Year of the Bay
By Anna Garbier
B.A. in Linguistics, 2012
Read about our summer research projects on the OutWest student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.
I’m sailing across the San Francisco Bay, on an 1891 scow schooner, operated by the San Francisco National Maritime Museum. It’s a public sail with fifteen or so passengers, including myself, and a few crewmembers. The historic vessel I’m on will soon become the physical centerpiece to an otherwise virtual crowdsourcing project headed by Jon Christensen at the Bill Lane Center for the American West.
I’ve been invited onto the ship by the Captain, who now introduces me to the crew. He tells the crew that I’m a research assistant for a project called the Year of the Bay at the Bill Lane Center. He leaves it at that, and directs his attention towards the waters.
We round Angel Island and, in a lull of action, a crewmember turns to me. “So, what’s this Year of the Bay project?”
Inside the Bill Lane Center, we speak the language of corpus data, information mapping, geo-referencing, and crowdsourcing. We know what it means to create data-driven narratives, and what it means to conduct digital humanities research.
To digital humanities researchers, I say this: The Year of the Bay is a project that tests how crowdsourcing can be used to help humanities researchers obtain, tag, clean, and analyze a wide range of information. The project examines how crowdsourcing works by tracking and mapping the public’s interactions with a particular website (soon to be launched) that is designed and built for this experiment.
Because it’s a crowdsourcing experiment though, the study must grab the attention of the crowd, not just digital humanities scholars. This summer, the Year of the Bay project made big moves outside the walls of academe and into the streets, museums, libraries, historical societies, and even onto the waters of the San Francisco Bay—which is how I found myself talking with crewmembers aboard the Alma. As the project gained traction in these various environments, the vocabulary necessarily changed.
Though not my official title, I became a translator of sorts. As I traveled with the project idea into the depths of the San Francisco’s Chronicle archives, into historical galleries and libraries, and across the bay on historic scow schooners—I found ways to talk with historians, sailors, photographers, artists, and teachers about this digital crowdsourcing project that would return metadata to them and research data to us.
After all this, I’ve come up with a general description that I now like to use. The Year of the Bay project goes something like this:
- We at the Bill Lane Center work with technologists and designers to create a website where local historical and environmental organizations can upload digitized documents from their archives and collections. The organizations (like the San Francisco National Historical Park where the Alma currently resides) contribute maps, photographs, articles, letters, posters, travel logs, anything relating to the “environmental history” of the Bay.
- The website is open to the public, which means that all documents that the participating organizations share on the website are available to the public to view.
- The public can then respond to the documents. They can, for example, view a photograph and tag it with a location, event, or provide a caption. They can read an article and tell a similar story of their own. They can place events on timelines. They can view old maps and date them or provide a cartographer’s name.
- The organizations that share documents receive the metadata for their shared documents. That is, any dates, tags, labels, or comments that the public provides goes to the organizations. The organizations can then use that metadata however they wish. For old archives, this metadata may be new and valuable information for the organization.
- We at the Center watch how the process works. Who looks at the site? How long do they stay on it? What are they most interested in? What type of documents draw the most attention? What motivates people to contribute to the site? What percentage of contribution is useful information?
- We can then use that information to move forward with crowdsourcing in the humanities.
As the project navigated its way outside the walls of academe and into various, more public sectors, I have navigated with it. Myself a recent graduate, that movement between academe and the public has been exactly right for me.
Read more at the Out West Blog for Summer Interns »