Digital History Blog

Review: Crowdsourcing Star Notes on Zooniverse

The digital age has increased the accessibility of crowdsourcing as a tool for engagement or project assistance. One of the most frequent uses of crowdsourcing for historians is for transcriptions of documents, often handwritten, that wear on the eyes and are seemingly impossible to auto-transcribe.

The Star Notes project, hosted on the Zooniverse platform, does not ask participants to transcribe entire documents, rather, they request only the plate numbers from specific notebook pages of early 20th century women astronomers. I contributed to this project so I could review Zooniverse’s interface and its usefulness.

Zooniverse does not require users to have an account to begin transcribing. The casual participant who is interested in helping out until they realize they have to sign up for something will be appreciative. However, one perk of having an account is having a record of all the projects that you have worked on. Zooniverse does utilize discussion boards for each project which connects more engaged and long-term participants (who do have an account) with each other as well as to the project’s institution-based hosts and researchers. Based on the content of the chats, it seems that the Wolbach Library at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (Star Notes’ institutional home) has engaged an audience far beyond its immediate physical reach, who, as a result, consistently contributes to this project.

Star Notes engages the more-than-casual participant with interesting stories, research updates, and even a book club! This type of relationship-building takes additional resources to develop.

Need volunteer hours? Submit the provided form and keep track of your time spent transcribing. The work itself is very simple. A multi-part guide explained exactly what I would be doing, how to do it, and why it was important. Begin by searching for a plate number on the page provided. If you see don’t see one, mark it as such, and move on to the next. If you do see one, you will be asked to draw a box around it on the page and enter the number. That’s it!

The guide utilized accessible and direct language, making instructions easy to follow.

On the hosting side of things, I appreciated that I was given random pages. Most users will start transcribing from the beginning of a manuscript and work in order of the page numbers, ultimately leaving pages toward the end neglected. Participants also check each other’s work even before the host team does. Many participants will transcribe plate numbers on a page, and the host team will review and average out those transcriptions. The plate numbers will then become indexed and searchable. The “plate numbers” refer to one of “500,000 glass plate photographs representing the first ever pictures of the visible universe,” according to Star Notes’ about section.

The task is simple and the interface is easy to understand, although there is plenty of help available if needed.

Everyone loves a challenge such as transcribing long handwritten documents. When people are equipped with the tools needed to meet a challenging task, they feel rewarded, and may keep coming back. But because the task at hand here is so simple, most of the dedicated participants seem more interested in the overall project and the history or science behind it. In fact, most of the projects on Zooniverse are based in classification. That is what makes the About and Eduction sections of the Star Notes project, in addition to the discussion boards, so integral to the project’s success.

Zooniverse can be an awesome platform to establish a crowdsourcing project. Overall, the interface is clear and easy to use. There is a free quick-start option, but a custom project does require funding. As Star Notes demonstrates, however, your research team will benefit from strategizing to increase audience engagement and retain long-term participants beyond the classification task.

How does Zooniverse compare to other crowdsourcing platforms you’ve come across? How does Star Notes size up to other crowdsourcing projects you’ve worked on? Drop a comment below!

2 thoughts on “Review: Crowdsourcing Star Notes on Zooniverse

  1. Collin, this was a great review of this project! It’s awesome they have a discussion board for participants to communicate with each other. I also did a project on Zooniverse, and now I have to go back to see if they had one as well.

  2. Collin, when I first opened this post, I had no idea what this program was. However, after shifting through your entertaining interpretation, I feel this program has so many uses for students and seasoned historians! Thank you for teaching me something new!

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