Ancient Lives: crowdsourcing makes history (but will it last?)

September 1st, 2011 by

microtask_ancient_livesIt sounds like the perfect recipe for crowdsourcing success. Take 200,000 Ancient Egyptian scrolls and upload them to a beautifully designed interactive site.

Add a generous helping of positive publicity and invite online archaeology-lovers to get transcribing.

Welcome to Ancient Lives: a collaboration between crowdsourcing science experts Zooniverse and the University of Oxford. The project uses crowdsourced volunteers to digitize the 2000-year-old “Oxyrhynchus scrolls” (I guess the professional archaeologists are busy raiding tombs and fighting Nazis).

Although the scrolls are written entirely in Ancient Greek, Ancient Lives director Chris Lintott insists this shouldn’t deter the crowd: “You don’t need to know Greek… you can transcribe these texts letter by letter. It’s just pattern recognition.”.

Goodwill hunting
Hang on a second, pattern recognition? What happened to discovering lost civilizations and unlocking secret histories? Ancient Lives might sound glamorous, but the reality is scroll after scroll of slow, painstaking transcription. Definitely not something that will feature in a new Indiana Jones movie.

Not that there isn’t some real satisfaction in getting involved. Along with a seriously slick user interface to play with, nothing beats the warm glow of goodwill that volunteering from the comfort of your home (or work place) produces. That and being able to tell friends that you spent your afternoon transcribing ancient scrolls.

What lets the site down slightly, I think, is the rather basic user engagement and lack of any real feedback system. Aside from the satisfaction of helping out, the only reward for transcribing a scroll is (wait for it)… another scroll to transcribe. In my (admittedly biased) opinion, a few game-mechanics – for example some structured levels and rankings – could give volunteers the extra motivation to spend longer on the site, and return later for more.

Crowdsourced research is fast becoming a popular academic tool (it’s quick, cheap and doesn’t involve students – what more could a professor want?). These days, dozens of universities and institutions are competing for online volunteers. So is goodwill, a glitzy site and a big launch still enough to tempt the crowds? As usual, only history will tell. Personally, I think if projects like Ancient Lives liven up their game a bit, they will get more help from today’s online volunteers.