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Project Update – gamifying the transcription of Bentham’s writings

By uczwlse, on 28 February 2019

In the second volume of his ‘Writings on the Poor Laws’ as part of a discussion of pauper education, Bentham described a game of marbles as ‘little more than a contrivance for killing time’. I’m sure he would have been much more impressed by the inventive digital games devised at our latest event…

Over the weekend of 23-24 February we collaborated with The National Archives to deliver Hacking the Past: An Archives Game Jam. The event was kindly hosted by UCL Innovation and Enterprise in their fantastic Base KX space.

For those not familiar with the term, a Game Jam is an event where people work in teams to design and create video games over a short space of time.

As with our 2017 Bentham Hackathon, which was organised with the technology company IBM, this event was focused on experiments with digital technology and historical documents. But this time, the key objective was the gamification of the task of transcription.

The participants were challenged to:

  • Create an imaginative game that makes the task of transcribing historical documents fun and efficient
  • Based on handwritten documents from The National Archives and the Bentham Collection

The idea was to encourage attendees to invent Games With a Purpose (GWAP) that would combine computer processing with human expertise to make transcription as easy, accessible and entertaining as possible.

We provided document images, metadata and transcriptions generated by both human transcribers and machine learning models via the Transkribus platform for Handwritten Text Recognition.

The gamification objective is particularly relevant for Transcribe Bentham because the work undertaken by our volunteers is quite difficult and time-consuming. If transcribing Bentham became more fun, it is likely that more people would take part and our transcription rate would increase. This would contribute significantly to the Bentham Project’s wider mission of publishing the entirety of Bentham’s Collected Works.

On the morning of Saturday 23 February we welcomed about 40 attendees, along with supporting staff from The National Archives and UCL. We were also lucky to have two Transcribe Bentham volunteers (Gill Hague and Annie Brindle) taking part.

Introductory presentations covered the rationale for the challenge, the work of UCL Centre for Digital Humanities and a summary of the available documents from The National Archives and the Bentham Collection (held at UCL Special Collections and The British Library).

Then it was time for the hacking to begin! Participants joined together in teams and spread out across the venue. Fuelled by Coca Cola, cookies and the occasional piece of fruit, they worked for more than 13 hours to design and develop their games. Staff from The National Archives offered inspiration to the teams with a workshop on palaeography and the Twine storytelling software.

The Game Jam culminated in a showcase where each team presented their game. I was privileged to sit on the judging panel alongside Mark Bell from The National Archives and Rob Miles from The British Library. And we had a tough job of judging the creative results!

Ultimately, the winning team was The Chase. This team created a game for PC and mobile where players are on the run from the police and have to transcribe documents from The National Archives to solve crimes from the past. The game was a reworking of the 1980s arcade game Frogger, mixed with the TV game show ‘The Chase’. Handwritten words float across the screen and players have to jump onto each word to transcribe it, whilst avoiding the oncoming police officers. The game had difficulty levels, a scoring system and a workflow for using transcripts as data for machine learning. This game was imaginative, useful and fun and captured the attention of all of us judges.

Image credit: Team The Chase

The other teams presented the following inventive games…

Sébastien Brisbois

Participating and presenting live on Skype from Strasbourg, Sébastien designed a game to train people to read Bentham’s handwriting by asking them to transcribe individual letters. He used Phaser software to create real game play based on the transcription of one word.

Image credit: Sébastien Brisbois


As a player of this game you become a black cat living in a Victorian prison, transcribing and tagging prisoner records from The National Archives. This team created a WordPress site for their game and platform game play using flowlab and the Transkribus web interface. Players improve automated transcriptions and create useful metadata for the archives.

Image credit: Team Mercy


This team constructed a sophisticated proof-of-concept for a mobile game called ‘Bentham’s Kitchen’. It was described as a mix of the dating app Tinder and the language learning program Duolingo – a curious combination! Players try to escape Bentham’s Panopticon by impressing the prison guard with a delicious meal. They collect ingredients and recipes from Bentham’s Prison Cookbook as rewards for their transcriptions. The app had various difficulty levels that involved validation and correction of automated transcriptions from Transkribus, as well as transcription from scratch.

