A group of volunteers
Do you remember when you used to send out printed newsletters? You’d get together a group of people around a table, they’d pick up one sheet of paper from each of half a dozen stacks, staple them and add the collated sheets to a pile. Then one or more people would fold each newsletter, and either put it in an envelope or just label it and add a stamp. Then someone would take them all down to the post office.
This is an example of something that is now called crowdsourcing: a group of volunteers all contribute a small piece to a larger task.
While it’s easy to understand the idea of getting a group of people together to work with physical objects, it can be harder to see how to apply the principle to the world of computers and files.
There are some interesting examples around though. One of them is the Old Weather project.
Help scientists recover worldwide weather observations made by Royal Navy ships around the time of World War I. These transcriptions will contribute to climate model projections and improve a database of weather extremes. Historians will use your work to track past ship movements and the stories of the people on board.
The computer problem
The organisation running this project has a large number of handwritten log books. These logbooks record details from ships that were travelling the globe. They include important information about the weather, tides, and their location.
The problem is, that these books exist on paper, but scientists would be able to gather a great deal of very important information if only the data they contain were digital.
Because of the variability of handwriting it’s not possible to just scan the books in and use optical character recognition.
The human solution
So what the team have done instead is to scan in the log books and ask humans to do the optical character recognition. By using some very clever software, volunteer members of the public can identify the information needed from each page and type it in on a web page.
The software presents each scanned page to a number of people. That allows for error checking and makes it very difficult for one rogue idiot to deliberately poison the results with incorrect information.
As of October 2010 the project is 5% complete, and more than 66,000 pages have been logged thanks to virtual volunteers.
Take a look at the Old Weather project. Does it give you any ideas for something your organisation could do?
By the way, if ships logs don’t interest you, then there are also projects to explore the Moon and classify galaxies. All are under the umbrella of Zooniverse.