Project BioD

Online Communities as Computer Processors — ALA’s ‘Volunteer Portal’

Clean and well-built — but how much more powerful it could be.

The online ‘Volunteer Portal’ (http://volunteer.ala.org.au/) developed by the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA), in partnership with the Australian Museum (AM), facilitates the capture and digitization of hand-written or typed notes in the museum’s natural history collections, field notebooks and survey sheets through the use of crowd sourcing.

Upon registering, volunteers are presented with 2 transcription options – choosing a specific project to start digitization or joining the project (also called ‘expedition’) of the day.

The interface enabling the transcription is very well done, tutorials/guidelines are clear and it’s easy to digitize the notes; most importantly, the tasks – already broken into small bits – need not be completed in one go – there is an option to save the unfinished task and return to it later. Some basic game elements like leader boards and ‘work-harder-go-up levels’ are in place.

A quick look at the various completed expeditions and the number of volunteers who worked on them (as indicated against the completed task on the portal) shows that the actual number of participants or volunteers is quite small (in hundreds). Also, a large number of registered volunteers have not contributed to any expedition.

However well-designed and intuitive the digitization tool, the building and engagement of online communities is often the last element considered in a development — when it should come first. The community is like the processor of a computer. It’s fundamental to how the machine will operate. Will it run fast or slow? No one wants a slow computer.

As communities work to solve some of the most challenging problems facing our generation – climate change, food shortages, water scarcity, pollution, the decline of biodiversity — there’s a huge difference between a system that engages an active, intelligent, fast-expanding community and one that doesn’t. The planet doesn’t wait for humans to figure out how to preserve it. Time matters. And the processing power of a well-designed crowd can cut many years — decades, perhaps — from achieving the goal of a more sustainable environment.

Project BioD has over 15 years experience exploring the best ways to incentivize crowds so as to increase participation, quality of work, and the speed of task completion. In the field of biodiversity, the tools must both engage the public, and — at the same time — provide useful information for scientists. We look forward to engaging ourselves with ALA’s Volunteer portal and looking into ways to enhance their most valuable work.

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Online Biodiversity Games and Education