Image credit: Team Aspretto


This team was a group of young people from a coding club in Essex. Their game ‘Scribe Kingdom’ tasked players with killing evil demons who were holding onto historical documents.  Players collected coins by completing transcriptions and could open up access to mini games like hangman or a crossword. The team worked with p5.js, HTML and JSON.

Team Supertechs presenting their game. Image credit: Louise Seaward

Image credit: Team Supertechs

Annie Brindle

Annie presented her idea of ‘Transcription Ready’, drawing on her experience as a Transcribe Bentham volunteer. In this game transcription was linked to quiz questions drawn from the content of Bentham’s manuscripts, which could be created by both subject experts and the player community.  She also created a stop-motion video of a play dough Bentham envisaged as a little reward for transcribers.

Video credit: Annie Brindle

Jorge Worje

Jorge Worje is a forgetful wizard trying to protect his castle and he needs help to read his spells in order to fight off monsters. This team created a game using Unity where players corrected machine-generated transcriptions of documents from The National Archives, whilst being bombarded with incoming monsters. Survive as long as you can!

Image credit: Team Jorge Worje


This team came up with an inventive game called ‘Trackscribe’, where players received a short and sweet pay-off for their transcription work.  After four words have been transcribed, the player gets the chance to ‘ride’ the loops of an image of a handwritten word, with a bike icon. A demo built in Scratch showed how satisfying this reward could be!

Image credit: Team Canterbury

My fellow judges and I agreed that everyone had put an enormous amount of effort and thought into their games. The Chase team went away with a lot of pride and a swag bag of books and goodies from The National Archives.

The Chase are the winners! Image credit: Louise Seaward

As with our 2017 Hackathon, this event provided a lot of food for thought for the future of Transcribe Bentham. Now that we have migrated our online Transcription Desk to UCL servers, we are in a good position to consider funding applications  that will help us make transcribing Bentham more enjoyable and productive.

If you’re interested in playing some of these games, The National Archives have made a showcase of all of the entries:

You can also catch up with the event on Twitter – check out #TranscribeGames

A big thank you goes out to everyone who took part in our first Game Jam.  I would also like to thank my co-organiser, Francesca Mackenzie at The National Archives as well as the staff from The National Archives and UCL who supported us.

Project update – celebrating the digitisation of Bentham’s manuscripts!

By uczwlse, on 11 June 2018

I’m sure most of you saw our fabulous news about the complete digitisation of Bentham’s manuscripts.  Over 95,000 images of Bentham’s writings from UCL Special Collections and The British Library are now available in digital form – and we thought this was worthy of a bit of a celebration!

On 6 June 2018 about 30 of our friends and supporters joined us for a party in Bentham House, the newly refurbished home of the Bentham Project and the UCL Faculty of Laws.

Our party in full swing!

As the wine flowed, Bentham Project staff mingled with colleagues from The British Library, UCL Digital Media Services, UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, UCL Library and further afield.  We were also delighted to welcome four volunteer transcribers to the party – this was possibly the first time that we have had several volunteers in the same room!  Annette Brindle (Annieb2), Simon Croft (S.D.Croft), Diane Folan (Diane_Folan) and Gill Hague (ohsoldgirl) were all in attendance and took the opportunity to share some transcription tips and tricks with each other.

Transcribe Bentham volunteers Annette Brindle, Simon Croft and Gill Hague.


Transcribers Diane Folan and Simon Croft puzzle over some tricky Bentham marginalia.

Of course, you can’t have a celebration without a few speeches.  Professor Philip Schofield, director of the Bentham Project, gave an overview of the history of Transcribe Bentham: from its origins in 2010 to our present-day experiments with Handwritten Text Recognition technology.  Professor Melissa Terras, formerly of UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, now at the University of Edinburgh, spoke about how important Transcribe Bentham has become in the wider digital humanities landscape.  It was then up to me to convey our gratitude to everyone who supports and contributes to Transcribe Bentham – especially our loyal transcribers!

It’s time for speeches from Professor Philip Schofield and Dr Louise Seaward.

