Designing Software and Community Participation for Crowdsourced History Research
This research explored how to catalyze participation by new users and build an online community around Incite (http://incite.cs.vt.edu), a free, open-source software tool for crowdsourcing analysis of historical primary sources. Incite is a plug-in for Omeka (https://omeka.org/), the popular online gallery and content management system used by many museums, libraries, and cultural institutions. The Incite software was developed for Mapping the Fourth of July in the Civil War Era (http://www.july4.civilwar.vt.edu), an interdisciplinary collaboration between computer science, history, education, and the library at VT to build a digital archive related to how Americans celebrated Independence Day during the Civil War years.
Our team developed an early prototype of Incite and in early 2016, we deployed Incite in a multitude of high school and college history courses across the country. Our next goal was a public launch beyond these classrooms. In summer 2016, we had a soft public launch, concomitant with Independence Day of that year.
Both deployments were successful, but from each we identified opportunities to make Incite easier to use, especially for new users. We also wanted to build a critical mass of public users to create a self-sustaining community around the Mapping the Fourth project. With these goals in mind, we applied for and received an ICAT mini-SEAD grant to pursue a two-pronged, interdisciplinary approach. We would create a new tutorial experience to help new users learn the software, and we would develop a social media presence to raise awareness about the project and attract new users from the public.
The ICAT mini grant was awarded in August 2016 and the funds were allocated entirely to hiring three undergraduate research assistants. We hired Ted Yang (Computer Science major) as our web developer, Abby Jetmundsen (Industrial Design major) as our web designer, and Ryan Wesdock (History major) as our social media/community manager. Each student worked approximately 10 hours per week for two months total.
Ted and Abby made significant progress on the tutorial experience, which was completed in spring 2017. Incite allows users to complete three types of tasks for each historical document: transcribe, tag, and connect to high-level topics. The team developed a unique, customized tutorial for each of these three tasks, aimed at helping new users understand the complete process. Using a variant of the Joyride feature tour plug-in (http://zurb.com/playground/jquery-joyride-feature-tour-plugin), the tutorial walks the user through each step of the task. The relevant area of the screen is highlighted, and a modal dialog box appears next to the highlighted area explaining exactly what to do. In some steps, the tutorial asks the user to demonstrate that they understand what to do, and provides positive feedback if the step was performed correctly.
While Ted and Abby created the tutorial, Ryan developed a social media presence for Mapping the Fourth. He created a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/July4CivilWar/?fref=nf) and a Twitter account (https://twitter.com/July4CivilWar) for the project. He then authored original content to be posted several times per week on these accounts during the Fall semester. The posts used a variety of effective social media strategies to promote the project, increase engagement, and draw in new users. These included posting historical factoids, sharing related news articles and events, and highlighting interesting documents on our site. Since the launch of these social media pages, Ryan has authored over 100 original posts. We also integrated the social media into the Mapping the Fourth home page as embedded feeds.
Overall, the work funded by this mini-grant was highly successful. The tutorial offers a compelling and streamlined experience for new users, reducing the chance they will be turned away due to confusion. The social media pages provide a continuous source of information and activity related to the site, creating opportunities to draw in new users from around the web. This two-pronged approach, made possible through the ICAT mini-grant and interdisciplinary contributions from students in computer science, design, and history, is an important step forward in growing a self-sustaining online community around Mapping the Fourth. It has also improved the Incite software, which will be further enhanced in a new NEH grant awarded in spring 2017.