Hunt the Mole!

Games and crowdsourcing help restore Finnish cultural heritage and attract new library users.

Kai Ekholm
Director of The National
Library of Finland


Kai Ekholm, photograph by Linda Tammisto © Kansalliskirjasto
I
f a year ago someone had told me that I would be in G3 meeting in Brussels presenting an online game, played by 100 000 citizens and praised by Wired magazine, New York Times and BBC, I would have congratulated them for their wild imagination!

With the help of fun games The National Library of Finland has digitalised a staggering six million pages of historical newspapers, magazines and journals. Two million pages are now available for everyone to explore in the national archive of newspapers. All this is possible because of volunteer work and gaming.

Weed out mistakes
The newspaper font used in Finland in the 1800’s and the beginning of 1900’s was the decorative “German type” which is difficult to decipher and index. Therefore the optical character recognition of words becomes a challenge as search results often contain errors and omissions, which furthermore complicates digital research. Manual correction is needed to weed out these mistakes so that the texts become machine readable, enabling scholars and archivists to search the material for the information they need.

Microtask, a company specialised in distributed work on document processing and data entries provided us with an e-program to make the manual correction more entertaining. And so our joint project Digitalkoot or Digital Volunteers was launched in February 2011.

Let’s play!
Digital Volunteers invites everyone to become a part of restoring history. The program consists of two games featuring adventures of a mole. In Mole Hunt the players are shown two different words and they must determine as quickly as possible if the words are the same. In Mole Bridge players try to write the word that appears in the screen correctly. Simple but fun.
What is also great about the games is that anyone can learn to mend the text — you don’t have to master the art of Finnish language. At the moment there are over 100 000 visitors on the website who have contributed over 344 000 minutes of their time and have completed over six and half million microtasks.

Researchers have appreciated the newspaper archive because now there is significantly less dull and repetitive routine work and because historically interesting questions can now be investigated digitally. For example, did our national writer Aleksis Kivi ever visit the city of Turku? The guest list of an inn, buried in the archives but newly found, has revealed that he did. Without the effort of digital volunteers no one would have noticed such information.

International acclaim
Combining crowdsourcing, gaming and restoring historical data is a unique approach and that is why Digital Volunteers was named as one of the European Union’s new ways of citizen participation.

The National Library has never received so much international attention. Wired, New York Times and BBC were among the media that claimed our approach was “Rebooting Finland”, “Life after Nokia” and “Putting the gamers to real work”.

In addition, Digital Volunteers recently won the Digital Heritage Award in the international Digital Strategies for Heritage 2011 conference.

Lessons learned
A game is just one interface. We are continuing our work by developing an interesting environment for people who enjoy knowledge. Library users will be able to research millions of newspaper pages thematically and find photographs, captions, short stories, poems, advertisements, biographies et cetera.

We believe crowdsourcing holds the future. It enables libraries to share responsibility with our users and to appreciate their expertise. We learn to connect with a whole new group of people who want to give something back to the society.

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