Happily we also received multiple messages of congratulations from volunteers and academics who were unable to attend the party.  We include them below to give a flavour of Transcribe Bentham’s international standing.  With thanks to everyone who sent their good wishes!

Thanks to Transcribe Bentham’s staff, volunteers and supporters for sharing so many of your lessons learnt, for the benefit of many others interested in the potential for crowdsourcing and online participation in work on cultural heritage collections. Congratulations on achieving this milestone, and here’s to many more in the future.


Mia Ridge, The British Library

Transcribe Bentham is not just an inspiration for all digitization projects: It also demonstrates, that highly demanding tasks–like transcribing and tagging–can be done efficiently and collaboratively in the digital age. Congrats and Chapeau.

Tobias Hodel, University of Zurich

To all involved in the Bentham Project, I’m so sorry I can’t be with you at the celebration.  It’s wonderful to see all the volunteers taking part in transcribing Bentham.  More than 20,000 pages of Bentham’s writing transcribed by volunteers — this must be productive of utility for those who are freely choosing to do the transcribing, for the wider audience whose reading of Bentham’s unknown work is thereby facilitated, and in the long run, I hope, for those who will be affected by changes in our thinking and policies that stem from a better understanding of Bentham. 

Peter Singer, Princeton University and University of Melbourne

I would add that I enjoy the Bentham Project for three reasons: 1. puzzling out the letters on the page, 2. fitting the words together to make sense, (rather like a cryptic crossword), 3. the occasional gem of insight into life and thought from the early nineteenth century.

Keith Thompson, Transcribe Bentham volunteer

The news about the completion of the digitisation of the main collections is wonderful, and many congratulations to all concerned (a huge number of people, of course!).

Thanks for the invitation to the event on 6 June. Unfortunately I can’t be there, which is a pity. I’d like to say I’ll be with you in spirit, but I think Bentham would disapprove.

Roger Crisp, University of Oxford

I enjoyed the opportunity to participate in the project. I had completed a Masters in Criminology and when I read about it, I was keen to help. It was fascinating to have access to the originals and to be able to make a contribution, however small to making Bentham’s work accessible to the public.  Congratulations to all involved. It proves that together we can do great things. 

Olga Núñez Miret, Transcribe Bentham volunteer

When I joined Transcribe Bentham in 2010, I could not have anticipated the significant impact it would have on Bentham Studies, Digital Humanities, and Citizen Science, and I feel honoured and grateful to have been part of the project at its outset.

Congratulations to all—staff and volunteers—who have contributed to making Transcribe Bentham such a noteworthy scholarly resource and an important contribution to knowledge.

Justin Tonra, Research Associate on Transcribe Bentham (2010)

During my PhD, I went to the Bentham Project and I had to get through some difficult pages of Bentham’s handwriting… One day, I find a musical score on the top of one of Bentham’s manuscript and then, written on the side of the next one, an unfinished score with more notes. At this moment, I thought: that’s great I will be able to “hear” Bentham’s handwriting now and even to listen what he likes…

I don’t know if one day we will be able to identify the source of this score but I think it illustrates the experience of transcribing Bentham’s material… you discover unexpected things which, at first sight, seems partially irrelevant, and, then, you begin to think that there is a beauty in it (until the mystery of the score is solved!).

Before the complete digitalization of 100,000 Bentham pages, I used to look at Transcribe Bentham and I was happy to discover the new good quotes and progress made thanks to the volunteers (thanks Tim!).  Now that this is done, more discovery will (hopefully) happen and this is great news for history of political thought and classical utilitarianism!

Benjamin Bourcier, Université Catholique de Lille

If you have any questions about the digitisation or would like to view images that have not yet been put online, feel free to contact us.

Funding for the digitisation was provided by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, UCL Digital Media Services and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.  The Bentham Project is also recognised as a British Academy Research Project.

Project Update – Transcribe Bentham, women and citizen science

By uczwlse, 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 Cindy Regalado (UCL) summarises just one of a variety of citizen science events organised by ‘Doing it Together Science’.


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.

‘Science for People’ an image from Dr Alice Bell’s presentation.


