Thursday 12 March 2015

Citizen Archivist Project: Help to 'tag' a piece of Singapore's history

Treasure trove of photos, documents waiting to be archived for online portal
By Irene Tham, Technology Correspondent, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2015

WANTED: History enthusiasts to caption old photographs and transcribe handwritten manuscripts with a piece of Singapore history.

They are invited to contribute to an upcoming portal with about 3,000 unidentified photographs dating back to the late 1800s, and 3,000 pages of Straits Settlement records, including letters from the time of Sir Stamford Raffles' administration.

These historical treasures, from the collections of the Government and individuals, are waiting to be "tagged" on the portal The Citizen Archivist Project at

The portal will be launched this weekend, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information, told Parliament yesterday during the debate on his ministry's budget.

Without tagging - such as by photo captioning and digital transcription - they will not appear during an online search.

What is on the portal is just part of more than 140,000 photos and about one million pages of Straits Settlements records that cannot be searched today.

"The key challenge is that they were written in elaborate cursive penmanship which is not machine-readable," said Dr Yaacob, noting that tapping the public's knowledge could make these documents more accessible.

Also, it is an initiative young people would enjoy, he said, in replying to Mr Arthur Fong (West Coast GRC) who had asked how the Government could get youth interested in Singapore's history.

When contacted, Mr Eric Chin, director of the National Archives of Singapore, said the aim of the project is to get as many people interested in history as possible, and to "provide meaningful contributions to uncover a piece of Singapore's history".

Mr Chin hopes to find, for instance, the actual written regulations for five-foot-ways. These are the footpaths linking rows of shophouses, much like the common corridors in HDB blocks.

To contribute, people have to log into the portal by using their Facebook, Google or National Library Board accounts. Their contributions will be saved in their own user profiles, which will be created automatically when they log in.

Transcript contributions work in the same way they do on Wikipedia; the text is uploaded immediately on the portal.

The National Archives, however, will take up to three days to review photo caption contributions. Approved captions will be uploaded on its website,

In his speech, Dr Yaacob also said the National Archives building on Canning Rise will be renovated from this year.

It will include a gallery to showcase - for the first time - original constitutional documents. An example he gave was the envelope on which Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Tunku Abdul Rahman penned the terms of Singapore's merger with Malaysia, as well as the proclamations of merger and separation.

Also, the building housing Memories at the Old Ford Factory - where the British surrendered to the Japanese in 1942 during World War II - will be closed from early next year for a major revamp that will include more interactive content.

The building in Upper Bukit Timah will re-open in early 2017 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore.

Help shed light on historical photos
Online portal goes live for the public to help transcribe records and caption archive images
By Lester Hio, The Sunday Times, 15 Mar 2015

The year was 1823. Stamford Raffles was running Singapore and penning instructions on what he wanted done in the colony.

"Botanic Garden. A railing to be erected," he wrote. "High Road from the Bridge to Rochor River. To be marked out..."

Such records going back to the Raffles administration are now being transcribed by members of the public on The Citizen Archivist Project portal which went live yesterday.

State archivist Eric Chin and his team hope to piggy back on such efforts as they race to transcribe a million of these records by 2019, the 200th anniversary of Raffles' landing in Singapore.

Mr Chin, director of the National Archives of Singapore (NAS), hit on the idea for the portal three years ago while looking for a particular page in a thickly bound volume of old documents.

He thought that a million pages of documents would take years for the NAS to transcribe. And when it came to uncaptioned and unidentified historical photographs, the NAS experts might also not know enough about them.

But he realised that if the public could pool their collective wisdom to make sense of the materials, it would be easier to search for them.

Initially, Mr Chin and his team tried to use handwriting recognition software to do the transcriptions, but they were thwarted by the elaborate cursive penmanship in the documents. They then decided to try crowdsourcing after seeing the success of similar efforts by archives in countries such as the United States and Australia.

"The portal's aim is to tap crowdsourcing in order to help describe and transcribe these records we have," said Mr Chin.

The website has scans of Straits Settlement Records from the Raffles administration, and will eventually have 140,000 unidentified photos from various government agencies.

"They are currently in a form that is not searchable, and so we are not able to give access to these materials. If we are able to get the community to join in this effort, to describe and transcribe things, we can learn so much more about Singapore," he said.

Mr Chin is confident this will work. "Everyone contributes a little bit. That's the beauty of crowdsourcing. You're not relying on just one person to come on board every day. You're relying on a whole group of people to come in and contribute towards this," he said.

For Miss Noor Fadilah Yusof, 28, a registrar at NAS who heads a team of about 20 archivists, going through old photos currently stored as negatives and digitising them is part of her daily routine.

One challenge, said Miss Fadilah, was to decide which photos were interesting enough to be uploaded. For instance, the team found photos of a racing event, which they knew was part of the Malaysian Grand Prix and held at the Thomson Road circuit in 1964.

"But when we looked at the photos, we realised there were actually close-up shots of the riders and spectators. These are the interesting ones that we put on the portal to see if anyone can identify who these people are," she said.

As of last night, there were more than 24,000 page views on the website.

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