The Citizen Scholars in Context

The class on the 26th of September had a very inspiring topic (which lead me to day-dreaming about implementing a crowdsourcing system in my hometown sometime in the future).

Citizen Science is, according to Wikipedia, “a scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists,” or simply put “public participation in scientific research.” The citizen scholars are, thus, any person who takes part in the research and contributes to the progress of it. An example of such project is Zooniverse, where people are invited to help recognize and classify faces of animals that would further contribute to the development of an AI feature that computers will use in recognizing those faces automatically.

In class, not only that we discussed about the benefits of such a mechanism, but we even tried it ourselves! Crowdtranscription is a subcategory of Crowdsourcing which requires the user’s help with recognizing and transcribing text in scanned images. Me and my classmates, together with our professor, went to 18thConnect and edited the Memoir of a chart of the east coast of Arabia from Dofar to the Island Maziera. The document had been previously digitized by an OCR program, but as we learned last time, the digitization of a text comes with occasional errors which, so far, only a human brain can correct. It was an amazing activity for me as I could take responsibility and contribute to other people’s attempts to create great online resources for the large public. At the same time, I was able to notice, as last time, other errors that appear in the process of text digitization  and also what decisions one editor needs to make when transcribing and/ or editing a text. For example, he or she needs to decide whether to preserve the italics, size, indentations, or superscripts that appear in a text, or simply to replace them and motivate their decisions in a note.

Since the text was documenting the journey of a sailor around the Arabian coasts, a thought popped up in my mind. I realized I know very little about the old history of the geographical area I am currently living in (Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirate). Then I realized there are an incredible number of research that can be conducted using citizen science. The UAE and the Arab World in general is still so little known to those outside of it, especially when it comes to fields such as history, language, literature, culture, and even (old or traditional) cuisine (if you are to ask me). A research on almost anything in these categories would contribute to the dissemination of information beyond the Arab borders, out into the curious and intrigued world. After a quick search on Google I found that there are some projects (currently undergoing or already finished) on the topic. For example, the team behind the Arabic language collection claims that their collection comprises more than 100,000 books and more than 15,000 manuscripts. Still, very little of this is available online, to the large public, and, which is more, even fewer must have been translated to English. However, good news are announced, as some of the manuscripts are going through the process of digitization.

A selection of our scientific manuscripts are currently being digitised as part of a joint project with Qatar Foundation (…)” (See Qatar Digital Library)

Even NYU has its own Arabic Collection Online, where it digitizes Arabic texts. Yet, many other such collections and libraries (Turkish, Persian, Hebrew) are available in there for those who want to put them out there. But only scanning the text would still only mean easier access for it. Inviting people to contribute in digitizing and editing those manuscripts would help, as I see it, in at least three ways:

  • first, it would bring together people from throughout the Middle East and other Arabic speakers and migrants from everywhere to give a helping hand to the promotion of a part of history and literature very few have knowledge of;
  • then, if scholars (mainly, but not only) around the world would be interested in translating the documents, it would open the path to collaboration and dialogue between English/ other language speakers (translators or editors) and the Arabic speakers who have transcribed/ translated the volumes and manuscripts;
  • last, but not least, wider access to history and literature would mean that the promoters of the Arab culture would now have more handy resources to share with the public; and, why not, these texts could contribute to a greater general interest in the region which must eventually lead to the gradual abolition of stereotypes too many were determined to have on the Arab world and to an increased level of understanding of the current culture and set of customs that Arab people posses.

If I was to implement a single such crowdtranscription project, I would be very interested to invite others to help me transcribe, translate, and publish works of a Bahraini writer whose memorial house I visited during my short visit in Bahrain in March 2016 (as part of a class trip). I have previously visited many memorial houses in Romania and what was very striking to me this time, while in Bahrain, was that I had no knowledge of what the person’s house I was in had ever written. What did he write about? What were the main topics he covered? I could understand what a guide would tell me (although it was not the case then), but what if I want to actually read the man’s work? First of all, I do not have access to the manuscripts whenever I please. And, even if I did, I would still need to take years to learn Arabic and reach the level that is required to understand those texts.

Another idea of a citizen science project that I thought of and that I would personally be completely speechless if ever happens, is to have representatives from each country at NYU Abu Dhabi come together and set a project that researches the recurrent themes and the differences in some of the most famous national poems in the second half of the 20th century. This would be extremely interesting to see as it would give information not only on the national poetry itself, but also about the historical, political, and cultural context the country was experiencing at that time. For example, my literature professor in high school would often mention that Romanian poetry stagnated during the communist times (1944-1989) and thus, we lack a certain literary current, or that it came too late and doesn’t match the Western character. Most poems during this time were socio-political either serving the regime, or written in a very camouflaged way. I would be curious to see what issues did poems around the world address at the same time. This could be easily done if any representative of a country at NYUAD transcribes (if the text does not already exist in digital format) and/ or translates poems into English. Then, after a database of poems around the world are gathered, a team of people can analyze the data and draw many conclusions from it.

I got so excited about this idea that I might do it myself sometimes after my junior year…

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