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.

Professor Sarah Bell (UCL) talks about opening up engineering expertise

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.

Project update – presenting the results of our latest user survey

By uczwlse, on 31 October 2017

During the summer we conducted an online survey of our super-transcribers; the most active of our volunteers who have contributed around 90% of the finished transcripts on Transcribe Bentham.  We wanted to reach out to this group to get an idea of their motivations, experience and ideas: what keeps them coming back to Transcribe Bentham and is there anything that they would like to change about the site?

Having been invited to give one of the lectures at an international conference on crowdsourcing, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to showcase the huge amount of work done by our volunteers and discuss the results of this survey.

Le Crowdsourcing: pour partager, enrichir et publier des sources patrimoniales at the Université d’Angers brought together crowdsourcing projects from France and elsewhere in Europe to share experiences and discuss best practice.  Have a look at the conference hashtag on Twitter to follow what went on.










We heard from projects such as Itinera Nova in Leuven where volunteers help to conserve, digitise and transcribe historic registers of local alderman. The local archivist Marika Ceunen revealed that this is a vibrant volunteer community which holds regular meetings and even brews it’s own beer!

Volunteers at the City Archives Leuven

Volunteers at the City Archives Leuven

There were also presentations on new crowdsourcing projects under construction.  The team behind the Testament de Poilus project gave us a sneak-preview of their bespoke interface to transcribe and tag wills written by French soldiers in World War One and Mia Ridge from the British Library described the thinking behind In the Spotlight, the library’s forthcoming project to transcribe over 200,000 printed playbills.  Ridge talked about the sometimes difficult balance between productivity and engagement in the crowdsourcing world –  user enjoyment is crucial for productivity!

Mia Ridge (The British Library) speaking on balancing productivity and engagement in crowdsourcing

Mia Ridge (The British Library)

Transcribe Bentham was represented twice at the conference.  The first presentation was delivered by Anna-Maria Sichani, a former transcription assistant at the Bentham Project who is now working as a researcher at the Huygens Institute in the Netherlands.  Anna-Maria discussed questions of efficiency and productivity in Transcribe Bentham and displayed some impressive statistics to suggest the quality and cost-effectiveness of crowdsourced transcription.  These results are due to be discussed in a forthcoming article by the Transcribe Bentham team.

When it came time to present my paper, I decided to focus on the opportunities and challenges of user support and motivation in Transcribe Bentham.  Crowdsourcing projects are nothing without their loyal and engaged users and so user support is a vital part of sustainability in crowdsourcing.


I explained how we try to maintain a connection with our volunteers by providing guidance and contact by email, feedback on submitted transcripts and recognition for the work that they undertake.  I also suggested ways in which we could build upon some of the suggested improvements made by the super-transcribers in our recent survey.  These new possibilities include an email newsletter for transcribers, more clarity about which material needs to be transcribed as a priority and the resurrection of a user forum where transcribers can share tips and ask questions.  We also have longer-term plans to make technical enhancements to the site that could make it more efficient and enjoyable for people to use.  Some of these ideas started to be developed at the Bentham Hackathon event that we held recently in association with IBM and we will be working on them further over the coming months.

Thanks go to the Université d’Angers for the opportunity – I enjoyed hearing about a range of crowdsourcing initiatives in France and beyond!

Project Update – the Bentham Hackathon, a weekend well spent

By uczwlse, on 24 October 2017

The Bentham Project is tired (but happy!) this week, as we spent the weekend taking part in our first Hackathon.  It was an inspiring few days and we came away hugely impressed by the useful and creative digital research tools that our hackers produced over the course of a weekend.

The Bentham Hackathon was held in partnership with the technology company IBM, along with the support of UCL Centre for Digital Humanities and UCL Innovation and Enterprise.  It was designed as a collaborative and open event where participants could work together to explore how digital tools can help us to research Bentham’s philosophy.


The Hackathon took place over one evening and two full days between 20 and 22 October 2017 and brought together coders, developers, computer scientists, digital humanists, humanities researchers and some of the volunteer transcribers from Transcribe Bentham.

