Friday, December 02, 2011

BOINCing Angry Birds for BHL: Purposeful Gaming in Digital Libraries

We've been talking about the subject of crowdsourcing and gaming for the Biodiversity Heritage Library for several months now, but as it is outside any BHL project funding, no one has taken on the challenge. During last month's Life & Literature Conference I led the Technology breakout session, and the subject of gaming came up again, but this time with the caveat that it should have a purpose - as in, creating a game out of BHL content that works to enhance the data contained within BHL, like defining article boundaries, setting page types (e.g., map, illustration, text, blank), rekeying scientific names, etc.

I think the purposeful gamification of BHL would be a huge opportunity to make BHL an even richer resource. Other digital libraries are taking this approach. The National Library of Finland leads the pack with its "DigitalKoot" project, which features different Facebook apps that have players rekey suspect text in OCR via games that, in one example, builds bridges for moles to find love. I've played them. They're kind of fun. I've ended up killing a lot of lonely moles because I don't have the right characters on my US keyboard.

You could imagine BHL putting its OCR into the same games for improvement. But I actually want something else - I want offline games. DigitalKoot runs through Facebook, so I have to be connected to play. I travel internationally, so I spend a lot of down time on planes and I turn off data roaming on my iPhone whenever I reach my destination because it's incredibly expensive. Who the heck wants to spend hundreds of euros rekeying Finnish OCR? But if I had an offline game, one that didn't require me to always be connected to the Internet, I could spend LOTS of time doing this kind of purposeful gaming.

I was asked to expand on this idea a bit today while in Brussels for a BHL-Europe meeting. I was finally able to put it together in a way that made sense for people - I want a game like Angry Birds that I can play while I'm standing in a long grocery store line, or flying, or on a train...basically any time that I have some spare cycles.

And when I described this as "spare cycles" it brought me full circle to a project we did in 2005 called SciLINC ("Scientific Literature Indexing on Networked Computers", my best acronym ever, thank you very much). SciLINC was a project that used the BOINC framework, which is open-source software for volunteer computing and grid computing, to find scientific names in literature, preceeding our work with TaxonFinder. The BOINC platform grew out of the SETI@Home project, where users downloaded software that ran as a screensaver and used the spare cycles of an unused computer to crunch through radio waves looking for signs of extraterrestrial life, and then reported the results back to a main server when the computing job was done and when it had a live network connection.

In the SciLINC project we packaged up OCR text and sent it to volunteer computers along with an algorithm for finding scientific names. It was a wonderful demonstration, but we ran out of jobs in about 2 days because text indexing isn't processor intensive; the best BOINC projects take small inputs that require lots of computing resources. Lessons learned (final report here, & appendix). In doing the project I gained an understanding of how jobs are packaged for distribution to volunteers and the kinds of inputs and outputs that are successful in an asynchronous computing environment.

So to bring this all together, I want a gaming system that improves the metadata in BHL. I want it to be asynchronous and offline so that I can play the game using my own spare cycles (time & brainpower) whenever & wherever and then upload my results to the "game master" when I'm next connected. To do that requires that the system sends me packages of data that don't wreak havoc on a mobile data plan (small inputs), but that give me enough tasks to work on with all of my spare cycles on planes. The tasks have to result in improvements in BHL, not just throwing birds at pigs. And it has to be fun. And it should probably have a killer soundtrack (Tetris, anyone?).

Who's with me?

***Update Feb 24, 2012*** This post has generated a fair amount of interest since its original posting date, leading BHL to develop a public wiki page that has some example tasks/data challenges we think are candidates for gamification. That page is online at

***Update Sep 26, 2013*** It was announced today that BHL, through Missouri Botanical Garden, received a National Leadership Grant for Libraries from the Institute of Museum and Library Services for a project to develop & evaluate purposeful gaming techniques for crowdsourced metadata enhancement.  Kudos to the team for operationalizing these ideas!!