Spelling mistakes are interesting in the original sources. Although the research team is first and foremost interested in measuring the ANZACs—how tall were they, what did they weigh, what did they die of, what were their jobs—we know that we’re collecting a large amount of text that will give incredible insights into language in everyday use in the early twentieth century.

One way that spelling mistakes and abbreviations are interesting is in indicating what was common enough to be abbreviated. It’s interesting to know if men with names that could have a diminutive used those names. Did James call himself Jim when he enlisted? Did William call himself Bill? Type what you see.

Ditto marks are a challenge to that principle, because they introduce the potential for error into the data we’re creating. When we have all the data entered for all the fields (read this, then go transcribe, and tell your friends to transcribe) the ditto marks won’t be a problem. We’ll sort the data here by date (we can also sort it by the X-Y co-ordinates of the marks which are recorded in the database) and then we’ll see a ditto in the Rank field. It’s quite straightforward in a statistical package because this is a common problem in lots of situations in data analysis (if you’re curious, follow this link).

But your questions get at the potential for error. What if a row is missed and the ditto marks end up being replaced by the wrong original entry? This is a real concern.

Thus, when you come across a ditto mark we’d like it if you entered what the text is indicated to be. Look up the column, and find the original entry, and enter that. This is, after all, what the ditto mark is indicating “This entry in row n is what’s written in row n-1“.

So, the instructions here differ a little from the strict “type what you see” dictum that we otherwise want our citizen scientists to adhere to. But typing in the real thing and not the ditto mark is good practice in historical social science. Overall it reduces the possibilities of errors in the data we’re creating. Thanks for reading, and thanks for your contributions to Measuring the ANZACs!

Evan Roberts



Why is there not a back button?

One of the most frequent questions we get from our citizen scientists on Measuring the ANZACs is “Why is there not a back button?” so people can correct quickly-realised mistakes when classifying or transcribing?

The second most frequent question we get is “How does Measuring the ANZACs come to involve Minnesota?!” Here’s an answer to that one.

So, why is there not a back button?

The answer lies in the intersection of computer software and the genesis of the Zooniverse projects in classification projects in the sciences. By classification, we mean the projects on Zooniverse that ask you categorical and sometimes binary questions such as

  • Are there any animals in this picture?
    • How many animals are there?
    • If so, what kind of animal is it?
    • What is the animal doing?

With classification projects you’re often working more with your mouse or trackpad than the keyboard.

The design of the databases and software underlying Zooniverse projects are all structured so that when you make a decision it is passed to the server straight away, and a new record of your classification is created in the database. This design has worked really well and very few citizen scientists asked about re-doing their work on these projects.

What we’ve discovered on Measuring the ANZACs, which is one of the first transcription projects on Zooniverse, is that people often realize a mistake just after they’ve submitted an entry. (Do check out the other transcription projects: Emigrant City and Old Weather Whaling which are all based on Scribe software. But come right back to Measuring the ANZACs)

This experience is consistent with my own experience in transcribing lots of historical documents, and my experience in working with dozens of undergraduate research assistants on ANZAC research and other historical transcription projects. The process of data entry from historical documents is that when you’re transcribing hard-to-read material you often realize your better guess a few seconds after you’ve finished your first effort. All of which is to say, we know the problem from personal experience!

Hence, your question! Why is there not a back button? It really would be a great idea.

The problem, and it’s not an unsolvable one, gets back to the design of the software and database. To have a back button we’d need to change the software so that when you finish the data entry on a particular field the information would be retained locally for a short period, and then transmitted to the server with a timed lag. This would give you sometime to realize “oops, that was really Palmerston North, not Paston North” and go back to correct it.

Building this lag into the software is technically possible, but has a couple of costs for the user experience and for our data capture. First of all, it has the potential to make the web browser experience a little slower as your browser is now holding the information for a period of time. Second, it increases the chance of data loss.

In short, we’re aware this is an issue and that we need to think about it, try to assess how big of a problem it is, and the costs and benefits of the solution.