By the Saturday morning, the participants had formed 6 teams who were ready to #hackBentham.  They were working on the following challenges set out by the Bentham Project:

  1. How can we use keyword searching to explore Bentham’s writings?
  2. Can we use technology to decipher Bentham’s difficult handwriting?
  3. Can we build a user-friendly interface for navigating and transcribing documents?
  4. Can we build a more user-friendly version of the Transcribe Bentham crowdsourcing platform?

The attendees had a large amount of data to work with: thousands of images of Bentham’s manuscripts and transcripts of their content, metadata for the entirety of the Bentham papers held both at UCL and the British Library and various printed editions of Bentham’s writings and correspondence.

IBM provided access to their Bluemix platform where the hackers could experiment with the Object Store, Watson Knowledge Studio and Node-RED applications.  IBM also used this platform to pre-process some of the Bentham data so that the participants could get to work quickly.

The teams worked diligently all weekend, with the support of members of the Bentham Project and developers from IBM.  Coding and discussion went on until 8:30pm on the Saturday evening, fuelled by pizza, coffee and Coca Cola!

On Sunday afternoon it was time for the teams to submit and present their final outputs.  IBM generously provided prize money of £1000 for the event and it was up to a panel of judges from the Bentham Project, IBM and UCL Innovation and Enterprise to award the spoils!










First up was the ‘Bencharms’ team, who used IBM Cloudant to produce a more attractive version of the Transcribe Bentham Transcription Desk, with enhanced functionalities like allowing users to see more easily whether a page has already been transcribed.  They also had the idea of a mobile app where users could contribute to Transcribe Bentham by transcribing single words.


Presentation from ‘Bencharms’ team.

Team ‘XScribe’ put together a searching interface for the Bentham papers, where users would be able to look for keywords but also see whether certain manuscripts have already been transcribed.  They also worked on image extraction and segmentation to make it easier for transcribers to match the line of their text transcription to the corresponding line in the image.  Again, these ideas have the potential to speed up the transcription process significantly.


Presentation from ‘XScribe’ team.

Two teams ‘Bentham Budds’ and ‘Benthamligraphy’ chose to work on a language model that could predict the words that Bentham would be most likely to use.  They used Tensorflow and IBM’s Node-RED software for machine learning to train a model using a sample of transcripts of Bentham material.  Such a model could increase productivity of Transcribe Bentham volunteers and Bentham Project researchers as Bentham’s handwriting is often so difficult to read.


Presentation from ‘Benthamligraphy’ team.

‘QSP’ was a team which included two volunteer transcribers from Transcribe Bentham and they decided to work on a sandpit area to help orientate new users of the platform.  Their ‘Box 999’ area included helpful videos and links for new transcribers and also allowed users to practice transcribing pages and get immediate feedback on any errors.  This was a fitting suggestion as we find it difficult to attract new volunteers to Transcribe Bentham, possibly because people can be daunted by the prospect of transcribing a complete page on their own.


Presentation from QSP team.

But the winning team was ‘Bentham’s Head’!  Their fantastic site called Locate Bentham not only has the potential to facilitate existing research questions but could also generate new areas of enquiry.  The team created an interface where users can perform keyword searches on Bentham transcripts, view a Google map of the places mentioned in Bentham’s correspondence, trace the development of Bentham’s ideas over time, examine Bentham’s social network based on his list of correspondents and even analyse Bentham’s personality using IBM Watson Personality Insights.  This was an amazing breadth of resources, embedded in a functional and attractive interface.  Well done team!


Presentation from ‘Bentham’s Head’ team.

The Bentham Project had little idea what could happen at a Hackathon but we were struck by the concentration and creativity of all the teams.  A big thank you to everyone who took part and to our partners at IBM, UCL Centre for Digital Humanities and UCL Innovation and Enterprise.

We want to continue to develop some of the ideas and connections made at the Hackathon; to improve both Transcribe Bentham and the digital research tools at the Bentham Project’s disposal.  IBM have kindly allowed participants continued access to the Bluemix platform in the short-term and we are planning to get involved in the upcoming Learn Hack at UCL on 24-26 November.  Watch this space for more info!