Crowdsourcing Projects by Dr Victoria Van Hyning Invite the Public to Conduct Collaborative Volunteer Research

12th February 2016

Dr Victoria Van Hyning, a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow based at Pembroke, is the lead researcher for two text-based crowdsourcing projects – AnnoTate and Shakespeare’s World – hosted on Zooniverse, the largest online crowdsourcing platform for collaborative research.

Based in the Faculties of Astrophysics and English at the University of Oxford, and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, is a crowdsourcing group which recruits members of the public to assist professional researchers in making new discoveries or acquiring data. Unlike many crowdsourcing research models, Zooniverse asks multiple volunteers to assess images, videos or manuscript pages and come to an independent conclusion.

In collaboration with Tate museums and archives, AnnoTate invites volunteers to transcribe artists’ notebooks, sketchbooks, letters and personal papers. For Shakespeare’s World, a project in partnership with the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Oxford English Dictionary (OUP), members of the public transcribe handwritten documents created in and around Shakespeare's lifetime.

When starting her postdoctoral fellowship in September 2015, Dr Van Hyning approached the faculty of English about the prospect of bringing new humanities projects to the department. ‘I am particularly grateful to Pembroke fellow Helen Small, for all her help with this’, she added.

With AnnoTate and Shakespeare’s World, Dr Van Hyning and her team use an algorithm designed by in-house data scientist Greg Hines to combine and compare the independent answers provided by volunteers and get as close as possible to 'the right answer'. Van Hyning believes the project is mutually beneficial to participants and the research team, as it opens access to academic projects to the public while also generating accurate data:

I feel it is important that crowdsourcing should lower barrier to entry. Rather than asking someone to transcribe a whole page, I wanted them to be able to do as little as a word or a line, and for them to only transcribe what they could read with confidenceAnyone is free to take part, and all contributions are helpful. The [Zooniverse] crowd is circa 1.4 million strong at the moment and so far the crowd tends to be right around 95% of the time.’

In addition to her work as the humanities Principal Investigator of Zooniverse, Dr Van Hyning's own research focuses on early modern Catholic women’s autobiography in the period c1535-1790s. She will be using data from Shakespeare’s World to inform her research, analysing the results for examples of Catholic women’s writing.

The Zooniverse team communicate with their volunteers regularly online via email and social media, and offer a number of free open events where members of the public can meet academics and researchers to ask questions and find out about opportunities to get involved.