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Crowdsourcing Archival Surveys with Mobile Devices

by on January 20, 2012

One of the first questioners after our session was over was Redmond Barnett from the Washington State History Museum. He pointed out that all of the panelists were working on projects in which the material to be transcribed was already collected and digitized, and that not all distributed volunteer projects have that advantage. His project, as I recall, involved sending volunteers into the field to look for material on a particular subject in the state’s libraries, small historical societies, and even in private holdings. Our experiences offered little advice for such an endeavor. This may be true, but not all crowdsourcing projects follow the same model. In particular, I was reminded of a project called Billion Graves.

Billion Graves attempts to catalog the world’s cemeteries and produce a searchable, geo-tagged database of grave markers. Volunteers participate in two ways: either they take photos of headstones, or they help transcribe the information on those photos. The brilliant thing is that the photos are taken and uploaded with a mobile app, which means that they’re geo-tagged and assigned to a cemetery based on the mobile devices GPS and some information already entered by the volunteer when he or she begins a session. These photos are then submitted for transcription and categorization — perhaps by the volunteer who took them, perhaps by a volunteer without a mobile device.

Imagine a similar mobile app for archival surveys which allowed the coordinators to process material photographed and uploaded by volunteers in the field, complete with GPS coordinates, app-entered tags, and perhaps even basic searchable OCR of any printed text within the photos. To my knowledge no such app exists, but there is no technical obstacle in the way of building one.

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