In closing I want to leave you with a couple of thoughts. First, we understand your frustration and really appreciate that our citizen scientists want to get it absolutely right! Thank you. We hope it’ll reassure you to know that

  • Everything is transcribed multiple times. The chance of everyone making the same mistake at the same place on the same piece of text is pretty small.
  • A lot of the information is “coded,” so minor spelling mistakes in place names and occupations, and even some acronyms aren’t going to matter. If you type NSRB instead of NZRB (for NZ Rifle Brigade) it will be obvious when we look at all the entries that there are thousands of NZRBs and a couple of mistaken NSRBs, and given the “fat finger” closeness of S and Z, it’s obvious what was meant.
  • The data we’ve seen from the first few months of Measuring the ANZACs looks great. We’re not worried about the quality of transcriptions.

We hope this blog post has given you an insight into the interesting intersection of historical transcription and website design, and thank you all for joining the forces at Measuring the ANZACs.


The sad story of Frederick McReynolds

On Boxing Day we tweeted about the sad story of Private Frederick McReynolds who committed suicide at Trentham Camp on Christmas 1915.

A couple of other World War I twitter accounts picked up on the timely story (see the conversation here on Storify), and raised the question of when Private McReynolds passed away. The Commonwealth War Graves commission lists the date of his death as 26 December 1916, not 1915. One thing we’ve learned in our work with demographic data (and military records are demographic data) is that dates can be wrong. It’s easy to write one date down wrong, and propagate errors through many sources.

Looking at the whole of Private McReynolds’ file supports our initial story that the date of his death was 26 December 1915, but also hints at what must have been an incredibly sad story.

Frederick Thomas McReynolds was born in Auckland on 11 September 1882 to Mary Ann and Thomas McReynolds (you can find his birth certificate details at the NZ Births, Deaths and Marriages site under registration 1881/10210). A brother, William Higgins McReynolds, was born to the McReynolds 4 years later (registration 1885/604). Ancestry.com searches show him in the New Zealand electoral rolls, living in Onehunga in Auckland in the early twentieth century, and working in a workshop, and then as a “carter” in 1914. There is no record of a marriage in New Zealand, and the electoral rolls show him living with his parents in 1914, on the eve of the war. His brother meanwhile had married in 1907.

On Christmas Eve 1915, Frederick McReynolds attested for service. FL23619967

He was still living on Trafalgar St in Onehunga, and working as a driver, a natural extension of his previous job as a “carter.”

His attestation was voluntary, with conscription yet to be introduced, though it was being vigorously debated at the time. When McReynolds enlisted a national war census had just been taken, requiring all men between 17 and 60 to register. The pressure on men to enlist was heavy, though we do not know what it was like for any individual man. But the fact that McReynolds was single made him more likely to be a target of pressure to enlist voluntarily.

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Although just overweight (161 pounds on a 5′ 7″ frame) McReynolds was otherwise judged healthy and fit to serve, after examination on the 20th of December.

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The details of McReynolds’ suicide are scant. The file notes that his death was due to “suffocation caused by self-inflicted wound,” having cut his own throat.

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A telegram was sent to the family, apparently by Captain William Edward Vine. Although the file does not give any other details of Vine, there was only one man named Vine in the NZEF who reached the rank of Captain and was present in New Zealand at the time of McReynolds’ death. Several pictures of Vine later in the war can be seen in PapersPast, the National Library of New Zealand’s excellent digitized newspaper collection.

There are no named mentions of McReynolds in the New Zealand newspapers, nor in official papers. But the official reports from the Defence Forces show several other suicides in New Zealand’s military camps in 1916 and in 1917. We know little about these sad stories. Military authorities were understandably not keen on publicizing them at the time, and like other stories of suicide, suicide in military service may be hidden by family members as well. There is little scholarly literature on suicide during service in World War I, despite official attention to the question of soldiers’ suicides in nineteenth century Britain (see this chapter by Janet Padiak).

As we progress with Measuring the ANZACs we will uncover the stories of the other men who took their own lives while in the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces, just as we will uncover the stories of all others who served. Let us remember Frederick McReynolds.