Help shed light on historical photos

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 ( /citizenarchivist) 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.

This article was first published on March 15, 2015.
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