Thursday, August 28, 2014

Recover Historic Research with the Smithsonian

Photo Courtesy: Smithsonian
This blog was started to highlight the many citizen science projects available and show people how easy it is to contribute.  I've come a long way since then and have begun focusing on larger citizen science themes as well.  But I still like to showcase new projects every now and then.  Especially one so close to my heart.

The Smithsonian Digital Volunteers program needs your help going through their vast collection of historic scientific archives and transcribing the data for future analysis.  With a collection as large as the Smithsonian's a huge number of pieces are donated or created by institution scientists, but their data can easily be overlooked or lost among the overwhelming volume.  By digitizing and transcribing, all the information can be cataloged, stored centrally and then reviewed by anyone interested in the topic. It also allows researchers to use modern data management and analysis tools to find previously hidden connections from within the various sources.

This type of data has many different uses.  In some cases, historical weather data, and even counts of plants and animals, can be used to track climate change and global warming.  Even the impact of that change of local species can be tracked with that data.  It also allows information on now-extinct species that were alive back when the record was created, and allows scientists fill in the holes in the historic record to see how our wold overall is changing.

Transcription may sound easy but things can get complicated.  And not just because of handwriting that is worse then mine.  For example, take the snippet below from a mid-1800s electrical conduction experiment performed by former Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry.

Photo Courtesy: OpenScientist
There is a word here (highlighted in yellow) which seems to be six letters long and is some sort of synonym for "travel".  Also, based on a review of other letters on this page, it is most likely an "H" since the one other word starting with an "H" looks nearly identical to it.  But the word eludes me and has eluded the six other people who have worked on it so far.  You may have better luck, but it's this type of roadblock that can suddenly eat up your transcription time, and which the Smithsonian can not afford to have their own staff doing.  A further analysis of electrical terms beginning with an "H" may help provide the answer, but so far it's still being worked on.  This is where you come in.

Getting Started is Easy:

  1. Register for a new account by visiting the New User Account page and supplying a username and email address.  Once entered, check your email and click the verification link to confirm your intent to create the account and set up a password.  No other personal information is required.
  2. Visit the main Transcription Center web site to learn more about the project and discover the source transcription materials that most interest you.
  3. Review the Instructions for transcribing.  In a nutshell, include every word as it appears in the document (misspellings included) and accurately describe any images on the page.  Don't worry about bold or italicized text but do note any underlines or strikeouts. 
  4. Go back to the main page and pick the source material you wish to work from.  Click on it, and then see all of the pages in that document. For starters, pick one that has not been begun.
  5. Transcribe the page as directed in the instructions.  Once you are fully done, click to Submit for Review.
  6. If you wish to review someone's transcription, click a page marked "Needs Review" and proofread the entire page.  If there is not a single error, click "Mark as Complete". This sends it to Smithsonian staff for finalizing.  If there is a problem, make the change and then click "Complete and Mark for Review" to have another independent person review this updated, corrected version.
  7. If you are unsure of a word, just enter a set of double brackets [[]] and add your best guess.  This will help the next person while not making it an official note.
That's all there is to it!

It really is simple to lend a hand.  Just select from the source materials currently available; right now they are categorized into themes of "Biodiverse Planet", "Mysteries of the Universe", "Field Book Registry",  "American Experience", "Civil War", and "World Cultures".  These aren't just pulled from the scientific artifacts but the entire Smithsonian collection.  So not only can you learn about science, but U.S. history and art as well.

This is a great project for new citizen scientists, people living in the Washington, DC area, environmentalists studying climate change, and anyone interested in the history of science.  So what are you waiting for?  Let's start transcribing!