Saturday, January 21, 2017

Week 1 of the FutureLearn Genealogy MOOC & Crowdsourcing Projects

This past Monday, January 16, 2017, the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) I am  taking through began. The course is called "Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree" and it is being taught by the University of Stathclyde in Strathclyde, Scotland. 

Week 1 was subtitled "Analyzing Documents" and it covered the very basics of genealogy such as what is genealogy vs. family history, and terms such as abstracting, indexing, and transcribing.

How it works is that the "week" consisted of 21 parts. Each part was there was a page of reading or a short video. When you completed the reading you checked it as complete and it moved to the next part. In total, the 21 parts took me about an hour and 20 minutes. Not a lot of work really. At the end of some parts there were discussion questions that you had to respond to in order to move to the next part. At the end of the whole unit there was a quiz that consisted of 5 multiple choice questions. You weren't really being graded on this quiz. It was more like a self-test to see if you absorbed the information given in the previous parts. If you answered a question wrong you could try again as many times as necessary.

The final reflection question inquired as to if my existing views on the topics covered had been confirmed or contradicted and if anything presented in the course surprised me. Thus far, no, nothing has surprised me really. I commented on the fact that they didn't introduce the term "crowdsourcing" even though they did cover the concept. In part 15 they covered how transcripts, abstracts and indexes are created by discussing how the company Scottish Indexes works. One of the ways they accomplish large indexing and transcription projects are through the use of volunteers.

Merriam-Webster defines crowdsourcing as the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people and especially from the online community rather than from traditional employees.

This is how the 1940 U.S. Federal Census was indexed; through the use of volunteers online. In about 4 months approximately 200,000 volunteers transcribe the over 132 million names included on the 1940 census. Powerful stuff. People wanted to be part of the project. And there are lots of crowdsourcing projects you could be involved in too. For example, New York Public Library (NYPL) has several on-going projects you can get involved with online such as Emigrant City, Building Inspector, Community Oral History Project, Direct Me: NYC 1940, Ensemble, and my personal favorite, What's on the Menu. They are all crowdsourcing projects being managed by the NYPL Labs.

  • Emigrant City: Created by the Milstein Division of  US History, Local History, & Genealogy this project invited the public to help transcribe 19th and early 20th century real estate records from the Emigrant Savings Bank.
  • Building Inspector: Created with the Map Division is improving data presented in New York City Insurance maps. The public can help to do some quality control or data created by computers reading these maps. You can go in and inspect to make sure building shaped and other key information on the original maps has been property recorded. It is way more addictive then my description suggest.
  • Community Oral History Project: The NYPL Labs presents audio from interviews recorded in areas such as Greenwich Village and Harlem and you can help to transcribe the local stories.
  • Direct Me NYC: 1940: This was a project done to support the 2012 release of the 1940 census. The Milstein Division digitized five New York City phone directories which helped to convert New York City street addresses into census Enumeration Districts (ED) which are the smallest units of organization in the census.
  • Ensemble: Is another transcription project. This time focused on a massive collection of theatrical playbills held by the Billy Rose Theatre Division on NYPL. This project aims to produce a linked data set of historical performances, characters, actors, and writers. 
  • What's on the Menu?: In this project you can help to transcribe part of the world's largest collection of restaurant menus. It has been difficult to extract this data using just computers due to handwriting, fancy typography, and idiosyncratic layouts. Here you transcribe the names and prices of all sort of fancy dishes served up at a huge variety of restaurants that no longer exist. You can see how the tastes and appetites of your ancestors differs from your own by seeing what they might have ordered off the menu of their local watering hole.

You can get involved in anyone of these projects and more just check out the NYPL's Labs at to find out more.

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