Project Update – Transcribe Bentham, women and citizen science
By Louise Seaward, on 23 March 2018
We were honoured to be invited to present on 19th March 2018 at a UCL event celebrating the participation of women in citizen science and crowdsourcing projects. Representation of the people in science: women in civic and citizen science brought together an all-female panel of researchers, citizen scientists and volunteers to discuss their different projects.
I gave the audience an overview of Transcribe Bentham and the benefits it brings for scholarship, access to historical material and our volunteers. Since September 2010, there have been 639 people who have transcribed something at least once on our site (check out our Hall of Fame!). But the majority of the transcription on Transcribe Bentham has been carried out by around 30 volunteers. These volunteers are known as our ‘super-transcribers’ and we typically have between 3 and 5 of these users transcribing every week. According to our latest user survey, the gender balance of our super-transcribers is actually relatively even: 58% of our super-transcribers are male and 42% are female.
I was happy to have one of our most active users alongside me to give her perspective on being a Transcribe Bentham volunteer. Gill Hague (or ‘ohsoldgirl’) has been contributing to the initiative for many years, transcribing hundreds of pages across that time. With her permission, I have included an excerpt from her presentation which gives an insight into her experience and some advice for new transcribers:
‘As a freelancer I found I had periods of time where either I was waiting for the phone to ring with news of some work, or I had days on a project where I had nothing specific to do, but I had to be available on the phone at a moments’ notice. This made it hard to get involved in anything external that required a regular commitment of time, but watching daytime television soon lost its attraction.
In September 2011 I saw a small piece in the Sunday Times about Transcribe Bentham. With a particular interest in new ways of applying technology – crowdsourcing was a relatively new concept at the time – I was interested to learn more and so logged on to the website. I had done Economic History at A level so Bentham’s name rang a faint bell and looking at the site I saw parallels with image enabled databases I had previously been involved in developing. Then we had used OCR to make printed text searchable – here I could see that transcribing made the handwritten text accessible in the same way. I was encouraged that anyone was welcome to have a go at transcribing, and, after reading the guidance, set out on an initial page. Submitting this eventually for review, I was very pleased to receive a swift email thanking me for my contribution and encouraging me to do more.
To anyone new to transcribing I would say just have a go. The handwriting can be challenging but there’s a sense of achievement when you decipher it, and the more you do the easier it becomes. The more pages you transcribe, the more confident and competent you become with the mark up, and it’s very satisfying when you get it all right and the page renders as you expect. Once you get your head round the principles it’s really a very logical process. You’ll get plenty of feedback and encouragement from the Transcribe Bentham team and make a valuable contribution to their work.’
It was great to see another citizen scientist presenting at the event. Jo Hurford is a local artist and community leader and is part of a group of Euston residents who have made attempts to raise concerns about air quality and the environment in opposition to the plans for the HS2 high-speed railway. The group worked with Professor Muki Haklay from UCL Extreme Citizen Science who taught them how to measure air quality along proposed construction routes and their findings proved that the impact will be severe. They also tried to highlight the need to save greenspaces by knitting scarves for trees – you may have seen some of them in Euston Square Gardens. Jo praised the citizen science movement for helping the residents to arm themselves with facts and keep going no matter what.
We also heard from several researchers who are facilitating other citizen science projects.
Dr Cindy Regalado, also from UCL Extreme Citizen Science reported on the myriad events organised as part of the EU-funded Doing It Together Science initiative, which is designed to engage the public in bio-design and environmental science. These include workshops, science cafes, film nights and most intriguingly the Stick Insect meeting in Belgium where amateurs and scientists presented and curated an exhibition about stick insects!
Dr Alice Bell, science writer and director of communications at climate charity 10:10, spoke to us about two related subjects. First, she explored the radical science movement of the 1970s, which was arguably one of the first attempts to involve the public in science and change perceptions of the subject. Second, she talked about her current work in climate change action, helping schools and community groups to set up solar panels on their own buildings.
We were also interested to hear from Professor Sarah Bell, Professor of Environment Engineering at UCL. Professor Bell is the director of Engineering Exchange, which is a network of engineers and specialists who work to make UCL’s Engineering expertise available for local community projects. Only 9% of engineers in the UK are women and this presentation suggested that the experience of being a minority might help to explain why female engineers are often more drawn to public engagement and citizen science work.
It was fascinating to gain understanding of the way in which volunteers are engaged in the scientific world and we hope we can develop some closer connections with ongoing citizen science initiatives at UCL. Thanks to the audience who contributed interesting comments and questions, the organisers at UCL Extreme Citizen Science and and the Doing it Together Science project and to Dr Charlene Jennett, researcher at UCLIC for chairing the event.
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 709443.